City Guide | Hong Kong
From connoisseur to entrepreneur: Jerry Mao on supporting the Chinese cultural landscape
Mao describes his journey with the UCCA museum as going “from investment to entrepreneurship”
To categorize Jerry Mao into boxes such as “philanthropist”, “entrepreneur” or “collector” misses the point of who he is. He operates as all of these at the same time, plus dozens of others like Michelin star restaurateur, luxury retail magnate, sports aficionado, and more.
All of these labels make up the Chinese entrepreneur known as “Jerry Mao,” who came to Hong Kong on a work assignment nearly a decade ago, where he was captivated by its towering skyscrapers, bustling neon-lit streets and markets, and unique fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. But it was a fortuitous visit to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing that would ignite a passion for art that would alter both the course of his life and the greater art landscape in China.
Mao spent a year in Beijing after leaving Hong Kong and often sojourned in Europe, where he was struck by a catalog of a celebrated Chinese artist. He later rediscovered the same artist’s paintings at the UCCA, along with remarkable pieces by emerging and mid-career Chinese artists. During these visits, where he and his daughter would attend art workshops, he also noticed that the UCCA had fewer than ten donors displayed on its walls, unlike the European institutions he had visited.
Wishing to express his support for what he considered to be the “best art museum in China,” Mao cold-called the UCCA to inquire about making a donation. This call marked the beginning of a deeper connection with the museum that proved invaluable during a turbulent period in 2017, when the museum was sold by its European founders to a group of investors, including Mao and his business partners. Mao spearheaded the museum’s transformation into the UCCA Group, where he currently serves as the co-chairperson.
Among other accolades, the UCCA is now the only contemporary art institution in China to be included in The Art Newspaper’s annual list of “the 100 most popular art museums in the world” for six consecutive years. With the opening of the UCCA Dune in Beidaihe in 2018 and the UCCA Edge in Shanghai in 2021, as well as the architectural regeneration of its flagship Beijing space, the institution now boasts three world-class exhibition spaces.
And while UCCA continues to push boundaries and foster innovation, Mao remains an ardent supporter but maintains a distance from all curatorial decisions. He describes his journey with the museum as going “from investment to entrepreneurship.” His vision for its future sounds both humble and ambitious: “It still has a long way to go.”
But art is not his only focus. Mao also led the buyout and transformation of Hong Kong’s homegrown luxury brand Shanghai Tang, recognized by the global fashion industry as China’s first luxury brand. Founded in 1994 by the Hong Kong businessman Sir David Tang, KBE, Mao believes that the fashion house has the potential to represent the Chinese aesthetics of our current era and was on the right track to prove this to the world with its return to Milan Men’s Fashion Week earlier this year.
Mao’s devotion to enriching and innovating China’s cultural heritage, and his holistic approach to integrating art, culture, design, and fashion into contemporary life, is what sets him apart from other entrepreneurs. His conviction and efforts to “create more beautiful things” may not seem as immediately lucrative to some, but they are what he considers vital for the country and the wider Chinese diaspora to shift from “Made in China” products to “Created in China” labels.
Mao emphasizes the importance of innovation and creativity in cultural and lifestyle-related industries. The seven restaurants under his ever-expanding group of holdings are all one-of-a-kind and span various cuisines, rather than being reproducible chains. Most notably, Mao worked with the Da Vittorio family to open the first Asia branch of their acclaimed Italian restaurant in Shanghai, which was awarded two Michelin stars just one year after its opening. It has also been recognized as the best Italian restaurant in the world, according to the “50 Top Italy Guide 2023.”
In response to his achievements, Mao says, in his characteristic modesty, that he simply feels that “art deserves respect, as does creativity, and aesthetics should be inclusive and diverse.”