When prepared properly, the yin-yang fish is gutted so quickly it survives long enough to roll its eyes at you from your plate. This Chinese delicacy—also known as “dead-alive fish”—is cooked with a wet towel wrapped around the head and gills, while the rest of the fish is deep-fried. The dish is banned in Taiwan, where it was invented, as well as Australia and Germany. In mainland China, it is considered a luxury, but when Eli Klein came face-to-face with one, he understood it was a test. He knew his future was about to be determined in a Shanghai alley.
Klein and his Chinese partner, Shanna Sun, were scrambling to establish their Klein Sun Gallery, and this was a crucial meeting. Klein knew he had to keep face at any cost if he hoped to convince a prominent Chinese dealer to hand over the reins and export millions in art to the West, to Klein. And so he smiled as he ate that ingeniously tortured fish...and found it was much tastier than the dog and cat he’d been served as a teenager in Hong Kong.
Klein, who now has a gallery in Manhattan and a showroom in Beijing, had neither an interest in, nor a hope of, competing with the old-world art elite, those dealers who once called Warhol “Andy” and phoned the ambulances whenever Jean-Michel Basquiat OD’d. Around 10 years ago, when Chinese art was still mostly dusty filler for antiquities auctions, Klein sensed that the mainland’s contemporary art scene could be huge—and dominated by him, because of his ability to straddle East and West. He was right and is now rich: The Klein Sun Gallery has had soaring sales for the past five years, ascending along with the booming Chinese art market.
I first met Klein and his twin brother, David, 20 years ago at a Manhattan public school that was nevertheless elite. Their family had just returned to New York after a year in Hong Kong, and the twins were so much cooler, tougher and ambitious than me and my nerdy friends. Roaming lower Manhattan like made men, brazenly smoking pot and using Cantonese for their private conversations, the twins seemed to us godlike, like something out of a Biggie rap. Eli sported dreadlocks, let his jeans sag and was convincingly tough. “I was a blunt-smoking, street-smart menace to society,” he recalls. “You couldn’t tell me nothing.”
Klein’s father had moved the family to Hong Kong to teach law. He knew that all but a very few school-age foreigners went to British institutions, but unlike most coddled offspring of expats, his boys were sent to public schools. Separately—self-reliance was that semester’s big lesson. Instantly and constantly bullied for being the only round-eye in the school cafeteria, Klein says he didn’t win every fight, but he never backed down from one.
That was another test Klein passed; his prize that time was a girlfriend with a father climbing up the ladder in a Triad organization (also called Tongs). The girl’s brother became Klein’s best friend, and Klein says the time he spent with that family cleansed him of the odor of Western condescension that the Chinese always suspect from white men and always resent. He was thus excluded from the category of “white devils.”
“To do business in China, you have to be Chinese,” Klein explains. “I use translators for formality, so it’s not language but mindset we’re talking about. What’s cutthroat in the States is standard on the mainland. Western morals are a handicap. Squeamishness, your grave. Chinese business is preyed on by a bureaucracy run by whim and operates according to an approximate understanding of time that Westerners cannot comprehend. It requires patience, ruthless acumen, personal bonds, respect and, most of all, the ability to discern when to use what. And never lose face.”
It might seem that a sure way to lose face would be to play a cold-hearted, skirt-chasing version of Klein on Bravo’s Gallery Girls, a reality show that came and mercifully went in 2012. Most art dealers at his level wouldn’t imperil their carefully manicured image by participating in such fluff, but Klein knew it would amuse the Chinese artists he represents and impress his clients from Latin America and post-Soviet states.
The critics are divided on this new Chinese art; the traditionalists insist it is a derivative fad, while progressives declare it a revolution. Sotheby’s, the esteemed auction house, is doubling down on the revolt. It knows the nouveau global clientele prefers Chinese artists to Western ones and is voting with its rubles and rupees. By some calculations, half of the world’s 10 best-selling artists are Chinese. Klein represents two of them, Li Hongbo and Liu Bolin. Recently, even old-guard collectors like casino billionaires Stephen Wynn and Stanley Ho have started spending heavily on Asian art.
The difference between Western art and the Chinese process is subtle. European culture is still enthralled by the lone genius; Chinese artists, raised in Buddhist and Communist societies, find the traditional cult of personality unnatural, while many of their clients consider it arrogant. This world favors collaboration over our lone gunmen. Perhaps that is why 78 people did their best to not move for three hours last fall in Klein’s gallery. They stood still to become parts of a Bolin work—the artist delicately colored the volunteers’ bodies to match whimsical backgrounds and photographed the result. By accurately hiding people in images, Bolin melts egos into their contexts. He’s explained this process as restoring a proper “balance.”
Western cultural priorities are the opposite: We celebrate individual glory instead of harmony with nature or even our society. Nevertheless, prominent figures like Jean Paul Gaultier, Angela Missoni and Wilbur Ross have been “camouflaged” by Bolin into currency, brick walls and other artworks. Bon Jovi commissioned a Bolin album cover.
The Chinese process isn’t typical of the art world. Klein isn’t an ordinary art dealer (“My blunt-rolling skills were impeccable”), and his buyers are not the usual suspects. Many are new collectors spending new money. Only a third are American; the rest are from places far from New York City or Paris or Berlin in both miles and attitude. They’re unimpressed with Western ideals, and although they have “I’ll take that, that and that” money, they buy art with their heads more than their hearts. Klein puts it more plainly: They don’t buy, they invest. That’s why he has developed a novel pitch to steady the hand signing a check for an oil on canvas big enough to buy an oil field. He argues that Chinese art is the perfect investment. “Let’s say you wanted to invest into an entire culture that was headed for prosperity?” he might say to a wavering client. “Like China. Over a billion people are Chinese—one out of five human beings. How would you go about putting your money on them? With many conventional avenues closed, you invest in their culture.”
The traditional method is currency speculation, but China’s central bank makes this impossible; it manipulates the yuan to an artificially low value to make that country’s manufactured exports the best deal in the world. But China’s art market is the fastest-growing one on earth—America remains the largest, but China’s closing fast. Wealth is no longer concentrated in the pale hands of Europeans; Klein does get phone calls from Monaco, but most of his customers are new to both collecting and wealth.
The Chinese boom troubles the art establishment; Forbes’s Alexandre Errera says a common criticism is that the art “is repetitive, kitsch, only about Mao and the Cultural Revolution.” True or not, it matters little to Klein. Business is business, and good business means following the money. (As an added bonus, the playful extravagance and accessibility of Chinese art looks great on an oligarch’s wall, and it turns out that Brazilian soybean barons are not fond of abstract expressionism.)
Klein has been preparing for China’s cultural emergence since that first bloody nose at 14. When Hong Kong now calls to confirm that millions of dollars in bulky sculpture have safely reached their destination, Klein knows whom to thank and how. He may scout in Beijing and have a gallery there, but he retains his Hong Kong ties. And that middle-management Triad boss he met 20 years ago, when his girlfriend brought him home to meet the parents, isn’t mid-anything anymore. Like Klein, he has gone legit and today makes sure things run smoothly for the Klein Sun Gallery.
And if Gaultier calls from Paris to ask if Bolin can paint him to look as if he’s part of Versailles, Klein can set that up, too.