Meet Chi Hang Wong, The Collector Who Gives Away His Rolex Watches
It’s 2019 and nearly six months of anti-government protests have rocked Hong Kong, with police arresting thousands of people. Chi Hang Wong is at home, depressed, browsing the internet, when he discovers the work of LA-based artist Cleon Peterson, whose chaotic paintings show clashing figures as they struggle between power and submission.
“His work spoke to me,” Wong, 31, tells me. Inescapably eccentric, he’s wearing retro, round glasses and a buttoned-up shirt. “A lot of Cleon’s work is painted in black and white and, because of what was happening in Hong Kong, it really hit home.”
As fate would have it, Wong received an Instagram message from the artist several weeks later concerning a Rolex Day-Date President about which he’d posted. Wong had two editions in yellow gold, one with an onyx dial, the other with a lapis dial.
See also: The Rolex Watch That Made Sean Connery
Wong flew to LA to meet Peterson and tour his studio. “I took the Rolex off my wrist and handed it to him the moment we met,” he says. “I said to him, ‘Your artwork got me through a really difficult time when I was depressed. This watch is just a watch to me, but your artwork gave me something that’s priceless.’”
Wong, who is better known to just about everyone as “B”, describes himself as a “born collector”. As a teenager, he started amassing rare clothing, designer sunglasses and antique cameras. In 2005 he moved to Canada where he studied psychology at the University of Toronto.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I became obsessed with perpetual motion and mechanics that work without external power.”
He started reading about watches and now owns about 30. “My collection is unusual,” he warns me, as he pulls a Retro Fantasy Mickey Mouse by Gérald Genta from his leather briefcase. “When I first started collecting, my friends were mostly into fashion brands and fancy Apple watches. Scratch that: we didn’t even have those back then. They were into those GPS running watches.” He rolls his eyes and winks.
When Wong returned to Hong Kong from boarding school in Ipswich, England, his mother gifted him a watch during a family dinner.
“It had a blue strap and a Donald Duck on it. I was like, ‘What the hell? What even is this? I don’t want a cartoon watch. Do you want me to get bullied at school? If I wear this, they’ll kill me!’ Back then, to be cool you had to wear Quicksilver and put gel in your hair, you know? All I wanted was a Casio G-Shock.”
I was like, ‘What even is this? I don’t want a cartoon watch. Do you want me to get bullied at school? If I wear this, they’ll kill me!'— Chi Hang Wong
Wong bought his first high-end timepiece in 2010—an extremely rare Jaquet Droz Astrale Twelve Cities—and, not long after that, he exchanged an expensive camera lens from the 1930s for a friend’s “dirty” vintage Rolex. It wasn’t until later that he realised he was now an owner of the very first edition of Rolex’s most sought-after model: the Explorer. During this time, he read about a famous watchmaker who’d made a Disney series of watches. “Turns out that this Donald Duck watch was by a legendary designer called Gérald Genta.”
He asked his mother for it back. “She goes, ‘Hell no! It’s mine now. I wear it all the time.’” Wong found a Mickey Mouse edition online, which is now one of his most prized possessions. “There’s this idea in life that we’re constantly improving,” he says. “Maybe we don’t. Maybe we’re not moving up or down, but we’re moving from side to side and exploring new directions.”
This outlook explains Wong’s attitude towards collecting. He initially bought new designer watches, then entered a vintage phase, and has more recently been into independent watchmakers. He wears the brand new Endeavour Cylindrical Tourbillon by H Moser & Cie and MB&F to Tatler’s shoot—his is the second in a limited series of 15.
“I think the first was sold to a collector in Dubai,” he tells me, adding that he’s in talks with the brand about designing a bespoke bracelet that matches the Funky Blue dial.
When asked about his dream watch, he answers without hesitation. “The Moser Swiss Mad watch.” In 2017 H Moser & Cie removed the “Swiss Made” label from its watches after changes were made to the regulations on the use of the term. In an act of protest, the Swiss Mad watch was unveiled, with a case made entirely of cheese. Like, actual Swiss cheese.
“It’s conceptual art,” says Wong. “It’s something Damien Hirst would do.”
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- PhotographyStephanie Teng