Artists' champion: Helina Chan wants to make local artists more 'visible'

Her illness did not stop gallerist Helina Chan from holding a show to make local artists more "visible"

Chan with Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming in 2006 when he had a solo exhibition at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, and with writer-artist Gao Xingjian (above) when he was given the Library Lions award by the New York Public Library in 2007 for m
Chan with Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming in 2006 when he had a solo exhibition at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, and with writer-artist Gao Xingjian (above) when he was given the Library Lions award by the New York Public Library in 2007 for making a lasting impact on the city and its culture. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HELINA CHAN
Chan with Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming (above) in 2006 when he had a solo exhibition at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, and with writer-artist Gao Xingjian when he was given the Library Lions award by the New York Public Library in 2007 for making a lasting impact on the city and its culture. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HELINA CHAN
Six-year-old Helina Chan (second from left) in Shanghai with her older sister (far left), mother and accountant father. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HELINA CHAN
Gallerist Helina Chan exhibits artists whose works are original and are “more difficult than decorative”. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Singapore gallerist Helina Chan, who is Shanghai-born and Hong Kong-bred, began championing home-grown artists with a sartorial faux pas, but for a good reason.

The former high-end fashion merchandiser wore a medical face mask when she visited artists' studios here in 2012.

Ms Chan, who represents famous artists such as Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming and French-Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, says: "People might have thought I was weird or that I went in with a mask on because I found their studios smelly or dirty."

The reason, however, was neither.

She was battling lupus and a severely suppressed immunity; doctors had prescribed six months of rest and no work.

But she refused to close her gallery, iPreciation, and unsettle the lives of her employees.

She was also indignant after hearing news that last January's Art Stage Singapore fair would dedicate a pavilion to Indonesian artists instead of home- grown talent. "I got a bit angry and I wanted to do something for Singapore. How come Singapore artists are so invisible?", she says of her reaction then. The gallery did not take part in the fair until this year.

Pushing past her physical distress and social unease - her illness and medication had left her swollen with red blotches on her face - she knocked on the doors of more than 10 acclaimed Singapore artists, including Tay Bak Chiang and Lee Wen, to offer to stage a major group show for them at the gallery.

However, she saw no reason to carefully explain why she wore a mask on the visits; she had no need for sympathy.

As a child who lived through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and later, as a fashion merchandiser mediating between international designers and manufacturers in developing countries, her gruelling life had left her hardnosed.

But she has a soft side.

When you meet her at iPreciation's Cuscaden Road gallery, the 51-year-old - now recovered from her illness - is immaculately dressed in Chanel from head to toe in shades of black, white and ivory, and textures of knit, tweed and quilt. As she shakes your hand, diamonds wink at you from her wrist and a mini- Hello Kitty face, meticulously painted on her manicured nails, greets you.

Her mood is buoyant. She recently returned from the gallery's inaugural outing to the prestigious Art Basel in Hong Kong where works by pioneer Singapore performance artist Lee were shown for the first time at an art fair and were snapped up by foreign collectors.

She is bubbly with excitement about upcoming art projects that will pack the gallery's calendar well into next year and keep her team of seven busy. They include a permanent outdoor installation of sculptures by Ju in Market Street in the central business district.

For someone who retired at the age of 31 with plans to "hang around and not do much", running a busy gallery is hardly relaxing. Yet she keeps at it - and it is not for the money.

She says of her early retirement: "I was very well paid as a merchandiser. I had some personal investments and savings and I'm quite easily satisfied. I've known hardship in life and I'm not someone who wants things, so I didn't think I needed to do something." She continues to rely on her investments in properties and funds for her personal income.

To her, the gallery is a "hobby", a long-running love affair at once complex and fulfilling.

She has led a colourful - and transnational - life. Her Indonesian Chinese parents moved to Shanghai in the 1950s to study Chinese. They stayed on to marry and have children. In the early 1970s, however, the family of four left for Hong Kong when there were murmurings that her sister, older by five years, would be sent to the countryside to do hard labour as part of the Cultural Revolution campaign to re-educate urban youth.

Starting over in Hong Kong, they lived in a rental apartment with few possessions. Yet their humble circumstances did not stop her from dreaming - she liked drawing and wanted to be an artist.

She says: "But my father said, 'You cannot become an artist. You'll end up a beggar'. But fashion was okay because at that time, the industry was booming." Her father is a retired accountant and her mother, a housewife.

So she earned a diploma in textiles and weaving from Hong Kong Polytechnic and joined the garment industry. She worked first for a Hong Kong-based merchandising agent for American brand Polo Ralph Lauren, then joined Hong Kong's Esquel Enterprises, a leading textile and garment manufacturer for brands such as Nike and Brooks Brothers.

For a decade, she was constantly on-the-go, chasing tight manufacturing deadlines in a restless world of fashion cycles.

She recalls: "It was very demanding and I burnt out. I had a piece of luggage in my room at home that was never unpacked because I might have to travel for work any time. One day, I woke up and said I really didn't want to do this anymore."

She exited the corporate world and entered into a new partnership at an art gallery in Hong Kong. It was a stroke of serendipity after years away from her first love, art. She says: "A friend was trying to set up a gallery for Hong Kong art and she was looking for investors. She had this dream and I'm a dreamer, so I said okay, since it wasn't a lot of money."

