Francis Wong Hooe Wai is a man of many interests, talents and titles. Writer, architect, photographer, musician, doyen of art, performer of Cantonese opera – he is all these. The multiple pursuits of CapitaLand’s Chief of Art Management have a common aim, though – to experience and capture beauty in the world.
“Seizing the moment is very important,” he explains. “The past is over. The future is uncertain. That is why the present is so important.”
So, Mr Wong embraces a life of “rich and fulfilling experiences”.
This approach of seizing the day to learn and experience all that life has to offer sums up how Mr Wong approaches all things.
Capturing Beauty in the World
An avid photographer since his university days, one of the ways Mr Wong seizes the moment is by capturing it in pictures as he travels.
“Photography is exciting because it can capture the moment. It’s all about chance. You can see things from a different perspective with the inter-play of movement and light,” he enthuses.
“Good photography, like good art, can be mesmerizing. It touches the heart and speaks to the soul.”
Among his most memorable pictures are of places that he had “always wanted to go and then finally got a chance to visit” including The Alhambra, a Moorish palace and fortress complex in Spain; Ueon Park during the Sakura season in Japan; Forbidden City, China; and the Grand Canyon, USA.
He reveals that all his pictures are shot with only a trusty compact camera. But Mr Wong is no novice. In his youth, he took night classes in commercial art where there was a photography module. His photographs were often beautifully composed with an almost art-like quality to them.
“I am an artist taking pictures,” he laughs. “I was in the Science stream but I wanted to pursue art. So, even though we were not rich, my father allowed me to take up art classes.” He also did art for both his O-level and A-level exams, which is not common among Science stream students.
That desire to combine the arts and science was what led Mr Wong to read architecture in Cambridge University, pursue his Masters in Conservation Studies at York University, both under government scholarships and to carve out a career in architecture for over 30 years, first in the civil service and later CapitaLand in 2006.
Capturing Beauty through Art and Architecture
Today, he puts his architect’s eye and his artist’s inclination to good use. He heads the Art Management Unit which champions the integration of art into CapitaLand's developments, sets up systems and establishes standards for art management. He works very closely with colleagues across CapitaLand Group who are always ready to do their best whether in art acquisition, display, maintenance or promotion. He cherishes such a working relationship.
“Art is an integral part of architecture,” he says, citing examples from Roman buildings,Gothic structures to the works of Modern masters.
“Adding art to a building provides a focal point and helps to give the place an identity.”
CapitaLand’s art tend to tie in with the functions of the buildings where they are displayed, for example pop art for the malls and more contemplative pieces for the offices.
“Our art also encourages you to interact with them,” he says.
The Jelly Babies family by Mauro Perucchetti at Plaza Singapura, and the Westgate Panda Family by Julien Marinetti, for example, are not fenced up so that the public can get close to and enjoy art.
As part of his belief in “taking the good in life and giving it back to serve people”, Mr Wong also conducts regular art appreciation lunch time talks, evening art courses and art jamming sessions, and the occasional weekend art tours for CapitaLand staff .
Capturing Beauty in Life
Apart from being a great champion for art appreciation, Mr Wong is also a published writer with several books in Chinese about architecture, the arts and his musing about life to his name. In addition, he pens monthly articles about art in CapitaLand for this e-magazine and has a fortnightly column in the local Chinese newspapers.
Writing runs in his family. Both his late father and his mother are published writers as well.
“I sent an article to the Chinese newspapers when I was eight and it got published,” he says. That experience, coupled with his father's guidance and encouragement inspired him to continue writing.
Growing up in Chinatown, the Catholic High School boy has vivid memories of home that faced the billboards of the now defunct Majestic theatre and nights struggling to study amidst the loud music from record stores around.
Perhaps because he was literally immersed in a wide mix of music since young, music, western classical music in particular, is his other passion. He started learning the classical guitar after hearing a hauntingly beautiful guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra) by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. He loved it so much that he wanted to play it himself. It took him several years and much hard work to be able to play the difficult piece. Along the way, he fell in love with the instrument that he learnt many other good pieces. In his younger days, Mr Wong also learnt Cantonese opera after work and occasionally performed the Xiao Sheng (scholar) role.
True to his motto of “seizing the moment”, Mr Wong keeps as busy a schedule outside of the office as he does inside. His more recent pursuits include a year-long part-time print-making course from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts as well as Spanish lessons for when he travels to South America. He balances these with activities that allow him to give back to the community, for example serving a School Management Committee and teaching creative writing to junior college and secondary school students under the Ministry of Education's Author-in-Residence Programme.
For exercise, he cycles, swims and enjoys taking long walks with Mrs Wong, who is an architect-turned-pre-school educator.
“But I can’t play tennis. My coach says I have no ball sense,” he confides with a smile.
What Mr Wong certainly has is a sense of beauty and an appreciation of the rich experiences life has to offer. His philosophy of appreciating all that life has to give and returning it in a way that serves others has spurred him to many varied and interesting pursuits that have not only captured the beauty around but have also inspired others to keep an eye out for beauty.