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Chen Shen had a very big problem. For weeks in 2011, he’d wandered the labyrinthine storage rooms within China’s fabled Forbidden City, trying to select from their 1.8 million historic artifacts the 250 that he hoped to put on display in Canada. All were once possessions of the 24 Chinese emperors who, for 500 years, occupied the vast 9,000-room palace complex that lies at the heart of Beijing. Many of the objects had never been seen publicly before, and certainly had never left China. Even Shen, a renowned Chinese-Canadian scholar, was overwhelmed with the possibilities. There were bizarre fingernail guards for some of the 20,000 courtesans who, over the centuries, serviced the emperors. There were jugs for storing imperial pet crickets, and paintings of some of the Forbidden City’s 70,000 eunuchs. There was the ornate imperial throne. There was a tiny 16th-century porcelain cup decorated with chickens, one of only 17 in existence. (Its mate sold for over $36 million this past spring.) There were even sets of silk apparel from the palace’s official Department of Dogs. “How human!” Shen thought. “Everyone loves dog clothes.”
But what precisely was the story that Shen would tell about the Forbidden City? Which pieces would best frame it? And more practically: how was he going to move a priceless collection halfway around the world? Who was going to assist the Royal Ontario Museum-where he is curator and leading sinologist-in funding such a multimillion-dollar exhibition? To the last question, he suspected he had a clue.
Robert Ho, 82, is not an ordinary billionaire. His grandfather, Sir Robert Ho Tung Bosman, a distinguished-looking man of Dutch-Chinese parentage, was the richest person in Hong Kong a century ago. Ho’s father was a general in the Kuomintang army. And Ho himself was, until his 1989 immigration to Canada, a noted Hong Kong journalist and newspaper publisher. But it was the influence of his Chinese grandmother Clara, a devout and philanthropic Buddhist, that helped shape the man he would become. Seated in his Neohaus Investment office in Ambleside, Ho explains how, as a child, he’d tag along as Clara visited the Hong Kong girls’ schools, hospitals, and temples she funded. He didn’t yet know the family motto, Before You Can Receive, You Must First Learn to Give. “A lot of people,” he says today, “have a huge amount of money and no peace of mind. They’re constantly with lawyers. But at the very end-at your last breath-you aren’t going to be taking anything with you. The reason you’re here on Earth is to do good.”
In the spring of 2013, when Ho first saw photos of the objects Shen had on his Forbidden City wish list, and when he learned the ROM was hoping to mount a major 2014 exhibition of this collection, he was immediately interested. After all, through his Hong Kong-based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, he had been a major sponsor of the ROM’s popular The Warrior Emperor and the Terracotta Army show in 2010. That exhibition-viewed by more than 350,000 people-focused only on a moment in time: the long-buried clay soldiers of Emperor Qin, who founded China and who died in 210 BC. The Forbidden City show would span almost 500 years of China’s imperial civilization-from AD 1421 to 1912, when the throne’s last occupant, Emperor Pu Yi, fell to revolution.
In Ho’s childhood explorations of Hong Kong temples, it wasn’t the Buddhist rituals that had impressed him but the interior artwork. And 40 years later, on his first visit to Beijing’s Forbidden City, he was again struck by the artistry and meticulous craftsmanship-hinting at the extraordinary world of the imperial inhabitants-that filled the palace’s 1,000 buildings. He told himself: “This is spectacular! I’d like to tell the story of the Forbidden City to the world.” As a result (and with Clara in mind), he set as his lifetime goal these twin objectives: to promote Chinese art and culture globally, and to educate people about the philosophy of Buddhism.
So when Janet Carding, director and CEO of the ROM, approached Ho’s foundation about the possibility of supporting the Forbidden City exhibition, approval seemed likely. And with the ROM’s funding application in the works, Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, contacted Carding, asking whether the VAG might also host the show. Carding was delighted with the request. Given Ho’s personal goals-not to mention his West Vancouver residency-the VAG could double Canadian exposure to this exhibition. But where would the additional million dollars come from to finance the Vancouver show?
In the spring of 2013, Daina Augaitis, chief curator at the VAG, found herself looking at images of what Shen was proposing to bring to Canada. There was a 19th-century emperor’s silk and copper-plate ceremonial armour. And a blue-and-white porcelain vase, a 60th birthday gift to Emperor Kangxi, decorated with 10,000 characters, each repeating-in 975 slight variations-the single word “longevity.” Gold and silver, textiles and calligraphy, scientific instruments and toys, symbols and talismans, and watercolour glimpses of the cloistered life of myriad servants through the centuries. Her favourite was a gourd-shaped Qing dynasty vase covered with tiny red, enamelled bats.
Augaitis understood immediately the show was-to use her words-“very, very important.” The material Shen had chosen was seldom seen and priceless. The collection told the story of China’s mythologies and magic, rulers and servants, authorities and artists. She and Bartels agreed the VAG needed to seize the opportunity. It would be one of the gallery’s biggest and most prestigious exhibits. And with Ho’s support it would become a testament to his long-held wish to educate the West about China’s fundamental place in human history.
“There are a lot of things that the West should learn about China,” says Ho of the Forbidden City show (which runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 11): “China’s not just about manufactured stuff and trade. It’s Chinese ideas. Chinese art. Chinese philosophy. The West looks to Europe. The focus has always been there. But Vancouver! Vancouver shouldn’t be looking that way. It should be looking to Asia.” He jerks his thumb emphatically toward the Pacific.
Ho is not nearly finished. Together with Vancouver art patron Ron Stern (onetime publisher of this magazine), Asia Pacific Foundation president Paul Woo, and retired Liberal senator Jack Austin, Ho has established China Global: The Vancouver Society for the Promotion of Chinese Arts and Culture. It is Ho’s China Global that, in fact, helped organize private financing for the Forbidden City show. Its second goal-there are others-is to build in Vancouver a $100 million museum dedicated to the appreciation of Chinese culture, traditional and modern. It would serve, Ho believes, as a bridge between China and Vancouver-art exhibitions and cultural shows crossing the Pacific in both directions. China Global is now raising money and investigating sites for the museum’s location.
Says Ho: “Vancouver’s the shortest distance between North America and Asia. It has a huge Chinese population. It can play perfectly the role of middleman between China and North America. If you’re going to deal with the Chinese, you have to understand their culture and their language. You have to know them.”