Foh Kai Lik on the ‘joy, pride and responsibility’ of his family’s collection of Chinese paintings

The Foh Collection, acquired over the course of half a century, was on show at Christie’s Hong Kong this spring. As 20 important works from this Singaporean collection will be offered this autumn, we talk to the son of its remarkable founders about what it means to the family

Foh Kai Lik, photographed in Singapore with works from the Foh Collection

Foh Kai Lik, photographed in Singapore with works from the Foh Collection

Between 25 and 30 May 2023, Christie’s in Hong Kong presents The Foh Collection: A Special Exhibition Celebrating Five Decades of Collecting Chinese Modern Paintings.

Carmen Shek Cerne, Christie’s Asia-Pacific head of Chinese Paintings, made a special trip to Singapore to meet Foh Kai Lik, who guided her through his family’s collection. In the video above and the interview below, Foh Kai Lik charts the importance of the collection, and offers insights into the impact it has had in Southeast Asia over the past 50 years.

Foh Kai Lik’s parents, Mr Foh Kim Hong and Ms Chan Siew Fong, had a mutual love for Chinese art and culture, yet diverging tastes with regard to the works they acquired. Over the course of more than half a century, the Foh family have created a unique private collection that is harmonious but also diverse. Their backgrounds, stories and experiences are part of what makes the collection so special.

Could you briefly introduce your family’s art collection?

Foh Kai Lik: The collection comprises a few hundred pieces that date right back to the late Qing Dynasty all the way through to the late 1990s. Because my parents approached art from very different backgrounds and perspectives, there is a great diversity of styles, techniques and media represented, as well as of themes and subjects — including traditional ink and brush, Impressionism, expressionism, and abstraction.

Over time, my parents would buy and sell and refine the collection to highlight specific techniques, different compositions, and different schools of art. What they set out to do was to showcase how diverse and interesting 20th-century Chinese contemporary art can be.

What are your parents’ collecting philosophies and tastes? What are their differences?

FKL: My parents, in their own ways, really broke the glass ceiling of their respective environments. My dad was born into a large working-class family in rural Malaysia, but got a scholarship to study music in Taiwan. My mother, who could not speak a word of English at the time, got into art school at Central St Martins, London, in the Swinging Sixties, on the strength of her portfolio alone, and designed interiors for MGM movies in the UK.

Coming from such different backgrounds, they started their collecting journey with very different tastes in art. My dad loves Chinese calligraphy, Chinese culture and Chinese history, and therefore he gravitates towards traditional Chinese ink and brush landscapes, as well as scenes of rural life. By contrast, my mum loves bold Abstract Expressionist pieces, which are more Western in origin.

While this may be how their collecting started, they have learned a lot from each other and have grown closer in taste over time.

XU BEIHONG (1895-1953), Two Ducks. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. 109.5 x 48.2 cm. (43⅛ x 19 in.). Sold for HK$3,276,000 in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 1 December 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Do they have their own favourite artists?

FKL: I can pick two works that best showcase their contrasting tastes and personalities.

Feng Zikai’s Man with Child Cooking (below), which shows a father and son cooking together, celebrates the commonplace and the mundane. At the same time, it reflects the changing social mores of Chinese life. It moves away from lofty depictions of scholars and classical beauties to realist sketches of simple country life. For those who know my father, this best sums up his down-to-earth and unassuming personality.

FENG ZIKAI (1898-1975), Cooking. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 29.3 x 26 cm. (11½ x 10¼ in.). Sold for HK$327,600 in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 1 December 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

By contrast, Cloud Girdled Crags (below) is an unusual piece by Zhang Daqian, with many qualities that a traditional admirer would perhaps find challenging, such as the uncompromising abstraction and extensive use of dark ink. No recognisable figures, houses, mountains or bridges distract from the washes of ink and colour, almost floating on the golden paper — itself a notoriously difficult surface to work on. This is a piece that represents much of what my mother admired about contemporary Chinese art — she was always one to move to the beat of her own drum.

Zhang Daqian, Cloud Girdled Crags, from the Foh Collection

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Cloud Girdled Crags, 1965, from the Foh Collection

Which works in the collection mean the most to you, and why?

