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Family Matters

Thierry Chow, Arthur de Villepin and Elizabeth Chu discuss taking up the batons from visionary mentors – who just happen to be their parents.

January 10, 2023

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that every child is asked at some point. For those lucky enough to have fallen in love with the same trade that their parents mastered, the answer becomes less of a choice and more of a calling that naturally unveils itself. To be able to share in the same passion as your family, learn from your most trusted mentors, and to build upon their vision while forging a new one is a rare joy – and balancing act – indeed. 

Photo: Gary Li

Sporting her signature bi-coloured tresses, a flowy white dress and the unmistakable glow new motherhood, feng shui designer Thierry Chow is joined by her father, renowned feng shui master Chow Hon Ming, cooing over then two-month-old Theo when we meet in her sun-drenched Chai Wan studio. “I guess I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I just didn’t think it was going to happen,” Chow says. “I put it out into the universe and found the right person, then Theo came along. There is destiny and things are meant to be.” 

Destiny is a running topic in the Chow family. For almost half a century Chow Hon Ming, one of Hong Kong’s most esteemed feng shui masters, has helped a clientele that includes global banks and aristocrats usher in good fortune. Meanwhile, his daughter has pioneered a fresh take on feng shui that incorporates fashion, design and home décor, selling items that she designs and curates via Thierry Go Lucky, which have proven popular among the younger set both locally and internationally. It makes sense that Theo would make his surprise arrival into the world a month early, within days of his parents’ birthdays, on a date “even more auspicious than the one we had chosen”, jokes Chow Hon Ming proudly. 

Photo: Gary Li

 

Contrary to popular belief, feng shui is not purely about timing and numbers; there is an element of chance that Chow also considers in her work. That element of serendipity played a role in her foray into the family trade, too. While it was a high fever at aged 11 that bestowed her father with a talent and curiosity for feng shui and metaphysics, Chow, despite growing up watching him master his trade, was more drawn to the arts. She wanted to become a fashion designer, studied illustration at Sheridan College in Toronto, Canada and even taught it for a few years after graduation. “The turning point was when I was feeling particularly low in my early twenties, I was emotionally so tired. A light bulb went off – why don’t I learn from my dad? No one was talking about feng shui in a modern way. People think it’s superstitious and traditional, but there is more to it. My passion grew quickly because I could use my creative energy and continue the tradition. It led me to realise that things aren’t so shallow in the world. And my father’s the best teacher anyone can ask for.” The opportunity to apprentice under a prolific master in a world where knowledge and canons are passed through generations and methods are closely guarded is an invaluable crash course. 

Chow Hon Ming is equally pleased, if not amazed, that his children – Chow’s twin brother is also a professional feng shui master – have decided to follow in his footsteps. “When they were kids, I did not think that they would be interested in this career; they went overseas for school at an early age. When [Chow] told me she wanted to learn, I was of course overjoyed.” He is even prouder of what they have done to modernise the age-old craft. “I see that she has ignited curiosity and interest in feng shui not only in Hong Kong but internationally, and for that I am so happy. The way she interprets feng shui is very contemporary and multi-faceted. Mine of course comes from the oldest discipline. That allows the new generation to learn about it and as such preserve the craft. I think it’s wonderful.” 

Photo: Gary Li

Despite their different approaches, father and daughter both emphasise the significance of one’s environment. He calls feng shui a very scientific study about natural elements: the sun, the air and surrounding scenery. She agrees. “The first thing my dad taught me is that your home environment represents who you are. When you look inside your environment you can find your storybook. It has a lot to do with one’s mental and physical health; it’s where everything originates. Leaks on the walls, mould, cracked wallpaper, clutter – they are the biggest qi blockers.” 

Teaching his children all he knows is something the patriarch is excited about, calling feng shui a bottomless well of knowledge he can’t wait to pass on. For now, he is comforted in seeing his children’s authentic interest in carrying on the legacy of not only his life’s work, but feng shui in general. What about his grandchildren? He laughs. “I can’t say that I don’t have that wish [for him to enter the trade]. That inclination does tend to be passed down in families, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”  

As for Chow, having Theo has allowed her a much-deserved break from the busy practice she has run for over ten years. Time is more precious now, and she strives to be more selective with projects, focusing on creating impact through ventures catered to a younger and more global audience. And if fate would have it, she would love her bond with Theo to be deepened by feng shui, to be able to discuss their passion with him like she has with her father for years. “My best lessons in life have all very much come from feng shui. For Theo to learn his life session from feng shui – that would be really good, too,” she says.  

