Cover Kai-yin Lo wears clothing she made herself and jewellery set with pearls and semi-precious stones by Kai-Yin Lo Design. (Photo: Michaela Giles)

As an art and culture specialist, Kai-yin Lo has long been telling the story of Asia’s rich heritage. Now her own fascinating tale is to become public with the release of her autobiography this month

In a world of passing celebrity, Kai-yin Lo radiates an aura of timeless elegance. A jewellery designer-cum-cultural historian, her distinct personal style (she is famous for wearing mismatched shoes) and characterful Mid-Levels home perfectly reflect her captivating personality.

When she greets me at her apartment, I am struck by her powerful charisma, part enveloped in a glamour from the past, part modern in both outlook and awareness. She wears an asymmetrical burgundy blouse and red cashmere skirt, both of which she made herself, with two layered necklaces generously strung with keshi pearls from her jewellery line, Kai-Yin Lo Design.

“Come, sit,” Kai-yin says, pulling a chair out from a dining table, no doubt an antique. The number of artefacts and collectibles on display is astonishing—and most of her belongings are in storage. Kai-yin has recently downsized from a home she lived in for more than a decade on nearby Garden Road. Books are stacked everywhere, in between carefully curated carvings and cabinets brimming with ceramics from the Song dynasty (960-1279). Her desire to educate is palpable as she talks me through several hardcovers that have inspired her penned by such scholars as Peter Frankopan and Simon Kwan.

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A Storied Life

Kai-yin herself has edited five influential books that examine a range of subjects, from Chinese furniture and living patterns to Hong Kong’s design culture, but this month a far more personal project comes to fruition. Kai-yin’s autobiography, Designing A Life: A Cross-Cultural Journey, is to be released in English, and a traditional Chinese edition will follow in mid-November.

It’s a raw and revealing portrait that provides fascinating insights into both her luxurious social life—imagine bathing in the glittering Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, California, with the Hearsts themselves—and the struggles and sorrows that have coloured her life. So it’s no surprise that when asked whether she had any concerns about writing her autobiography, her reply is an emphatic, “Yes.”

Kai-yin’s grandfather was an ambitious entrepreneur who came to Hong Kong in the 1890s from a backwater in southern China. He joined a merchant bank and later became a comprador, the Chinese manager of a European business. His son, Kai-yin’s father, followed in his footsteps, and the family built an opulent home on Kennedy Road.

One of four children, Kai-yin studied European medieval history at Cambridge. It was around this time that her family faced financial ruin. “It was a very challenging time. I suddenly had to make my own living. My eldest brother had to be rushed home. My father became sick. We had to sell our belongings.”

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Wearing history

To make ends meet, Kai-yin took a job at the city’s most exclusive hotel, the Mandarin, where she met James Linen, the publisher of Time magazine, who offered her work in New York. By this time, Kai-yin had already started acquiring Chinese artefacts, especially jade ornaments, from antique dealers and fashioning them into jewellery. “I wanted these collectibles to be a part of my life so I began wearing them,” she says.

Not long afterwards she sold her first designs to Cartier on Fifth Avenue and the rest, as they say, is history. She was soon stocked at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in the US, Harrods in London and Mitsukoshi in Japan.

These days Kai-yin mainly sells through art fairs in New York, Beijing and Hong Kong or on the internet. As well as being celebrated as a designer of contemporary jewellery that pays tribute to Chinese history and heritage, she has also become increasingly recognised for her work in the arts, having championed various important figures, such as ink painters Wu Guanzhong and Zheng Chongbin.

“My jewellery is made from artefacts that are 7,000 or 8,000 years old, so I’ve always been interested in art and culture,” explains Kai-yin, who is a visiting professor at Central Saint Martins in London and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

As a unique witness to history, and with numerous cultural figures counted among her friends, Kai-yin Lo is a reflection of Hong Kong culture and society. Her deep knowledge and appreciation of Asia’s heritage, and her efforts in bridging the gap between East and West, are at the heart of an inspiring life story that unfolds in Designing A Life: A Cross-Cultural Journey.

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