Full of Eastern promise: The British Museum's gallery of Oriental antiquities re-opens next month after a pounds 2m face-lift. Dalya Alberge got a sneak preview and met the man who made it all possible

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The Independent Culture
JOSEPH HOTUNG, a Hong Kong businessman and collector of Chinese antiquities, used to take a torch with him when he visited the British Museum's Oriental antiquities department. Natural light could scarcely seep through metal window grilles and the electric bulbs were barely better than candles. 'By 4pm, the light was hopeless,' says Mr Hotung. Last week he was at the museum, but without his torch. He no longer needs it, thanks to his generous donation of pounds 2m to renovate the entire gallery.

The grilles that once kept out the sunlight have come off: now it floods in and bounces off the new gold leaf that lines the walls. Tiny spotlights pinpoint subtle carvings of Neolithic jade and bathe a gilded bronze Buddha in radiant light. The gallery, which traces the history of China, the Indian subcontinent and South and South-east Asia from prehistoric times to the present day, opens to the public on 11 November - two days after the Queen has seen it.

What does Mr Hotung expect in return? Immortality? Publicity for his business as a property developer? Mr Hotung was warned that speculation would be rife if he did not face the press. Though he has always refused interviews in the past, this time he decided to talk. In fact, this is his first interview.

A softly spoken, distinguished-looking man, Mr Hotung says that he never planned the donation. As a regular visitor to the museum's Oriental section since the 1970s (making time to visit whenever in London), he befriended curators and was deeply impressed by their scholarship. But he realised that lack of money was preventing the display from doing justice to the museum's superlative collection - 'the best stuff outside China,' he says. One day, having 'chased the winter sun' once too often round the gallery, he asked Jessica Rawson, the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities, whether she would like him to pay for rewiring the gallery and improving the lighting. She was so taken aback that she blurted out, 'How about renovating the rest of the gallery?' Mr Hotung says he in turn was taken aback by her response.

Although Mr Hotung - who was born in 1931 in Shanghai and studied at universities in America and Britain, and whose grandfather was knighted for philanthropy - has supported education-related projects in Hong Kong and America, he had not funded anything on this scale. Still, he says, there was no ulterior motive: his name is not even prominently emblazoned across the gallery. He was in London last week, not so much to oversee the final touches to the gallery, but just to hang around while it was 'happening'. Most of the exhibits were in place; only the captions were missing.

Mr Hotung can be proud. It is a stunning gallery, the longest and largest single gallery space in Britain, if not the world. Its sweeping 110m (360ft) affords a spectacular view from one end to the other. It is so bright it is hard to imagine how a room lined on both sides with windows could ever have been dim. Gold-leaf tiles have replaced walls of drab grey paint. On the ceiling, delicate beading has been picked out in different shades of gold. One aim was to recreate the look of the original gold-embossed Chinese wallpaper that George V would have recognised when opening the gallery in 1914. Rawson apologised for the overcast weather: 'It's so different in bright sunlight. Like an Eastern palace. Completely heavenly.' Even with dreary skies, you can see what she means.

Many of the original wood-framed Edwardian display cases have been renovated. But they no longer box off the gallery space; their panels have been removed, so you can now see the entire length of the gallery through them. Although the floor has been laid with lino, it looks like natural beechwood: gone are the shabby, mismatched cork-tiles.

The gallery space is divided more or less evenly between Chinese and Indian collections - the museum boasts the finest religious sculptures outside the subcontinent. As Rawson explains, the two halves reflect the dramatic contrasts between the visual worlds and values of societies in Asia. Of the Chinese section, she says that it reflects how 'no other people has built such an ordered, coherent society . . . and maintained it over such a length of time. Also, few peoples, if indeed any before modern times, have matched the extraordinary visual and technical virtuosity'.

The Chinese may not have viewed these practical objects as 'art', but the artistry is magnificent. For example, a bronze container (Shang dynasty, c. 1700- 1050 BC) framed by two delicately-decorated rams, or a frog-shaped vessel (made 2,000 years later), in which the creature pouts its lower lip to form a pourer.

It is Mr Hotung's evident excitement about the museum's antiquities that distinguishes his patronage from some others'. He has a passion for the subject. As a collector, he has specialised in archaic jade, possessing some 250 pieces, many of which would have been ritual implements. It all began with a pair of Ch'ing (644-1912 AD) white bowls, an impulse buy when he had an hour to kill before catching a plane in San Francisco. 'I brought them home,' he recalls, 'and found myself getting more and more interested, and then turning to earlier pieces. But I'm not as obsessional as some of my friends. One of them goes 'shopping' three times a day in search of a bargain. I buy in spurts.'

Mr Hotung's own collection of jades will be exhibited at the British Museum next year. The pieces are already at the museum, but require cataloguing and research. He lends extensively: 'I believe in education,' he explains, 'and art is international.' Even without the jades, however, his Hong Kong home is not bare. As well as his collections of Impressionist and Dutch Old Master paintings, Mr Hotung has been turning his attention to collecting bronzes from the Spring and Autumn period (8th-5th century BC).

If the curators at the British Museum were to allow him to take something home to Hong Kong as a thank-you gift, what would he choose? He says it would be the Sri Lankan 10th-century AD Bodhisattva Tara, a deity of compassion - even though she's not Chinese. 'She's serene and elegant, both goddess and human,' he says. He has good taste. But he is unlikely to get her. As Rawson says, she's 'one of the most extraordinary pieces in the whole gallery'.

The Joseph E Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities opens on 11 Nov. The 'Amaravati sculpture', a series of more than 100 carvings from the Great Stupa monument at Amaravati - among the greatest achievements of ancient Indian art - will also be on view as part of the Oriental section from 11 Nov in a new gallery funded by 'Asahi Shimbun', the Japanese newspaper. British Museum, Great Russell St, London WC1 (071-636 1555).

(Photograph omitted)

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