Me & My Money

From art investor to technopreneur

S'pore PR came up with idea for dining-linked social app during solo trips abroad for art shows

Travelling for work not only brought art dealer Rachel Yang around the world but eventually a business idea too.

The civil engineering graduate, who came here on a scholarship at 14 from Harbin in China, discovered the art world in 2010 while working in event management.

Feeling a connection with art pieces and after some research, she bought her first painting in 2010 with some money from her parents.

Ms Yang, 33, says: "It was an untitled watercolour work by Walasse Ting (a China-born American painter), much cheaper than his oil-on-canvas pieces that can go up to US$100,000 (S$136,600)." She bought it for US$7,000 and sold it for US$19,800 in 2014.

"Over the years, I got to know a lot of collectors in the art scene. I gradually started sourcing for pieces for private investors and became a dealer," said the Singapore permanent resident, adding that one of her favourite artworks is by 20th-century Chinese master Chu Teh-Chun.

"He integrated Chinese painting techniques with Western abstract styles, and I like his style very much. I bought a piece in November 2011 for US$36,000 and sold it for about US$78,000 in June 2012."

Being a private art dealer for her own clients requires a good network. Ms Yang would travel across Europe and to Hong Kong for fine art shows and major events such as Art Basel, but is not active these days.

"After a lot of solo trips, I was sick of ordering hotel room service. I did try Michelin restaurants but didn't enjoy the meals as I was alone.

"It occurred to me I wouldn't mind meeting fellow solo travellers and having a meal together, sharing ideas and turning a boring night into something fun."

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A Stocks have always failed me since I started off as a punter after I graduated in 2007.

    From investing in previously hot stocks like Yangzijiang Shipbuilding to blue chips like Sembcorp Marine and Deutsche Bank, I've lost much more than I've made. I lost about $70,000 over a few years and stopped buying stocks. I didn't do my homework and trusted relationship managers too much.

    Q And your best investment?

    A So far it was a dozen pieces of art by a few contemporary artists from China. By the time I sold them, the average return was more than my gains from an oil and gas firm in Jakarta which was acquired in 2014 with a payout three times my investment in late 2011.

Ms Yang, who is attached, found that many social apps connecting people were veered towards dating, so she decided to create her own dining-related social app called DineConnect that was released last week.

"I talked to frequent travellers who shared my sentiment, and it's about connecting people over lunches and dinners, something they do on a daily basis."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I grew up in a one-child family in north-eastern China.

Dad was an engineer for China Railway Corp and Mum, a kindergarten teacher. Life was comfortable but I was inculcated with the virtue of financial prudence from the time I was young.

I must have demonstrated to them in some way that I was a little saver since they had complete trust in me managing my pocket money.

In primary school, I was always the kid with the most pocket money and also the default person to borrow money from in class.

ART APPEAL

The idea of investing in something tangible and thought-provoking, and, at the same time, that can be hung on my walls, appealed to me.

MS RACHEL YANG, on why she is interested in investing in art pieces.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I was introduced to the international fine art scene during an event management gig in 2010. Back then, the art scene was recovering fast from the impact of the Asian financial crisis. Many collectors and dealers were making hefty amounts from riding on the trend.

The idea of investing in something tangible and thought-provoking and, at the same time, that can be hung on my walls, appealed to me. So I did my homework by checking out the auction results and price trends for the works of a few contemporary artists I liked and was able to afford, and started off with a few watercolours from Walasse Ting, who was alive back then. I sold them after 14 months and had a return of about 60 per cent.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A At my age, I think I can still afford to be aggressive in my investments such as those in the fine art market and three private companies, including a local healthcare start-up.

When it comes to investing in fine art, it depends on who you know and what is trending. For instance, Walasse Ting was in a coma for a couple of years, and back then, a lot of people were buying everything they could get their hands on. There was a retro exhibition, prices went up and people started releasing their stock.

Sometimes, it's a gut feel. About five years ago, in Art Stage Singapore, there was a realistic sculpture of an elephant with its hair; it was so vivid, and there was a guy pushing it up. It belonged to a series of four and was €49,000.

My friend had bought one sculpture but I was hesitant. Regardless, I left my namecard and a cheque for the deposit. Five hours later when I returned, the series was sold out. I saw a couple inquiring with the gallerist about the piece. I mentioned jokingly I'd let it go for €54,000 and they took it. Buying art can be a gamble but I really liked that piece.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I've invested about $100,000 in DineConnect, and I've six investment-grade art pieces. I'm still waiting for the right time to let them go.

Apart from investments in companies and art, I have stocks, mutual funds, corporate and government bonds, foreign currencies and fixed deposits. One company I'd invested in was an oil and gas firm in Jakarta acquired in 2014 at the peak of oil prices, and the payout was three times my investment in late 2011. But I'm not an angel investor. It was because I knew the team.

When people start out, they should start with Singapore Government Securities and get interest from 1.75 to 3 per cent per annum, which is comparable to a lot of corporate bonds now. For instance, I bought into a Lendlease bond at quite a heavy premium with a return of 3.8 per cent per annum. I learnt about government bonds on my own.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A To focus on my company DineConnect. It has been a non-stop effort, financially and physically, since last year, and that is likely to continue. I've set aside another $50,000 for it.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I wish to eventually give up the hustle and bustle of city life and move to the countryside; ideally, to a Tibetan monastery so I can live a really simple life and devote all my time studying Buddha's teachings. But Mum is still not comfortable with the idea. Mum and I have been studying Tibetan Buddhism teachings for over a year now.

I'd still keep a house somewhere outside Singapore which should cost no more than $500,000. I've visited Australia three times in less than a year to get a feel of living there. I'd need to incur monthly living expenses of no more than $3,000 for a really simple life.

Q Home is now...

A A rented house in Bukit Timah. When you're young, it's better to buy a car than a house, even though it's not true from an investment point of view. A house makes you feel safe but you have to take a loan and you're bound by it. A car lets you move around and network much more. You might as well keep your cash liquid and do something with a much greater upside.

Q I drive...

A A rhodium silver Porsche 911 Carrera that I imported from Cyprus and saved about $50,000 after taxes and all.