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Photo: Arthur de Villepin

Few from Hong Kong’s art world can forget the spring of 2020. Not just because that was a time when the city was battling the onset of a ravaging pandemic in the wake of social uncertainty – but because Villepin, the fine art gallery conceived by father-and-son duo Dominique and Arthur de Villepin, charged ahead with its highly anticipated opening, in spite of it all. 

Among the myriad lessons co-founder and chair Arthur de Villepin learned from his father, the diplomat and former prime minister of France, remaining intrepid in the face of adversity sits near the top. “My father was using that moment of crisis to embrace the fire. Not only were we going to launch, he said, but we were going to go way beyond. It is during tough times that we need art the most. That represents who we are [as a gallery], and that is the lesson of life.” 

Three years after its acclaimed inaugural exhibition Friendship & Reconciliation with Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki, Villepin, with the young de Villepin at the helm, has cemented itself as one of the region’s leading galleries, having presented a string of successful and thought-provoking exhibitions with the likes of George Condo, Francis Bacon, Zeng Fanzhi and Myonghi Kang. It also serves as a salon for artists and connoisseurs where dialogue and drinks are shared – the 3,000sqft gallery spanning three storeys on Hollywood Road has its own bar – and camaraderie is built.  

Photo: Arthur de Villepin

De Villepin grew up immersed in the art and culture scene between India, France and the UK. His mother is a celebrated sculptor, and his sister is a painter. For him, the essence of art has always its ability to challenge viewpoints and build bridges. “Being at the dinner table with my parents and different artists, whether it’s Pierre Soulages or Anselm Kiefer or people from music and film, that process nurtured my curiosity about the world and how different perspectives can enrich and enlighten. That, to me, is a feeling of hope,” he says.   

He has been particularly inspired by his father’s “thirst for difference; [for him] to have the humility to always look at the world – an artist, a person, a country or a culture – from their point of view, knowing that the one you have somehow will never be complete.” And he is determined to foster that same philosophy through Villepin. “One of my biggest goals for the gallery is to take risks and bring in artists people wouldn’t normally have thought of, and for collectors to have that trust in our eye to get curious about something… I feel that the most important thing about art is the possibility of opening yourself to a different vision.”   

Photo: Villepin

There is nowhere better to build that trust than within a gallery’s fluid environment of intimacy and exchange. He oversees operation and execution while his father, whom he calls “a super source of inspiration and a workaholic”, does research and strategy; together, they work closely to conceive how each exhibit is best presented. When it comes to something as subjective as art, father and son share surprisingly similar tastes, and on the rare occasions where opinions differ, each makes a point to learn about the artists or approaches the other advocates for. There is a true sense of partnership and respect here that is palpable. 

“I always say to my father that, although there may be days when we receive bad news or disappointments, as long as we do our best and we are together, this is a beautiful thing. That’s what matters,” stresses de Villepin. “I had wanted to create a project that even if it doesn’t work, I won’t regret a day of it. Working with your passion and doing it with the people you love is the secret ingredient.”   

Photo: Villepin

The cornerstone of running any family business, of course, is the matter of succession, and despite only being in his mid-thirties, it is a topic that de Villepin has pondered at length. To the entrepreneur who also balances Art De Vivre Group and Pont des Arts, family legacy is about much more than passing on wealth; it is the alignment of cultural and social values preserved within the family for future generations. “How you nurture and secure that dimension, I think, is through art. If your family shares a common vision about the world, that will be the best way to convey the culture for the company. Hence for us, creating a collection is not just a fun thing to decorate your house with, it is the bedrock of your family and transmission.” 

As such, de Villepin is as clear as he is passionate about his vision not only for the gallery – which will include nurturing relationships between artists and collectors, developing young contemporary artists as well as projects outside of Hong Kong – but also its, and his, place in the art world. “Very often I think of myself as a grandpa,” he says with a chuckle. “What story do I want to tell my grandchildren? If I had been this lazy guy sitting on the couch watching television, I’d be pretty ashamed of myself.  

