Collecting stories: ‘If we weren’t married, we’d be bidding against each other at auctions’
E. Jane Dickson meets Erica Lai and Ronald Ooi, the Singaporean couple for whom Tang-dynasty courtiers, Lalique masterpieces and Botero paintings are part of family life
Collecting is constitutional for Ronald Ooi. ‘As a boy, I collected pebbles. When I had a little money, it was stamps, then coins.’
‘Then he grew older,’ says his wife, Erica Lai. ‘He collected girlfriends, but it cost too much.’ Ooi, unruffled, agrees: ‘It was cheaper to collect art.’
It’s a polished double act. Ooi is the drily humorous former chairman and CEO of the Singapore-based brokerage firm Maybank Kim Eng. Lai, a former lawyer, is as outgoing as her husband is restrained.
In their home, a modernist beacon among the shuttered bungalows of Nassim Road, artworks spanning three millennia make inspired matches: a Bridget Riley painting finds its mate in a still-vivid 17th-century kilim; David Hockney’s larky stage designs for The Rake’s Progress play out under the implacably dignified eye of Tang-dynasty ceramic courtiers.
At times, the pairings are mischievous: one of Fernando Botero’s stolid beauties, round of eye and firm of chin, seems rather put out by the disarray of Fernand Léger’s Femme au miroir, 1920.
The house, a series of layered and beautifully ordered spaces by Argentinian architect Ernesto Bedmar, was not, it turns out, designed around the collection, but around the youngest members of the household, seven-year-old twins Jacqueline and Julianne.
‘The house we had before had lovely patios, floor-to-ceiling doors opening out to ponds that were seven feet deep, with wonderful fish, but by the time the babies started crawling it was a deathtrap. So we tore it all down and started again,’ explains Lai.
An exterior walkway leading from the gate to a bespoke jungle gym means there is no danger of knocking over 3,000-year-old vases on play dates; more importantly, in the twins’ view, it means small guests are not embarrassed by the imaginative couplings depicted in The Eye of Karl Marx, a wall-sized piece of pop art by Australian painter Richard Larter. ‘The girls have told us their friends are never to see that painting,’ says Lai.
For Ooi, finding the right space and curatorial conditions for each artwork was ‘an enormous, intricate jigsaw’. A temperature-controlled room for storing antique carpets was installed to combat Singapore’s humid atmosphere, and the house, built partly into a hillside, is sliced with deep wells of natural light.
Lai, who has a large collection of Art Deco jewellery, points out that for art or architecture to travel well, climate must be carefully considered.
‘When you buy a gemstone in Europe, it just looks so beautiful because the sun is soft. But it can look completely different under our tropical skies. It’s the same with houses. If we were living in, say, California or Australia, that open aesthetic would be perfect.
‘I always say that when I grow up I want to buy the Tom Ford House [Tadao Ando’s Cerro Pelon Ranch] — but architects here have to work harder with the weather. Ernesto is from Argentina, he has that light-filled sensibility. But he has lived in Singapore for 30 years. So we have a lot of light in the house, but it’s not direct light.’
Ooi’s family history is closely entwined with Singapore’s economic success. He is the stepson of Dennis Lee Kim Yew, the brother of the nation’s founding prime minister. Ooi’s mother, Mrs Gloria Lee, is scarcely less revered: a former air stewardess who rose to become one of Asia’s most powerful businesswomen. Maybank Kim Eng, which she founded, was the first brokerage to be listed on the Singapore stock exchange; a photograph of her with Margaret Thatcher, dubbed ‘The Two Iron Ladies’ by Lai, has a special place in family iconography.
Pride in his Chinese heritage is also apparent in Ooi’s collection of bronzes and pottery from the Shang, Western Zhou, Han and Tang dynasties. The Shang bronzes, the earliest archaeological evidence of Chinese civilisation, are sophisticated, surprisingly modern-looking artefacts with raised, stylised patterns.
‘I find it wonderful,’ says Ooi, ‘that these were made 3,000 years ago, and already the makers understood the principle of relief-casting; already there was that impulse to artistic expression.’
‘They’re grave goods, and I’m superstitious’ — Erica Lai on her ancient ceramics
Sancai glazed horses and figurines from the Tang dynasty, a high point of imperial culture spanning three centuries (618–907 AD), similarly describe a nuanced sociological progression.
‘For most of its history, China was riven by warring factions,’ Ooi explains, ‘but the Tang dynasty was a time of peace and prosperity; there was the opportunity to perfect different forms of sculpture. The earliest horses were modelled in pottery and painted, but the colour didn’t last. As time went on, artists developed these wonderful cobalt glazes. But cobalt is not a naturally occurring substance in China. It was brought in from the Middle East, and at the time had a price higher than gold.
