A legend in the art world, Robert Chang's new biography charts his rise from Hong Kong street-sleeper to leading international dealer in Chinese antiquities. Lin Qi reports.
The streets of Hong Kong in 1948 witnessed an influx of people from the mainland who were escaping the chaos of the Chinese civil war. Among them was Robert Chang, a Shanghai native in his 20s who arrived with just a suitcase and in his pocket.
He survived on two meals a day. Sometimes when he couldn't afford lodgings, he spent the night on the streets, sleeping on used newspapers. He spoke no Cantonese and had poor English and found it difficult to find a job. He saw a bleak future ahead of him.
But today, in the world of Chinese art collection, Robert Chang is considered a legendary figure. The 90-year-old has been a leading art dealer and collector of Chinese antiquities for decades. His collections have sold for tens of millions of dollars at auction.
He helped introduce art auctions to Hong Kong and actively promoted the city as a top trading center for Chinese art. He was also one of the main advisers when the Chinese mainland adopted auctioning, and he made bids at many of the first art auctions on the mainland.
Chang's life is all about how a middle-school dropout who sought refuge on the streets of Hong Kong became an icon of the Chinese art world. And a new book narrates all the dramatic scenarios in his life you might want to know about.
Robert Chang: Life of Collection, recently published by Beijing's Guardian Art Center and written by Li Changwei, a freelance writer, is more than a biographical review of Chang's personal achievements. It is a personal account of the history and his experiences of the Chinese art-collection industry in the 20th century.
"It's my first book," Chang said when he visited Beijing last month to promote the title.
"But I never consider myself a great person. I'm just someone who runs a small business."
That was why he declined the idea of the book more than 10 years ago, when it was put forward by Kou Qin, one of the mainland's earliest auctioneers and general manger of the Guardian Art Center.
"It's not a book filled with laudatory expressions," Kou says.
"It's a collection of lively anecdotes and precious life lessons about genuine connoisseurship, built upon wisdom, hardships and credibility, which still matters a lot to the art world today."
The son of a well-off antiques store owner, Chang's recollections of his childhood and early years reflect how antique dealers in Shanghai profited from a booming market from the late 1920s to the 1930s.
The period saw an important transition: declining aristocrats and court officials of the overturned Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who favored classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy, gradually lost their predominance in art collection to a growing group of wealthy bankers. Chang says the latter group preferred imperial ceramics crafted at official kilns to paintings.