“I want to be able to say that maybe there were ups and downs and I made mistakes, but I led an extraordinary life trying to bring meaning and built a project you can be proud of; that I’ve supported and shared a part of my life with the [Amedeo] Modigliani and [Pablo] Picasso of the 21st century. For me, there is a history in art I want to be a part of. I want to put my heart into growing the best collections in the world, creating impactful exhibitions and doing it with amazing people. My vision is very clear for me.” 

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Photo: Elizabeth Chu

Just five years ago, 23-year-old Elizabeth Chu was on the cusp of taking over her parents’ restaurant business and becoming chair of ZS Hospitality Group, named after the Kitchen God and protector of the family in Chinese mythology, Zao Shen. Fast forward to today, and the young entrepreneur has not only breathed new life into the business with back-to-back talk-of-the-town openings like Singaporean-European fine dining restaurant Whey and modern Korean concept Hansik Goo (impressively, three out of their six brands are Michelin starred) but made her name as one of the region’s most formidable restaurateurs to watch. And she is not even 30 yet. 

In Chu’s case, however, her entrepreneurial spark was lit barely after she took her first bite. “My parents’ passion for food has been deeply ingrained in me since I was a child. We love travelling and exploring new restaurants together. So, it’s natural for me to carry on the family passion and get into the F&B business.” Watching her Vietnam-born parents build successful ventures from scratch – they have been running hotels and restaurants for over 30 years – spurred her enthusiasm to start her own. 

“As a Vietnamese-Chinese, I grew up having Asian food and developed a deep connection with it. However, it’s often been stereotyped as affordable takeaway or street food. I aspire to challenge this perception by offering a fresh take on under-appreciated cuisines by creating restaurants of different genres.” 

Photo: Elizabeth Chu and ZS Hospitality Group

And so, two-Michelin-starred Ying Jee Club was born in 2017, presenting finessed traditional Cantonese classics; Hansik Goo came in 2020, and Whey in 2021, both awarded one Michelin star this year. Newly opened is Testina, in collaboration with Trippa Milano, one of Chu’s father’s favourite restaurants, serving up elevated nose-to-tail Italian cuisine, and Plaa, offering contemporary seafood with Thai influences.  

As the group goes from strength to strength, Chu credits her parents for many nuggets of advice that have helped her along the way – the biggest being to understand employees’ perspectives in order to build trust and long-lasting relationships. F&B is nothing if not a rapidly-shifting industry, not least over the last few years, and that applies to how restaurants are run, too. Having started as an investor, Chu has had to gain her industry knowledge from the ground up. “As compared with my parents’ generation, we now want better work-life balance. My parents basically worked twenty-four-seven,” Chu says. “When it comes to management style, given our company is still a start-up, I’m more hands-on and involved in the team’s day-to-day activities while my parents tend to put more responsibility in the hands of team leaders.” 

Plaa | Photo: ZS Hospitality Group

If there is one thing that Chu has mastered it is treading that fine line between forging a new path for the group while continuing to build on her parents’ vision. Chu admits it has not been easy. “It definitely took time and effort to craft a fresh identity for the group. Ying Jee Club was a straightforward concept, so when two years later we were planning the opening of Hansik Goo, my parents were doubtful about the idea of ‘modernising’ a cuisine. Now, the restaurant has been well received by diners and they’re more convinced of it,” Chu jokes. “I believe that every innovative or modern concept is built on traditional cooking and recipes. Our aim is to create something new and original while keeping the essence of tradition at the heart of the cuisine.” 

Originality is a quality never in short supply here, and Chu revels in being inspired by her fellow restaurateurs pushing boundaries. “Hong Kong has one of the most vibrant and dynamic F&B scenes in the world,” enthuses Chu. “There’s a fresh wave of innovative regional cuisines – Hunan, Sichuan – in the market that is sparking interest among the sophisticated diners in town. This pushes our creative boundaries to uncover new areas of value. Plus, the younger generation of chefs tend to have diverse, international training backgrounds and can come up with even more innovative creations.” 

03/01/22

Like her parents, Chu is a staunch believer in good communication especially when it comes to conveying the ZS vision. “We started ZS out of pure passion for food and hope to stay true to our original intention to share our love for food, promote and enrich food culture,” and she advises young entrepreneurs to “work hard, stay true to your values and let your actions speak for you.” Actions, for now, will include expanding their presence with more experimental concepts and once again welcoming visitors from around the world. With the strides Chu has made in five short years, diners in Hong Kong will surely be on the edge of their seats for what the next five bring.

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