Saturday, June 29, 2013

Painting an Asian Impre$$ion

A 1964 Picasso purchased by an Asian buyer for GBP 3 million

Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Monet, Dali, Renoir, Claudel. Imp-Mod (short for Impressionist-Modern) works by these familiar European names and others are being increasingly scooped up by buyers from Asia. In this week’s Christie’s PWC auction in London, Asians took a third of the sale. Other art experts estimate that at least 20% of auction buyers of modern European art are Asians, particularly Chinese and Indians. According to Christie’s Jussi Pylkkanen, “there was much more dramatic bidding from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia than we have ever seen. If you thought the Chinese are interested only in Chinese artists, you are wrong.” The Picasso piece (Tete d’homme) shown above was sold to a Hong Kong-based bidder after a heated competition against an Indian and Chinese collector.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Too Rich for McDonalds

Getting rid of the McRiff-raff

Russell Street in Hong Kong, the most expensive retail street in the world (see this blog’s June 11 entry) has claimed another high street casualty. This one is none other than the most successful restaurant chain in the world – McDonalds. After locating here since 2006, McDonald’s has decided that a tripling of rents to US$200,000 per month since their previous lease two years ago just doesn’t make sense. Having done the quick math, they’ve no doubt figured that they can’t sell Big Mac meals for US$2.70 at the rate of almost two per minute for every minute of the month, just to cover the rent. If nothing else, it would be a public health hazard for Hong Kong’s citizens.
The 6,000 square foot first floor space is going to a local cosmetics retailer, Sa Sa. While Sa Sa is popular among Hong Kong residents, it becomes one of the 24 out of 28 stores along Russell Street that is catered towards Mainland Chinese visitors. So, if the Mainlanders do indeed “shop till they drop” on Russell Street, it may be because they can’t find a cheap, caloric meal to sustain them.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review About the Crazy Asian One Percent

Below is a link to a book review of Kevin Kwan's novel "Crazy Rich Asians" (a satire about Singapore's nutty rich) by Tash Aw, the author of "Five Star Billionaire" (a tale of wealth chasing Malaysians in Shanghai). Both are topical, timely stories that cast different lights on the dramatic changes to the social landscape being created by the overflowing tides of Asian money.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Fishy Tale of Obscene Excess

Why did the Dear Leader keep me alive? Just for the halibut.

Sorry for posting two blog entries in a row about the Kim royal family north of the border. And apologies to those who already have been following the exploits of Kenji Fujimoto – Kim Jong Il’s on-again, off-again sushi chef for close to two decades until 2003. Fujimoto has already penned three books about his experiences, and The Atlantic magazine and others since have put out articles about him. However, this new GQ article on Kim Jong-Il's sushi chef and play buddy is a riveting up-to-date account of the mercurial Japanese cook whose loyalties and regard for the safety of family and self have flip flopped more often than a live fish on a pier. The article is nine pages long. Nevertheless, it’s a story that just doesn’t ever get old, especially in the hands of Pulitzer Prize winning author Adam Johnson. If you enjoy tales about pleasure palace excesses that will make you want to vomit with disgust, would-be assassins that go bump in the night, connections between a Japanese sushi-chef and basketball oddity Dennis Rodman, and people with moral rudders as flimsy as fresh-sliced halibut, this article is a must read. Hell, I’m almost tempted to go out and buy a copy of this month’s GQ magazine in order to keep a permanent copy of it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mein Kim-pf

Supreme Leader: "I stayed up all night! A page-turner! Five stars!"

Kim Jong-Eun seems to think that North Korea’s leadership has much to learn from Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. According to this Washington Post article and the always fascinating New Focus International website ( that reports on North Korea, the Supreme Leader has given out Hitler’s autobiography as a birthday present to an elite group of 100 top lieutenants. Apparently, Kim Jong-eun is enamored by Nazi Germany’s success in recovering from the devastation of a world war as a quasi-pariah state to become an industrial power in Europe. Some observers also speculate that the diminutive and age-challenged leader with the L’il Rascals haircut could use some gravitas-by-association. And who else but the fire-breathing, fist-pumping orator-extraordinaire Hitler himself to give Kim an aura of authority?
It’s not a bad thing that Kim is boning up on history to gain some perspective. However, he should keep in mind that Mein Kampf was written in the 1930s, while Hitler stewed in prison with nothing but ideology to keep him company. Kim may also benefit from reading Hitler’s sequel. Unfortunately, that volume, which was due out in 1946, never quite made it to press. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Serve Me Abalone, Not Subpoenas

Is that a court order? Sorry, I’ve already eaten

Joseph Lau Luen-hung – Hong Kong’s 8th richest man (according to Forbes) with a net worth of $7 billion – is too busy a man to be bothered with mundane chores. Housecleaning? Sorry, have a staff for that. Dealing with Hong Kong traffic? Got a driver. Stand trial in a Macau court because he’s been accused of bribing an infamous former government official (Public Works Chief Ao Man-long) $2.5 million to be permitted to build a luxury residential complex? Pardon, got lunch plans with one of my girlfriends at my favorite restaurant, Fook Lam Moon. The abalone there is awfully good, after all.

This is the fourth time that Joseph Lau, a real estate developer who controls Chinese Estates, has failed to appear in court as ordered to contest the graft allegation. In the past, he has cited “chronic disease”. This time, he appeared to be in decent health and had his young daughter in tow as he emerged from the restaurant. He has asked that he be allowed to stand trial in absentia. Luckily for him, another girlfriend did sit in court as an observer and took notes for him while he was tucking into his favorite dishes.

