In recent years, awareness for shark protection has gained global recognition and declining a bowl of shark’s fin soup or ordering an alternative to this delicacy at a Chinese banquet has become de rigueur for the eco-conscious. But over two decades ago, the Hwang family of the Parkview Group empire was already making a brave stand for this cause.
As Vicky Hwang, managing director for Parkview Group in Singapore recalls, it began in the 1990s when her elder brother Leo began scuba diving as a teenager and learnt about the important role that sharks play in the marine ecosystem. He stopped eating shark’s fin soup at family dinners, where his relatives, including his grandfather, the late CS Hwang, founder of Chyau Fwu Group — which incorporated the Parkview Group — quickly noticed his statement-making act. Confusion soon gave way to understanding and the family, which owns a series of high-end residential, hotel and office developments globally, began to take action by phasing out the dish at their restaurants.
Hwang herself was personally converted during her first open-water dive in Palau and now, the family is full of firm advocates of shark protection and its members are raising public awareness for the cause. “My family banned it in all our restaurants. I don’t eat it ever and I decline when it is served to me at banquets,” says Hwang.
This month, the Parkview Group is giving this crusade an artistic spin, with the launch of On Sharks and Humanity, the inaugural exhibition to be held at the new Parkview Museum. Located on the third floor of Parkview Square on North Bridge Road in Bugis, this private contemporary art gallery features 14,000sq-ft of column-free space and 7-m high ceilings, a rarity in space-starved Singapore. The exhibition, which comprises about 50 artworks, including large-scale installations and sculptures by artists from Singapore, China, Hong Kong and the US, aims to showcase the critical importance of shark conservation.
“I understand that eating shark’s fin is tradition, but it actually doesn’t taste like anything and it is horrifying that sharks could become extinct in our lifetime. Art has a visceral effect on people and when you try to effect change, it is a truly effective way of bringing about awareness,” she explains.
The Parkview Museum is one of two multimillion-dollar projects to revitalise the building, which Hwang is overseeing. The other is the refurbishment of the building’s distinctive Divine Bar — known for its “wine fairies” who were hoisted up a 12-m wine tower on a pulley to retrieve bottles for customers — to a new dining concept called Atlas Bar, inspired by grand European lobby bars from the art deco era in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Parkview Square is a special project for our family because it was the last one my grandfather did,” says Hwang, who relocated to Singapore from France in 2013 to run the project. Petite and with a ready smile, Hwang shows up for this interview well-prepped with facts and anecdotes about her lifelong involvement with the family business.
“I was asked to come to Singapore because the building is 14-years-old now and certain things have to be changed. So we wanted someone in the family to look after the renovations. It was already a beautiful space but it just wasn’t given the attention it needed because no one from the family was here. When I looked at changing things, I looked at it as if it’s a historical restoration rather than a renovation,” she says.
Key tenants at Parkview Square include Embassies for countries such as Austria, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Mongolia, as well as multinational firms Toyota Tsusho and BDO. Other properties in the Parkview Group’s portfolio include Hong Kong Parkview, Parkview Green in Beijing, Parkview Eclat and the upcoming Parkview Deco in Shanghai.
Raised in Hong Kong, Hwang moved to the US at 18 to pursue her tertiary education where she completed a Master of Arts in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Services from Georgetown University. The stylish globetrotter has also lived in London, where as the leasing director of the Battersea Power Station — a property her father, Victor, bought in 1993 — she was instrumental in the sale of the iconic building in 2006.
Prior to her relocation to Singapore, she was president of Ylang Investissements Hoteliers in France, where she worked on reconstructing the 93-acre property Château de Coligny into a luxury destination together with her Belgian husband, Vincent Pieron.
Following the European economic downturn, the project was put on hold and the family, together with their young daughter, moved to the little red dot. Hwang, who now has two girls aged five and two, says she enjoys the close proximity between Singapore and Hong Kong, where many Hwang family members reside, as well as the abundance of Asian food.
