Portrait of Edmund Cheng with Dan Graham’s Elliptical Pavlilion (2017). Photo by Genevieve Chua for ArtAsiaPacific.
Portrait of Edmund Cheng with Dan Graham’s Elliptical Pavlilion (2017). Photo by Genevieve Chua for ArtAsiaPacific.

Forming Public Spaces

Edmund Cheng

Also available in:  Chinese

Edmund Cheng is one of the main, quiet forces behind the growth of Singapore’s contemporary art scene. Since the early 1990s, the Hong Kong-born real-estate developer has lobbied for art to be placed in publicly accessible locations. Cheng’s idea came to him well before it did to counterparts in Asia, who now adopt art as a lifestyle trend to lure tenants and customers into their properties and malls. 

Cheng, a spritely 67, sports minimalist tailored suits and modernist spectacles. His appearance is more in line with his background as a trained architect, rather than as deputy chairman of Wing Tai Holdings and chairman of Mapletree—two international retail and real-estate development companies with a heavy presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Edmund’s father, Cheng Yik Hung, founded the family-held company Wing Tai in Hong Kong in 1955, and initially manufactured blue jeans. Like many Cantonese entrepreneurs in postwar Hong Kong, the senior Cheng built a thriving business, producing clothing for major brands such as the Gap and Macy’s. In 1963, contemplating Hong Kong’s uncertain future, Yik Hung decided to diversify the business and move the company to Singapore. 

During this time Edmund—one of seven sons—embarked on his education in the United States, first studying civil engineering in Chicago at Northwestern University, and subsequently pursuing his passion for architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1980. Nearly four decades later, at his Mapletree office in Singapore, he explained thoughtfully, “Although architecture serves a function, unlike art, I look at buildings like sculptures. You see something different depending on your perspective of where you are standing. Architecture comes from the same source as art: creativity.” 

Looking at buildings in this way, it’s easy to understand that Cheng’s favorite architect (and artist) is Paul Rudolph (1918–1997), known for introducing the Bauhaus-inspired, raw concrete forms of brutalism to cities in the US. As Rudolph’s style began to fall out of fashion after the 1970s, Cheng and many other Southeast Asian clients began to commission buildings by the American architect—most notably Hong Kong’s Lippo Centre, the Colonnade in Singapore and the Wisma Dharmala Tower in Jakarta. These buildings helped create a new Asian identity, representing progress and marking a break with the colonial legacy. Like an architecture historian, Cheng’s eyes lit up when talking about Rudolph’s work. “To me, his buildings are large, living sculptures.” Cheng explained how he began collecting Rudolph’s architectural models as a young man after his university studies, and eventually became close friends with the architect. He later asked him to design his Singapore home in the 1990s.    

When Cheng returned to Singapore from the US in the early 1980s, he was tasked with expanding his father’s company into retail and real estate, and became a major player with developments across East and Southeast Asia. In 1991, Cheng was appointed president of the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore. During his tenure he lobbied for other developers to set aside a percentage of their budget to commission public art projects on their properties, but this failed to gain traction. 

During the 1990s, Cheng’s reputation for supporting the arts spread. He enjoyed working on cultural policy and was known for listening to others’ ideas. He subsequently began to receive invitations to chair arts-related boards, including Sculpture Square, the Old Parliament House and Esplanade. However, his most notable appointment was as chairman of Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), where he served from 2005 to 2013. Under Cheng’s watch, NAC dramatically increased grants to artists and arts groups, and notable initiatives such as the Singapore Biennale and Gillman Barracks—a dedicated contemporary art district—came into being. When looking back on his time there, Cheng reflected, “The NAC taught me about the whole range of arts.” It also further sparked his interest in public art by living artists. 

Prior to his involvement at the NAC, in 2003 Cheng was appointed chairman of Mapletree Investments, which is backed by Temasek, an investment company owned by the Singapore Ministry of Finance. One of its first major projects was VivoCity, Singapore’s largest destination mall. Together with Mapletree Group CEO Hiew Yoon Khong, Cheng realized his vision to incorporate public art with real-estate development. The mall was designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, and Cheng tapped Fumio Nanjo (the Singapore Biennale’s first artistic director and Mori Art Museum’s current director) to curate VivoCity’s seven major installation works. Among the most popular are Choi Jeong Hwa’s massive Flower Tree (2003), abouquet shaped into a six-meter-tall tree, and Inges Idee’s 13-meter-high Snowman (2006)hovering over the mall and the surrounding palm trees. 

Cheng’s aim in integrating art in the public sphere did not end with VivoCity. Mapletree’s flagship certified-green and energy-efficient buildings, Mapletree Business City I (2010) and II (2016), occupy 2.8 hectares on the outskirts of Singapore’s Alexandra neighborhood. For MBC I, Cheng enlisted Tay Swee Lin, former curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the National Museum of Singapore (whom he also invited to help select artworks for Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 when Cheng was the director of the Singapore Airport Terminal Services in 2003), to organize the first series of eight public-art projects—including Kim Jongku’s Rain Tree (2010), a stainless-steel tree that spouts water during certain periods of the day, and a sound-sculpture by Singaporean collective Farm called The Conch (2010), which sprawls across the property’s open plaza with its plant-like arms bearing wind funnels that invite visitors to listen to nature sounds. 

To oversee public art for MBC II, Cheng invited Ute Meta Bauer, the director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA). Known for theory-oriented exhibitions, Meta Bauer selected more conceptual, interdisciplinary works. For instance, nestled among the building’s garden is conceptual artist Dan Graham’s Elliptical Pavilion (2017), one in an iconic series that lies somewhere between sculpture and architecture and comes to life as people walk through the open-roofed, semi-reflective, glass-and-steel structure. Another work subtly integrated within the property is Tomás Saraceno’s Stillness in Motion – 3 Airborne Self-Assemblies (2017), an abstracted spiderweb with reflective panels suspended above one of the escalators, suggesting a “response to the growing inhabitability of the earth.” Last year Mapletree launched an ambitious education program with NTU CCA, which is open to the public but is mainly appreciated by staff of tenants, including giants such as Google, Samsung, Unilever and HSBC
to name a few.

In April 2018, SAM invited Cheng to be chairman of the board, an honor he accepted readily. While the museum is undergoing a major renovation, other projects are in the works. “We will bring art to neighborhoods far from the city center,” Cheng said with enthusiasm. Aside from implementing Mapletree’s corporate mission to be socially responsible, Cheng has personal reasons for making art public. “For me, art is part of daily life. If art can help us learn, move us emotionally or even tap distant memories, it serves a purpose.” If more real-estate developers were as impassioned about art as Cheng, the world might be a very different place.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 85 a year or USD 160 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the March/April 2019 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 15. 

CHRISTIE"S SAM Massimo de Carlo ACAW