“Chronic disease?” Which one I wonder. So many possibilities come to mind.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

From High Street to High End Street


Based on a casual look at the comparison of retail tenants above, an observer would be forgiven if (s)he surmised that they related to two different streets. In fact, they are the same – ten years apart. It is Russell Street in Causeway Bay (Hong Kong), which has become known as the most expensive street for commercial leases in the world. According to international property consultants Cushman & Wakefield, monthly rents currently run US$260 – 380 per square foot. Thus, for a 1,000 square foot shop, that’s well over a quarter of a million dollars in rent per month. No wonder run-of-the-mill “high street” brands have been shooed away in favor of the luxury brands that cater mainly to the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists.
This is a trend that has been witnessed all across Hong Kong. Malls and other shopping destinations such as Leighton Road have gotten homogenized with high-end international brands. A long-standing family-oriented Italian restaurant in Queens Road East gave way to a Rolls Royce and McLaren dealer a few years ago. Interesting eateries and diverse food centers have been pushed to the fringes of good neighborhoods, or into euphemistically named “up-and-coming” locations.
While the push towards the high end has undeniably fueled economic growth in Hong Kong over the past few years, the risks and social costs have been just as palpable. First of all, too much focus and emphasis given to one target group of customers (cash-loaded Mainlanders) is a risky business proposition, particularly when such a strategy alienates large masses of other customers. A sudden shift in preferences or capabilities of the target customer group (a very real possibility, in this case) can lead to a nasty market correction and fuel widespread public resentment. Secondly, giving over prime real estate to highest-bidding foreign luxury brands deflates incentives for local small-and-medium sized businesses and creative entrepreneurialism, two segments which promote broader wealth and job creation, and often define the soul of a place.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Don’t Tickle These Ivories!

An elegiac melody to environmentalists

To celebrate its 160th anniversary of making fine pianos, Bechstein has created a one-off replica of a gold-leaf gilded piano – the Louis XV, one of the most expensive pieces every produced. It will be auctioned for a reserve price of 1.8 million euros. It is currently on display in the Forbidden City in Beijing, in search of a buyer.
Two aspects of the marketing of this showpiece have already set a few heads shaking - that an instrument that is so tradition-bound is being so blatantly peddled towards new-money Chinese, and that the Louis XV name is at odds with the fact that the original was made for Queen Victoria of England in the 19th century. Oh well, branding.
However, the real controversy has been stirred in Bechstein’s decision to use real ivory keys (banned since 1989), rather than the plastic ones that have been widely used since the 1950s. Environmentalists and conservations are outraged at the German company’s insensitivity to the dwindling herds of pachyderms globally at the hands of ivory poachers. Bechstein defends their decision by stating that the ivory was “legally sourced”. Still, there are many observers, including this blogger, who hold the view that continuing to promote the merits of a material (whether legally acquired or not) sourced at an immeasurable cost to the environment when there are perfectly functional substitutes available is a distasteful display of vanity. World class artists such as Lang Lang seem to perform brilliantly enough on synthetic keys.
So bravo to companies like Bechstein for keeping high-end tradition and craftsmanship alive. However, this endeavor demonstrates that, sometimes, even the best instrument makers can have a bit of a tin ear when it comes to good taste and public sentiment.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Julius Baer Wealth Report

Here is the link to the 2013 Julius Baer Wealth Report, detailing the Swiss private bank's analysis and insights into wealth trends and consumption patterns among Asia’s wealthy. It’s chock full of interesting statistics and charts. Here is a sampler:

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Rich De-Couple

Above are two recently published charts (from Swiss private bank Julius Baer and the BCG consulting group) that essentially tell the same story – that Asia’s wealth creation continues to outpace the rest of the world, and the ranks of US$ millionaires (excluding property) continue to swell throughout the region, particularly in China. China now has over one million millionaires, and that figure is expected to grow by a staggering 15% per year through 2015. That growth rate leaves every other mature economy in the dust, including Hong Kong, which is expected to grow millionaires at 8% per year. "Asia's growth and wealth creation engine has de-coupled from mature economies, and there are clear indications that China, in particular, is moving up the value chain," says Stefan Hofer, emerging market economist at Julius Baer.
A consequence of all this proliferating good fortune is the higher inflation rate of prices of “luxury” related goods and services. In Shanghai, prices for high end goods rose on average by 10% last year. University education costs at elite universities in the US have jumped by an eye-popping 30%. Fine wine rose 16% in price.
In economic and financial parlance, “de-coupling” refers to a phenomenon whereby two forces that were once tightly correlated (in this case, Asian wealth and US/European wealth) no longer become so. Since the 2008 economic crisis and with the subsequent Euro crisis, the steady churning of wealth in Asian countries has decidedly had a different trajectory than in the West. Sadly, however, indicators such as the Gini coefficient are showing that the fortunes of those already well off are also de-coupling from the “have nots'”. This widening gap is one that we should all hope also de-couples (and reverses) in the future from present realities.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Home, My Gallery

Romi Lamba and a feast for the eyes

This linked SCMP article on Romi Lamba, which appeared in this morning’s Sunday Post Magazine in Hong Kong, provides a first-person account of a unique man with a unique collection of Asian art. Romnesh Lamba (known to all as Romi) is a senior executive at the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, or simply, the Stock Exchange. Unlike so many other finance personalities around Asia, he is less defined by his wealth as by his passions. Collecting Asian contemporary art, particularly from India and China. has occupied much time and energy for him and his wife for many years. Visitors to their home often liken it to a gallery as much as a personal residence where the couple have raised two daughters. Furthermore, having consistently been ahead of the curve and a thorough student of Asian art trends, the Lambas have undoubtedly done well financially as well as aesthetically with their collection. It is reassuring to witness that taste and success sometimes do indeed go hand in hand.