‘If you look at some of the figurines, you’ll notice they have beards and aquiline noses. They are clearly Middle Eastern gentlemen brought in as merchants and courtiers to serve the Chinese noblemen. So there you have the whole story of the Silk Route in ceramics.’
Lai’s response to the Chinese antiques is more visceral; entering their presence, she takes care to flick on a recording of hymns from St Andrew’s Cathedral. ‘What can I say?’ she shrugs. ‘They’re grave goods, and I’m superstitious.’
Many of the couple’s favourite pieces, from a pair of 1930s Czech chairs to eastern Mediterranean carpets, were picked up on their travels. ‘In Singapore, anything over 50 years old is considered antique,’ says Ooi, ‘and I started by collecting 19th- and 20th-century carpets.
‘But when I went to Europe, I realised you had the best dealers in the world because you were living with your carpets — on account of your winters and so on — and that was my opportunity to change direction. I now collect carpets from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and, really, they are art in woven form.’
A trip to Japan sparked the couple’s passion for the work of René Lalique. Lai already owned a collection of perfume bottles created by Lalique for Coty, Worth and Roger & Gallet, and was blown away by some larger pieces in a shop in Tokyo’s antique market.
‘I bought a vase,’ Ooi recalls, ‘and asked if there were any more available. The shopkeeper, who is an honourable man and has since become a good friend, said: “If you are looking for more, I will introduce you to the dealer who brought this whole consignment to my shop.”
Six months later, we returned to Tokyo to meet Shai Bandmann, the dealer in question, and in walks this man in a T-shirt and scruffy old jeans who turns out to be the world’s leading authority on Lalique glass.’
Lai says, ‘We told Shai, very frankly, that while we loved what we saw of Lalique, we were not experts, so he started our education there and then, and it has been the most wonderful experience. Shai’s knowledge is encyclopaedic — he’s like a Chinese medicine box with drawers full of facts and anecdotes about every piece in the catalogue raisonné.’
‘I’m a huge fan of Freddie Mercury, and to me Lalique is the Bohemian Rhapsody of the art world’ — Ronald Ooi
In collaboration with Bandmann, Ooi and Lai amassed a vast collection of Lalique, comprising vases, lamps, jewellery, car mascots and decorative panels, together with many of René Lalique’s personal papers, diaries and sketches.
‘I would say it is the finest collection of Lalique in the world,’ says Ooi. ‘Certainly for us it is the jewel in our crown. My most treasured pieces are the cires perdues [one-off castings taken using the ‘lost wax’ method]. There probably aren’t more than 150 of these in the world; they’re raw and experimental and, to me, exceptionally beautiful in their raw state because you can see the master’s hand.’
Encompassing natural forms, fantasy and geometric rigour, Lalique’s oeuvre straddles — and in some measure defines — Art Nouveau and Art Deco. ‘In musical terms,’ says Ooi, ‘it’s like classical, jazz and popular music rolled into one. I’m a huge fan of Freddie Mercury, and to me Lalique is the Bohemian Rhapsody of the art world.’
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Lalique pieces, each one a little masterpiece of held and refracted light, are displayed throughout the Nassim Road house (there’s an opalescent Picardie vase, a Grillons vase decorated with grasshoppers so finely modelled they appear ready to leap off the glass, and a pair of sculptural Art Deco chandeliers), but the bulk of the collection, co-owned with Bandmann, is on loan to the Musée Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder, Alsace. Masterpieces such as Femme ailée, 1900 a bronze winged woman designed to advertise Lalique’s wares at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, and Deux Paons (Two Peacocks), the iconic bedside lamp created in 1920, attract visitors from around the globe.
‘From time to time we make the trip to Alsace, and because we are the biggest lenders to the museum, they take us down to the vaults to visit items not on display,’ says Ooi.
‘It’s nice,’ adds Lai, ‘because these pieces are like our little babies, and it means nothing to own them if you can’t ever touch them or feel them. On the other hand, a collection like this means nothing if you are just going to have it in your own home. So it’s a very satisfactory arrangement, and it’s always a pleasure to loan pieces to museums such as the Pompidou or the Kremlin for special exhibitions.’
As collectors, Ooi and Lai have complementary skills. ‘Ron has a very rigorous, analytical mind; I would be more daring,’ says Lai. ‘But we invariably like the same things. I always say that if we weren’t married, we’d be bidding against each other at auctions.’
For both, collecting is a necessary release from the pressures of the business world, a burst of joy in a world of balance sheets. Or, as Lai more gracefully puts it: ‘When you’re in that world, it’s all about dollars and cents. Art fulfils the other side of your soul.’