Interview: Cissy Pao-Watari
Through her time with the Hong Kong ballet and the Arts Centre, Cissy Pao-Watari has worked her creative magic
Following in the footsteps of Susan Sontag, Yoko Ono and Jacob Rothschild is Hong Kong’s Cissy Pao-Watari. Last month she joined the ranks of the world’s creative elite when she was awarded the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award.
Every year, the luxury goods company recognises 12 of the world’s most outstanding private arts patrons. Scores of creative luminaries have been linked to the award since its 1992 inception. Karl Lagerfeld and Yip Wing-sie have both served as judges, and past winners include Run Run Shaw, Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan.
Pao-Watari is not only an artist herself, but has been the driving force behind two of Hong Kong’s most important arts bodies for more than a decade. “It’s such an honour; I’m thrilled!” says Pao-Watari, who received a Montblanc Limited Edition Patron of Art pen as well as €15,000 to donate to her arts programme of choice.
She served as chairman of the Hong Kong Ballet for 10 years, and witnessed the company’s rise from a small local outfit to a star on the Asian and international circuits. Pao-Watari was also chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Centre from 2006 until recently, when she became its honorary president.
For Pao-Watari, her hard work with these arts bodies has brought her much personal happiness. “This has given me a lot. Running the ballet was like running a small company – something which I had no exposure to before.” There is satisfaction, too, in seeing the transformation as an organisation grows. “I’m so happy when I see a great exhibition, and when I see the faces of people who are enjoying a show.”
Many artists speak of their work as their life’s great passion, but for Pao-Watari that passion came later in life, after she’d hung up her paintbrush. Looking back on her young artist self, she feels she wasn’t extreme enough to be truly great. “When you’re too balanced, you don’t have that cutting edge.”
After graduating from Washington University in St Louis, she moved to New York and set up with a studio. It was the late 1970s, the heady days of Studio 54, and she enjoyed the freedom of living far from home. “I grew up in an ivory tower, and then went to art school and locked myself in the studio. But I needed a passion. I felt I was missing something – so I thought I’d try something different.”
That something different came in 1992, when she returned to Hong Kong following the death of her father and gave up painting. “I was hungry to learn about business,” she says. “I’d be lying in bed with my husband late at night. He’d be trying to unwind, and I’d be reading a financial report and asking him, ‘What the hell is a warrant?’”
Pao-Watari has been uniquely positioned to support the arts, as she brings with her not only her sensitivity as an artist, but great business savvy. “Business is in my blood,” says the daughter of late shipping magnate YK Pao.
There are numerous projects in the pipeline for the Arts Centre, but the one closest to her heart is the drive for more public art. The Arts Centre has worked alongside the government to introduce art into government buildings in Shau Kei Wan, and there are plans afoot for more such projects.
“Public art shows the level of sophistication of a city,” she says. “I think it’s very important for Hong Kong as a world-class city to have art in public spaces, to show that we are not only a city thriving financially but also culturally.”
Pao-Watari is a true Hong Konger, a do-er, someone who likes to make things happen. So the only question that genuinely seems to stump her is: “What do you do to relax?”
“Do I have to answer that?” she asks. Clearly, she’s not one for sitting about idling. But her real answer lies in where she sees the great value in public art. “People are always rushing, but if they stop and look at artwork, it makes them think. It’s a mind thing. A spiritual thing.”