Singaporean billionaire plans to build Asian art museum in Vancouver

Chuck Chiang
Vancouver Sun, April 19, 2017 | Last Updated: April 19, 2017 4:20 PM PDT

One of Southeast Asia’s richest men, and a part-time Vancouver resident, wants to build a “world-class” museum dedicated to Asian and Buddhist art in the city.

Oei Hong Leong, who is ranked by Forbes as the 19th richest man in Singapore with a personal net worth of $1.2 billion, usually keeps a low profile in Vancouver. But he said in a rare interview Wednesday that he wants to go public with the museum proposal because he believes it could be a significant cultural addition to Vancouver and B.C.

“I love Vancouver,” said Oei, who is currently in Singapore but will return to B.C. in June. “I want to do my part to contribute. The thing about Buddhism is that I don’t view it so much as a religion as it is a personal philosophy, a way by which to live life. It’s about peace and harmony, and it’s a perfect fit to what we have in Vancouver.”

Oei started collecting Buddhist artifacts 40 years ago and now has 50,000 pieces in his personal collection, some of which are housed in a private museum in Singapore. The billionaire said he is not sure if the museum he imagines for Vancouver would house some of his personal collection or pieces from other sources.

He would like to start building in 2018, with completion three years later. No cost figure has been announced.

“It’s too early to discuss where and what, because a lot of it still depends on discussions with municipal officials,” Oei said, noting he will meet with City of Vancouver planners in June. “But I’d like to have the opportunity to do something for the community.”

The possibility of an Asian art museum in Vancouver has been discussed by several groups in recent years. In addition to Centre A (the Vancouver International Centre of Contemporary Asian Art), proponents such as West Vancouver philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho and China’s Poly Culture Group have put forward ideas for a museum dedicated to Chinese art.

Oei said that while Metro Vancouver’s large Chinese population is a factor for him wanting to build a museum here, the facility would benefit people across cultural and religious lines. Oei, whose wife and four daughters are Catholic, added that he believes Vancouverites will support his idea for a new museum.

“I feel that it’s time to talk, to engage the public about how we think we could contribute to Vancouver and B.C. society,” he said. “I’ve found that, if you don’t engage, people don’t understand.

“This is a non-commercial endeavour. If we get to build, we’re not looking to measure the museum’s success by ticket sales or revenue. We are approaching it from the perspective of a public service — the most important thing is that people enjoy it.”

Oei’s most notable holding in Vancouver is the Plaza of Nations, which has been owned by his Canadian Metropolitan Properties Corp. since a deal with Concord Pacific (then owned by Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing) in 1989. He is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over future development on the site (again with Concord Pacific, whose majority stakeholder is now the Hui family).

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