FKL: Wu Guangzhong’s Walled Village ‘Shao Shan’  (below) holds a special place in my heart, not just because of its unique depiction of Mao Zedong’s home town, but because its acquisition in the late 1980s coincided with a critical milestone for our family. In a twist of fate, my father was placed in a situation of having to turn his collecting hobby into a business, setting up shop in a small space on a temporary rental contract.

The fact that it evolved into the collection we have today, speaks to this twist of fate (Yuan 緣), which gives my parents’ gallery its name.

After its acquisition, the painting hung in my bedroom and was a constant companion before I left for university in the UK in the 1990s. During the many nights I spent preparing for my entrance exams, I remember looking past the multiple layers of greenery in this piece into the small village in the distance, and thinking how great it would be to be anywhere else but studying in that room.

Wu Guanzhong, Walled Village ‘Shao Shan’, from the Foh Collection

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Walled Village ‘Shao Shan’, 1977, from the Foh Collection

WU GUANZHONG (1919-2010), Winter Scene – Fig Tree. Scroll, mounted and framed, gouache on paper. 39 x 32 cm. (15⅜ x 12⅝ in.). Sold for HK$1,512,000 in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 1 December 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Your father, Mr Foh Kim Hong, had an unforgettable story about his collection, which is related to Christie’s. Can you share it with us?

FKL: My dad was all about patience and persistence — he could wait decades for the right piece. When he first came across a Xu Beihong featuring an unusual pair of black and white ducks in the late 1970s, the owner was unwilling to sell it because the painting was dedicated to her father, a well-known collector who was still alive at the time. My dad never stopped thinking about it, and even kept a picture of it by his bedstand — for almost 30 years.

When the painting eventually appeared in an auction at Christie’s in 2007, my father got into a bidding war over the piece and ended up paying significantly above what he had prepared to spend on it. Ironically, it was my mother who urged my father to continue bidding on the piece, because she saw how much it meant to him. That seems to me the true sign of a collecting partnership.

Foh Kai Lik with Black and White Ducks by Xu Beihong, from the Foh Collection

Foh Kai Lik with Black and White Ducks, 1932, by Xu Beihong (1895-1953), from the Foh Collection

What was it like for you to grow up surrounded by art?

FKL: While I feel lucky to have been surrounded by beautiful pieces of art in my childhood, what I find even more memorable in retrospect is the ‘thrill of the chase’.

It would begin with the discovery of a rare or unique piece up for sale either from an auction catalogue or a potential seller. Heated debates would then follow between my parents and their friends over the relative merits and weaknesses of a particular piece. This would be punctuated with the excitement of finding interesting documentation from my dad’s reference materials, which would signal unrealised value. It would end with the adrenalin rush of closing the deal, either through canny negotiation or the thrill of the auction floor.

A few years ago, due to my father’s ill health, I worked with him to catalogue the collection and unearth some of the stories behind the acquisition of the pieces. They serve as an exciting record of the time, energy and passion my parents put into assembling the collection, and enhance my appreciation of the paintings even more.

Foh Kai Lik and Christie’s Carmen Shek Cerne exploring the Foh Collection

Foh Kai Lik and Christie’s specialist Carmen Shek Cerne exploring the Foh Collection

What have you learned from collecting art with your parents?

FKL: What made my dad an exceptional collector among his friends and associates was how he excelled in not just describing what was on paper, but in finding and then bringing to life the stories behind each painting — that of the painter’s teachers, students, patrons, and the work’s ongoing provenance.

Being a collector to him was not only the acquisition of a beautiful object, but also the joy, pride and responsibility of being part of a painting’s ongoing story, to show it off to its greatest potential and eventually to pass it on. This collaboration with Christie’s is now an important part of this journey.

What is your future vision for the collection?

FKL: I believe we have been gifted by fate to have enjoyed these paintings as a family. As stewards of this gift, we will ultimately be using the collection to help children with special needs and autism, as well as elderly people struggling with dementia and cognitive decline. We are grateful for this opportunity to work with Christie’s not just to showcase the collection and to celebrate my parents’ remarkable partnership, but to help do more for those less fortunate than us.

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Finally, why have you chosen to collaborate with Christie’s?

FKL: My family has had a long history with Christie’s over many decades, and I think they have shown a commitment to us that leaves us in no doubt that they are more than able to leverage their global platform to share this collection with the broader public. In addition, Hong Kong is where my parents collected many of these pieces, and it’s a place that holds many fun collecting memories for them. As such, I think this is the perfect place for us to exhibit this collection.

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