A family business is sometimes a double-edged sword for the next generation, especially if it is one they do not have an interest in. However, that has not been a problem for Andy Hei, the second generation of the H. L. Hei Family.
The family has dealt with huanghuali and zitan (both varieties of rosewood) furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties for more 65 years. Hei has not only inherited the family’s business, but expanded it into art fairs.
Thanks to his father Hei Honglu, a renowned collector and antiques dealer, he was well equipped for a future of antiques collecting and trading.
From 1992, he served as assistant to Robert H, Ellsworth, the highly acclaimed New York art collector and dealer. Hei helped him with the founding of the Chinese Heritage Art Foundation and managed its operations in Hong Kong.
In 2006, Hei initiated and organized the first annual Hong Kong International Asian Antique and Arts Fairs, which was renamed Fine Art Asia in 2010.
Today Fine Art Asia has become one of Asia’s leading art fairs.
In 2015, Hei also launched the first art fair exclusively devoted to contemporary ink art in the world, presenting a broad range of ink or ink-inspired artworks that are influenced by traditional ink wash but follow innovative creative paths.
With his experience in the Chinese art world and awareness of global art trends, Hei is dedicated to educating young Asian collectors.
He has given many lectures and seminars at major art and cultural institutions, including Sotheby’s Institute of Art and the Art Museum and Hong Kong Art Centre.
In 2017, he was invited to serve on the Council Member of the Kong Hong Art Development Council.
Q: You were born into a family of antiques collectors. Did you feel it a responsibility or was it your own passion to enter this field?
A: At first, it felt like a responsibility because I am the youngest of three and my siblings had no interest in antiques.
I was the only one who stayed in Hong Kong and did not go abroad for school, hence, the ‘correct’ thing to do was to follow my father and inherit his knowledge.
I was bored in the beginning, learning antiques from my father, but gradually this responsibility and boredom transited to passion and now I see antiques collecting as a lifetime mission. It was my destiny to pursue this career path.
Q: You could be categorized into “Rich the Second.” Do you feel it a privilege or a burden to develop your career?
A: I believe I am a “Dealer the Second” not “Rich the Second.” I was privileged to be exposed to many rare antiques, and because of my family’s antique collection background I was able to meet many experts in this field.
As my career progressed, I learnt the art of collecting, dealing and appreciating art. Of course, there are elements of pressure, but all careers have pressure and I was fortunate to have lots of guidance along the way.
My career is my passion, an interest that I have developed growing up and inherited by my father.
Q: You were the assistant of Robert Ellsworth for the founding of his Chinese cultural antique restoration foundation. How did this affect your later career path?
A: Robert Ellsworth was an important influence on my career path and he taught me a great deal. He taught me, ‘if you gain some, you must give some back’.
Gradually this cycle of gain-and-give was engraved in me and has allowed me to believe that being a dealer is not only for money. It is the full experience of this industry of learning and discovering goods for us to appreciate.
When we worked together on antiques restoration, we do research on it and then uncover the significance of our findings.
This process allows us to act as both a collector and dealer; a collector to safekeep it if we like it, or a dealer, to find someone who will appreciate it. Together, the combination of a collector and dealer allows me to be an expert in Asian antiques.
Q: Fine Art Asia was established in 2006, which proved quite successful. Then what inspired you to open Ink Asia in 2015?
A: I am a very active thinker and I believe art fairs need to have a “change” or a “surprise” every few years. As Fine Art Asia diversed and grew, I noticed that the terminology “new ink” had increased and had more presence in our art fairs. I saw the organic change of Chinese calligraphy into shapes, and then into painting and creating history that we can learn to appreciate.
China, I believe, is the pioneer of ink art, so it only made sense that, as an Asian dealer, to explore that field and bring it to life. This inspired me to launch Ink Asia and to have a fair that specializes in ink.
Q: Ink-wash painting, in the eyes of many, goes to extremes, very traditional or experimental. So what kind of image does Ink Asia aim to build?
A: Ink Asia consists of modern and contemporary ink art that are mostly from the 20th century. Anything older than the 20th century, I consider those as older classical art that should be considered as antiques, and will be featured in Fine Art Asia.
As for Ink Asia, I want to create an event where individuals can come and are not intimidated by ink art. These individuals will be our younger target consumers who can appreciate art at more reasonable prices and gradually build their interest in other mediums of art as well.
Q: Hong Kong Basel is now one of the biggest art events in Hong Kong. It also includes contemporary ink from around the world. So is there any challenge for Ink Asia, or to be exact, what’s the necessity to open an art fair especially specialized in this area?
A: Ink is a very unforgiving medium. Once you make a mistake, you’ll need to start over. There is Western ink as well, but mainly they are watercolor, charcoal, line drawings, sketches, prints, etc. Ink is used by a lot of artists from China, so I, as an Asian, believe that we should have a fair that specializes in Chinese contemporary ink.
The uniqueness of ink is created by its washes and how the artist uses ink; creating a contemporary style of ink art and I believe that Ink Asia can build on this perspective with ink.
Q: In your eyes, what’s the challenging part of being a fair director, and what kind of abilities should a fair director be equipped with?
A: Hosting a fair is definitely a challenge, but a good challenge. It can be difficult to balance between the countless meetings with different parties such as marketing, public relations, art services, sponsors, banks, venue, designers, clients, caterers, photographers, media partners … After all these meetings prior to the fair, I often need to make quick, analytical and precise decisions on the spot while having the big picture all in my head because each decision can affect one or the other.
Once the art fairs have commenced and are happening, there are always so many ‘expect the unexpected’ events that just pop up, and it requires me to think on my feet and find the best solution to balance out the situation. These art fairs are definitely a very different scope of work compared to an art dealer.
Q: Obviously you are not the kind of person who can rest on your past successes. Is there any future plan to expand your career scope?
A: You are right, I am very active, and I love to challenge myself on new projects. The fairs and my gallery keep me busy, but I would love to expand in art education.
Currently we are working with schools such as the Hong Kong Baptist University and Hong Kong Art School.
Working on programs with schools or museums or other art organizers to share with society that art is not only restricted to people who are ‘in’ the field, but open for everyone for an active cultural experience.
Q: Can you use three adjectives to describe yourself?
A: Passionate, adventurous and determined.
Q: What kind of life do you want in 10 years?
A: I hope I will retire by then, maybe, but joking aside, I want to inspire and influence the younger generation and anyone who is interested in any aspects of art and share my story as an art mentor.
I have been very privileged to have my father, Robert Ellsworth and other great people I have met during my career; and I hope one day I can share with the young ones my experiences and stories to inspire them.
I want to make them know that the art industry is not that intimidating and I have the knowledge to mentor them to grow their interests into passion.