Portrait of CHLOE SUEN. Photo by Esther Chan for ArtAsiaPacific.
Portrait of CHLOE SUEN. Photo by Esther Chan for ArtAsiaPacific.

Deep Roots

Chloe Suen

Also available in:  Chinese

Hong Kong-born-and-based Chloe Suen is chairwoman of the Simon Suen Foundation, which advocates for sinology, and is the founder of the privately funded Sun Museum. The latter, a 12,500-square-meter hidden gem by the harbor of Kwun Tong, has been promoting Chinese arts and culture, in addition to serving as a platform for local artists, since 2015.

Suen spent most of her teens and young adulthood in the United States, where she double majored in philosophy and business administration at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and pursued a master’s degree in organizational psychology at Columbia University, in New York. Appearing every bit a businesswoman, she wore an elaborately embroidered dark blouse and a fitted red pencil skirt with heels to our meeting. With a cheery demeanor, her enthusiasm for her various causes was evident, although she was quick to say, modestly, that her experience with art began rather late. 

Suen’s father, whom the foundation is named after, is the CEO of the apparel branding and packaging company SML Group. In the early 2000s, he started collecting Chinese modern and contemporary paintings. Although Suen was attracted to graphic design and films as a teen, counting the vivid cinematography of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai among her favorites, she attributes her fine art education to Hong Kong’s booming art scene, which she encountered when she returned from the US in 2009, just as the global market for Chinese art was gaining momentum. A keen learner, she accompanied her father and his collector friends to auction previews and exhibitions, adopting a hands-on approach that quickened her learning curve. 

Proud of her heritage, Suen noted that her interest in Chinese art stems primarily from a fixation with how artists and the country’s history have shaped each other, extending beyond the works’ pure aesthetics. Her museum’s focus on the early 20th-century comes from her appreciation for that period, when dynastic rule ended and the nation entered the modern era with increasing international exposure. She names Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong, and Qi Baishi as influential figures whose art encapsulates this transition into modernity. Their ink paintings, which broke away from traditional perspectives, methods, and subject matter, were showcased in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Dawn of a Sunny Century.” Suen’s favorite artist of the moment, however, is Lin Fengmian, the pioneering, Paris-educated ink and oil painter, whom she finds inspiring because of his perseverance through the tragic events of his life. 

Suen’s engagement with Chinese art and history lends itself to her role at the Simon Suen Foundation, which oversees the running of Sun Museum. The foundation was set up in 2012 to promote classical Chinese learning, and was initially focused on facilitating the internationalization of sinology via scholarly exchanges and forums at tertiary institutions. However, Sun Museum was eventually conceived as Suen came to realize that academic endeavors, while crucial, appealed only to a niche audience and had little relevance for the general public. “I felt that art would be a more powerful method to help a broader group of viewers realize the importance of culture and history, and also establish a sense of national identity,” she explained. “For me, the museum is such an entryway for the public. But we didn’t dare use the word ‘museum,’ which was an uncommon concept for private institutions in Hong Kong.” The solution came via Suen’s chance encounter with Yeung Chun-tong in 2012, then the recently retired director of the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong, and now Sun Museum’s director. Yeung encouraged Suen to incorporate the museum in SML Group’s newly established headquarters.

There were challenges aplenty in setting up Sun Museum given that Hong Kong is not known for its private museums. Suen recalls having trouble conveying the nature of the institution to local media. Other barriers included attracting young audiences between the ages of 25 to 45, who are not as curious about Chinese culture as their elders. “There is a disconnect between what we call traditional art forms and contemporary art forms,” Suen notes. “This age group would go to Art Basel and Art Central, and other contemporary shows, but not come to us.” She added: “In some ways, it has become a mission for us to showcase forgotten art forms.” While the museum has held some blockbusters, such as a 2018 collaboration with Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts featuring Xu Beihong, there is one group show of lesser-known artists that is of particular sentimental value to Suen. In 2017, “Hong Kong Renowned Oil Painters in the Diverse World” debuted ten elderly local artists. Professionally trained in China in the early decades of the 20th century, they moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s. Before the show, their idyllic landscapes and depictions of daily life had all but disappeared into the pages of history.

Suen’s support for under-recognized artists is reflected in her personal collection. Her first purchase was a small watercolor of a floral arrangement, Adagio in Ruby (2014), by a personal friend, the late Chinese-Canadian artist and dealer Jenny Pat. Suen notes the importance of collecting works by female artists, sharing her perplexity about the dismal number of widely celebrated female practitioners compared to female art students. She believes this is related to the limited number of female collectors, saying: “Art is personal, and sometimes there is a preference for certain styles or topics in the work that artists of a certain gender create, maybe even on a subconscious level.” Suen also hopes to play a part in encouraging the next generation. For example, emerging artist Chan Sui-ying Zaffer’s Scene in Screen (2019), an intricately painted paper folding screen depicting several ink landscapes, was on display in the museum’s meeting room. The work had attracted Suen with its unique take on the traditional medium, intermixing Chinese elements with Western ones. 

Despite Hong Kong’s protests, Suen remains optimistic about the city’s art scene. “Culture transcends politics,” she proclaims, “and they are very different things. Chinese history has undergone thousands of years of multiple dynasties with dissimilar political systems, but what remains is our literature, artwork, poetry, and music.” She believes that the days of the financial center as a “cultural desert,” as the city was once was labeled, are long gone. In response to this change, Suen is adamant about fostering young professionals for the industry. Through the foundation, she organizes workshops and mentorship programs for local students, who are, she has observed, generally unprepared for the practicalities of arts careers upon graduation. Speaking of Hong Kong’s growing cultural focus, she said: “There will be a demand for personnel, with many exhibitions and museums needing talent, but do we have. . . enough people with the expertise? I think this is a chicken and egg situation—we need more students to attend museums to be inspired to go into these fields, but at the same time we need the infrastructure in place for them. We are known for Art Basel and our auctions, but not for our museums, yet.” 

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