The gallery, Artpreciation, opened in 1994 and Ms Chan stopped by from time to time to help with odds and ends. She especially enjoyed the chats she had with artists about art and culture. Even during the interview, her face lights up when talk veers to works of art.

The 1997 Hong Kong handover brought things to a halt. She pulled out of the business to relocate permanently to Singapore, where she has been a citizen since 1995. For many years after leaving Shanghai, she had been stateless and she got around with a certificate of identity issued by the Hong Kong authorities until she became a Singaporean.

Ms Chan, divorced and single, now lives with her parents in a colonial bungalow in East Coast. She has no children and declines to speak about her marriage and divorce.

Her ties with Singapore stretch back to the 1980s, when she visited the city regularly for work. She waxes lyrical: "The spaciousness, the smell of greenery in the air, the sense of welcoming and peacefulness, those things about Singapore attracted me first."

And as Hong Kong inched closer to its return to China, she began thinking of making Singapore her home. "I witnessed the Cultural Revolution and I wasn't very sure where Hong Kong was headed," she says. "But in Singapore, the government has the vision to map out blueprints and agencies step in to push things forward."

After moving here, she reconnected by chance in 1998 with the prominent Hong Kong artist Cheung Yee, whom she had worked with previously.

She says: "I rang him and he said he wanted to make art and do a show, so I conceptualised an exhibition for him. I had no intention to start a gallery then. I was just trying to help him and our collaboration was meant to be one-off."

The effusive response from art lovers to Cheung's first solo show here at the Alliance Francaise in 1999 caught her off guard. It opened her eyes to the potential for raising international awareness of Hong Kong and Chinese artists, and she went on to open iPreciation in a shophouse in Kim Yam Road the same year.

She did not have experience running a gallery but her years as a merchandiser had honed her business smarts and taught her how to collaborate with people from all walks of life. She says candidly: "If I was able to manage those businesses, which were more demanding, running a gallery is just too easy for me."

In its early years, iPreciation showed works by Hong Kong and Chinese artists she knew, including Koo Mei, a Hong Kong starlet and songstress of the 1950s.

Ms Chan says of artists she chooses to exhibit: "Their work has to be original, it has to be more difficult than decorative."

In 2002, she launched a large-scale sculpture show at the One Fullerton waterfront promenade. She has been enamoured with public art since her visits to cities of high culture, including New York, where buildings and public areas are married with art.

A friend suggested she bring Ju's work to South-east Asia. Long a fan of the artist, Ms Chan agreed and had the blessings of the artist himself. She knocked on the doors of the Singapore Art Museum and succeeded in co-organising a blockbuster show in 2004 that displayed his works in the museum, along Orchard Road and at Changi Airport.

The feat won her the Singapore Tourism Board's 2005 New Tourism Entrepreneur Of The Year award. It also led a Taiwan gallery, which the Nobel Laureate Gao worked with, to take notice and recommend her to assist with the writer-artist's 2005 solo show at the Singapore Art Museum.

After organising two blockbuster exhibitions, one after the other, she fell sick. For a year, she suffered various ailments including loss of hair, water retention and numbness in parts of her body.

She was treated for hypothyroidism in 2006. Health checks showed she had an auto-immune disease but her condition was under control. So she stayed busy, holding exhibitions at the gallery and opening a branch in Hong Kong in 2009.

Then her auto-immune disease flared up in 2010. This time, she was diagnosed with lupus and a battery of tests found that she also had leaky kidneys and a dangerously low white blood cell count. This medical ordeal lasted two years, although her condition is now stable.

She credits her chief physician, Professor Julian Thumboo, head of rheumatology and immunology at the Singapore General Hospital, for "saving my life".

In turn, she is supporting the research efforts of his team by launching the Reverie Rheumatology Research Fund later this year with a charity dinner.

In between her diagnoses and treatments from 2010 to 2012, she continued to run galleries in both cities and plan key exhibitions, including Singapore artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Milenko Prvacki's first solo show in Hong Kong in 2012.

She closed the Hong Kong branch last year after its lease ended, to focus on showing at international art fairs.

While sick, she also scouted for bigger digs here and orchestrated the gallery's move from Fullerton Hotel, where it had been since 2003, to its current premises.

On being a delinquent patient, she says: "I am responsible for the artists who trust me and I don't think I should be defeated by the illness."

For her, life is art. She is most energetic when she lives and breathes it. Even on personal holidays, she is likely to meet artists and their families whom she counts as old friends.

On weekends, she recharges by staying home, cooking for her parents or indulging in other forms of culture, such as books, magazines and TV. While she has a sophisticated palate and does not stinge on luxuries such as fine jewellery and clothes, simple pleasures equally delight her - a meal in a Hong Kong cha chan teng or nondescript noodle shop is what she cherishes most on visits to the city.

Painter Tay, 41, who shows with the gallery, says in Mandarin: "Helina is a straightforward and confident person. Others might initially see her as being too self-assured but she is really just someone who is bold and resolute. As an artist, you want a candid gallerist, it is better for all in the long run."

Ms Chan is equally firm but well- meaning with her artists, whom she refers to as family.

She says: "If you don't tell them your plans for them, they will take it easy and paint whenever they have time or inspiration. So I share my plans with them. Whether they want to come along or not, it's their decision.

"But they are people I've met, they're people I like and they are people I'd like to hold hands with. So I have to communicate with them and make them understand where I come from."

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