She reveals she holds fond memories of Singapore and Parkview Square from her youth. “I remember coming in and seeing the model of the building and listening to my grandfather speak about it. I also visited the site before it was open to the public and before Divine Bar had opened, I remember going up the wine tower on the hoist,” she says with a laugh.
But while the wine fairy hoist was a crowd-pleaser when Divine Bar first launched, Hwang acknowledges it can come off as “a bit gimmicky” today. Inspired by the art deco design of the building and the ornate ceiling of the lobby, the decision was made to revamp the concept of the wine bar to that of a “grand European lobby bar”, named Atlas Bar.
The wine tower has been repurposed into a gin tower, which will hold over 800 bottles of gins from around the world. Instead of the hoist, there is now a spiral staircase and ladders for bartenders to reach the bottles.
“There will be some very special gins, including vintages from the 1910s and 1920s, so you can even order a vintage martini,” she says. Another hallmark will be the Bar’s over 250 champagne labels, including some very special picks hailing from the Hwang family’s personal wine collections. Expect to see rare fine champagnes, such as the Heidsieck 1907, which was the bubbly that guests drank on the Titanic.
Atlas Bar will also offer historically inspired all-day dining with the kitchen helmed by Daniele Sperindio, who was previously the group head chef of the Tippling Club Group.
The launch of the bar and museum this month have been timed to coincide with that of Parkview Square’s new neighbours, including Duo, a mixed-use development by M+S. Hwang welcomes the addition of these new properties, noting that Parkview Square has been the lone skyscraper in the Beach Road and Bugis neighbourhood for the past 14 years.
“My grandfather was a visionary. When I spoke to the original architects of the building, they told me what he said to them: ‘Singapore is very small and this area is just a stone’s throw from the central business district. Eventually, this area is going to come up’,” she recalls. “Now you really see that happening around us.”
It is this philosophy that the family have taken to heart in all their property developments around the world. “We don’t buy prime sites. Instead, we always buy a little bit off centre but we spend the money in the quality of the building to create destinations,” she says. For example, the Parkview Eclat condominium on Grange Road was the first residential property to have swimming pools on the balcony while the Hong Kong Parkview kick-started the trend for large common areas and facilities when it was built over 20 years ago, she says.
“We do this because we believe in providing services and quality. It is about giving our tenants that extra reason to be with us,” says Hwang.
Now that the Parkview Square restoration has finally come to fruition, Hwang says she will be on the lookout for new developments to take on in the region, although she has no targets yet. “Because we take a long-term view and very seldom buy to build and sell, I don’t have any specific targets. It is about what presents itself and what we find.”
One thing is certain, Hwang displays a steely resolve to keep the family torch burning. “You feel an enormous sense of pride, but also an enormous sense that you need to get it right. It is not an option to not give it your best,” she says. “Everything I do, I do it from the heart and I always have my family at the back of my mind.”
This is a passion she has cultivated from her childhood, she says, recalling how her siblings and cousins used to sit in on business meetings with their parents and uncles. Her brother is today based in Beijing for Parkview Green and some of her cousins are also involved in various aspects of the business.
“I feel like joining the company was inevitable as it was something that was always around us. When it is a family business, it just permeates everything. Growing up, we would go on holidays with my grandfather and we would always stay in this hotel or that hotel as research,” she says. “Everything was a learning opportunity, we changed hotels four times in a trip and in every hotel, everyone was in a different category of room. I remember sitting at restaurants and picking up plates to look at the bottom to see where they were from.”
While her daughters are still too young to decide their life’s direction, she, too, has begun to expose them to her work. “I’ve recently started bringing them to the office, after my father visited but did not have time to go home to see my kids. I want them to see Atlas Bar and other projects so they’ll have these memories like I do of going to sites and seeing the construction. I think it’s nice to have these layers,” she says.
She knows full well why this matters. She says: “When I first came back to Parkview Square, I could feel my grandfather’s blood coursing through my veins. I knew exactly what he wanted and that’s why I’m the best person to do this job.”