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Adrian Cheng Is Breaking the Mould of Retail as You Know It

By Kames Narayanan

Hong Kong businessman Adrian Cheng stands at the centre of the recently opened K11 Musea — the cumulative effort of 100 diverse creatives to breathe life into Cheng’s vision.
 
Leungmo
Hong Kong businessman Adrian Cheng stands at the centre of the recently opened K11 Musea — the cumulative effort of 100 diverse creatives to breathe life into Cheng’s vision.

Next generation business leader Adrian Cheng sees dollars and signs in social currency and knowledge capital. In the past decade, the lofty ambition of creating a cultural legacy has been brewing in his mind. The 39-year-old jewellery and real estate scion, a third-generation heir of one of China’s most prominent business families, cuts an eminent figure in the Eastern end of the world but on account of an esteemed portfolio beyond a weighty family name. 

On a mid-day afternoon in July, I was standing at the centre of K11 Musea — sprawling 10-storey culture-and-retail complex sitting on a grand total of 1.2 million square feet of land fronting the sea in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. Inside, undulating strips of hand-painted aluminium panels lined with scattered light bulbs like stars in the Milky Way wrap around a 35-metre high atrium. Amongst them, sat a golden glass globe, gleaming spectacularly underneath the sunlight spilling in from the ceiling. This was the remarkable universe Cheng had a hand in building alongside a team of 100 architects, designers and artists led by landscape architecture studio James Corner Field Operations and architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox

The K11 Musea — a portmanteau of ‘muse’ and ‘sea’ — was born out of Cheng’s monumental 10-year pursuit to redefine the city’s retail landscape under the K11 brand he established in 2008. Dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Culture”, the colossal mega mall sets the blueprint for the future of shopping malls. “We are trying to redefine space and we don’t want to call the K11 Musea a mall. We have created an ecosystem that is all intertwined. When you talk about contemporary art, culture or design, it is all seamless and there are no boundaries. We have created something that is beyond experience,” says Cheng.

“Here at K11 Musea, the word ‘Musea’ refers to a muse by the sea. We zoomed into the idea of a muse. Everyone has a muse and it is someone who inspires them. It is a fundamental part of creativity.”

A marker of many firsts for Hong Kong — and Greater China on the broader end — the K11 Musea’s discerning curation of art, culture, design and dining transcends geographical boundaries. Located on Victoria Dockside (formerly known as Holt’s Wharf, which was a historic logistics hub pivotal in earning Hong Kong its status as one of the busiest ports in the world), the K11 Musea comes a full circle in serving as an incubation ground for the confluence of cultures from across the globe. 

“Here at K11 Musea, the word ‘Musea’ refers to a muse by the sea. We zoomed into the idea of a muse. Everyone has a muse and it is someone who inspires them. It is a fundamental part of creativity. I want people who come into the Musea or walk around the Victoria Dockside to discover, be inspired and also accumulate knowledge capital,” says Cheng. 

It is home to the largest Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) store in Asia, luxury fashion e-tailer Moda Operandi’s first showroom in the region and Yohji Yamamoto’s inaugural concept boutique in Hong Kong. It is also the host of Van Cleef & Arpels’s only permanent School of Jewellery outside of Paris. 

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The K11 Musea also finds its distinguishing quality as a doorway to international contemporary art. Amongst its host of stellar line-up stands Elmgreen & Dragset’s 9-metre high Van Gogh’s Ear (previously on display outside New York’s Rockefeller Center), a life-size Hot Dog Bus installation by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm and a specially commissioned artwork by Chinese artist Zhang Enli’s ‘Parrots of Five Colours’ featuring a painted dome ceiling. Elsewhere within the mall, an entire floor stands dedicated to the grit and edge of street style and graffiti and traditional Chinese crafts are due to be hosted in pop-up shops and displays throughout the space. 

