After living in Singapore for over a decade, Catherine Lajeunesse had to look long and hard to find a home that would enable her to replicate her family’s lifestyle here in Hong Kong. As Claire Locking discovers, the result of her search was an incredible hilltop property, complete with lawn, lemon trees and a private swimming pool.
When you have been lucky enough to call a beautiful colonial black-and-white house in Singapore “home” for the past 14 years, then a move to Hong Kong where spacious family houses are something of a rarity must come as an unwelcome dose of reality.
Canadian Catherine Lajeunesse was put in exactly this predicament three years ago when her husband’s job necessitated them leaving their near perfect life in Singapore for a new start in Hong Kong.
Luckily Catherine had spent many years in Hong Kong as a banker in the 90s so she knew the city well and was able to narrow down exactly where she wanted to return to build her new life with her husband and two children.
“When we lived here before, pre-kids, we found that we were starting to spend more and more time out of the city in Sai Kung, hiking, sailing and visiting friends,” says Catherine. “Moving back was difficult for us as we were very well established in Singapore; we had a wonderful house and a wonderful lifestyle, but the job and the time was right. I narrowed the search down and knew I had to find a villa house, not a village house, and that it had to be in Sai Kung.”
As well as lifestyle and location being major deciding factors, space was also a consideration as Catherine had two 20-foot containers packed full of treasures needing to find a new home.
The house that Catherine finally found in a hilltop position overlooking Emerald Bay must be one of the most unique and stunning properties in the entire city. Although not blessed with the period features and charm of a Singapore black-and-white, it does have the space that Catherine was looking for, with a garden on all sides complete with lawn, lemon trees and frangipani bushes and a private swimming pool.
Despite the house being very contemporary in design, with glass walls and ceilings, Catherine furnished it predominately in her much-loved Asian style. During her time in Singapore, she built a second successful career, this time as a gallery owner and dealer in Asian antiquities. Her love of Asian aesthetics, especially Chinese Ming furniture started almost when she got off the plane from Canada in 1990 and has continued ever since.
“Lots of people prefer to decorate with new things – it’s certainly easier; you can be trendy, you can chuck everything out one year and get a fresh look the next. But I grew up in a household which treasured beautiful things and we didn’t have a lot so maybe I valued beauty and history a lot from an early age.”
Catherine’s business, Lajeunesse Asia, is now officially closed, although she does still work with a few private clients, but her home is where her collection and her knowledge and passion are showcased.
One of the most prized pieces in the living room is a life-sized lacquered Burmese Buddha, one of 12 in the house. “This is one of my favourite pieces,” says Catherine. “He has watched over my children since they were born, and as they played on the floor underneath him; he really is part of the family.”
Rugs are another striking feature of the room, with a mixture of several Tibetan prayer rugs, part of an extensive family collection and some animal hides, gifts from a friend’s game reserve in South Africa.
The dining area is where there is a slight move away from the Asian influence with a mix of European in the form of the stunning French chandelier sourced on eBay from the US, lamps from Altfield and the contemporary digital print by Debbie Han, bought last year at Cat Street Gallery. The wrought-iron-and-glass table was a bespoke piece made by a store now long gone on Queens’s Road East.
The living room is a TV-free zone so downstairs there is an entertainment area complete with musical instruments, art tables, gym equipment and even a ballet bar.
Next door is a fantastic space with double-height ceilings and patio doors out to the barbeque area and private pool where Catherine does a lot of relaxed, casual weekend entertaining. Catherine calls this room “the place where furniture comes to die” in reference to the almost year-round bright sunlight. Despite these harsh conditions, the room does still house some pretty impressive artefacts including two of Catherine’s all-time favourite pieces, a pair of stone carvings bought at Chine Gallery.
“The dragons are being donated to Harrow School. I bought them years ago for the business but they were too special to part with. I made the donation to Harrow as firstly I thought they were ideal for the school as it opened in the Year of the Dragon. I also think that Harrow has made an incredible commitment to Hong Kong and I really feel really proud that our son is going there in the first intake. I am incredibly pleased that they are going to be displayed there.”
Catherine’s children each have their own bedrooms, known affectionately as the boy’s den and the pink paradise, and it is obvious that she has already been able to instil in them a love of art and collecting. Her son has a stunning Tibetan tiger rug hanging over his bed and on his shelves he proudly displays treasures such as opium pots found on treasure hunts in the nearby river mud flats.
Catherine is now successfully building her third career in executive search with her own company, Meridian Partners. It’s a far cry from the creativity of sourcing and dealing in art and antiques but something that she finds truly fulfilling and rewarding. “I love it. I should have been doing it years ago. It is surprisingly creative; you have to spend a huge amount of time thinking of what the possibilities are, and how you can tweak things to make it an ideal situation for a client and a candidate. I’m learning so much more about the markets – and about people.”As well as keeping busy with settling her children into Hong Kong life, practicing yoga at home with friends, and driving to and from the island for work, she also manages to find the time to be an active volunteer with Nepalese charity, Olga’s Promise. “I feel very strongly about engaging in charity work if you can; it’s really important for me to be able to create a better world for someone and have some way of contributing to something over time that is tangible and observable. It’s also important to me that my kids who are privileged know that there are people who need to be helped,” explains Catherine.
It was a chance invitation to a breakfast meeting a few years ago that led to Catherine hearing about Olga’s Choice. The main speaker that day was Olga
Murray, an 80-year-old former lawyer in the Californian Supreme Court who had dedicated the past 20 years of her life to rescuing Nepalese girls who had been sold into virtual slavery. The charity now offers education, shelter and healthcare to thousands of Nepal’s destitute children.
“I immediately went up to Olga after the meeting and offered my help as a volunteer,” Catherine recalls. “I couldn’t think of a more worthwhile cause to support – or a more worthy individual.”
Today, the charity, with the help of Catherine, is incorporated in Hong Kong, has a board of directors and is one of the major fundraising centres for the charity outwith the states.
So when Catherine finally manages to escape the demands of her daily life, how does she like to spend her rare downtime?
“I feel totally chilled when I am out here, away from the city. Life is good here; we have no criticisms – apart, perhaps, from the amount of time we spend driving. We keep kayaks down at the Victoria Recreation Club, we do a lot of hiking, and the children are both enrolled in sailing programmes at Hebe Haven and play mini rugby with the Sai Kung Stingrays. We don’t even rush into Central to socialise – Sai Kung Square has everything you could want, from Classified to Paisanos, and if we really want a treat, One-thirtyone is just a short drive away.”
So, after building enviable lifestyles in both Asia and Singapore, where does she really call home? “My children are essentially Asian kids, born and raised here. We have broken the expat cycle over 22 years. Asia is our home; we are not going back anywhere – this is where we live,” explains Catherine. “I still love Singapore and we all have our permanent residency there but Hong Kong is the place to be right now.”