Like any successful businessman, Cheng’s vision is steered by a deep understanding of what appeals to the demographics placed before him — the Alpha generation, millennial set, and Generation Z. In taking a step back and dissecting the distinct ethos of the K11 Musea, the ways in which it taps into the stream of consciousness of contemporary consumers ring apparent. The striking addition to the city’s retail landscape is synchronised to the interconnected way of life and insatiable desire for knowledge profoundly resonant with the generations of the now. 

“There are no boundaries between art, design and culture. It is about diving in-depth and understanding the narratives. When I look at art, it is a form of creativity and when I look at fashion, it is a form of art. Creativity of different forms can cross-pollinate with one another without boundaries. At here at the Silicon Valley of Culture, we focus on this cross-pollination of creativity,” says Cheng. 

LeungmoCheng stands at the balcony of K11 Artus overlooking Hong Kong’s revered Victoria Harbour.
Cheng stands at the balcony of K11 Artus overlooking Hong Kong’s revered Victoria Harbour.

The world according to Cheng is one where geographical boundaries are arbitrary — a progressive school of thought he owes to his age. “It is an advantage [being young] because I have friends who are much younger than I [am] but I also have friends who are 10 or 20 years older than I am. So, I am able to make observations across generations and understand their chemistry and habits,” says Cheng. His winning business formulas are underpinned by a wide-spanning global purview and acute awareness of shifts in the cultural landscapes.

It is also the embodiment of such innate attunement that sees Cheng as the man to manoeuvre a decade-long undertaking of such sheer scale. “Especially in Asia and particularly in Hong Kong, [where] every two to three years, the consumer cycles change. You have to be very adaptive, you have to be versatile and you have to be flexible. Sometimes, you have to change your way and your vision as well,” says Cheng. “We need to keep going back to the fundamental. We never follow or create trends. What we try to do is create a vision for the long term, 10 or 20 years, rooted in humanity. Because that will pave the way forward for us to walk or run longer, run further.” 

The K11 Musea is the beating heart of Cheng’s monumental US$2.6 billion-dollar undertaking to revitalise the city’s iconic Victoria Dockside cultural district. This vast 28-hectare stretch of land, acquired by his grandfather in 1971, was built from the ground up into a multi-faceted retail, residential, office and hotel complex. Deviating from the timeworn approaches of his grandfather, Cheng’s redevelopment has rendered all three million square feet of what was once a ubiquitous landscape into the city’s bona fide experiential art-and-retail landmark.

“I love working. I am very productive and I like this momentum. I like the feeling of making a difference in the world in my own humble way.”

“Ten years ago, there was a strong dichotomy between art, retail and commerce. At that time, when people went to a shopping mall, they buy, sell and leave. But art, design and culture were always neglected. I had always wanted to propagate art, culture and design especially at a time when no one cared. But we want to merge this idea with shopping malls as where there are malls, there is high traffic and where there is high traffic, we are able to expose people to art and design. Then, it was as simple as creating a new social, innovative model,” says Cheng. 

Today, the K11 Musea stands flanked by two other state of the art additions also conceived under the K11 brand — the K11 Atelier (an iconic mixed-use office tower, which opened its doors two years ago to a host of international tenants) and the newly inaugurated K11 Artus (a luxury serviced residence). These properties count as Cheng’s noteworthy investments towards the cultural economy he has painstakingly built since the early years of his career as a fresh-eyed Harvard graduate. 

There is no slowing down Cheng, who is admittedly a workaholic. “I only sleep four or five hours a day. I love working. I am very productive and I like this momentum. I like the feeling of making a difference in the world in my own humble way,” he says. “We are going to build 36 other projects in nine cities by 2024. The K11 brand has been growing quite exponentially and we are making time for the generation of diverse product lines like design and art stores.” 

Creative direction by Tok Wei Lun
Photographs by Leungmo
Hair and makeup by Chi Chi Li
Photographer’s assistant: Sammy Lo, Him Li