31.2304° N, 121.4737° E
‘Shanghai is booming. There’s a drive for creators to achieve better.’
Gems in this
For Louis Li, travel is an exercise in expanding his imagination. A hotelier, CEO and art lover, Louis cultivates his extravagant sense of design through exploration, seeking out a confluence of cultures to fold into his own perspective.
As a young boy growing up in China’s ‘Spring City’ of Kunming, Louis dreamed of a chance to spread his wings abroad. An opportunity to study film then took him to Melbourne. It was there that Louis ignited his trifecta passion for travel, storytelling and art. Combining the three to inform his entrepreneurial acumen, Louis has firmly established himself as a giant in Australia’s hospitality industry, with his luxury Mornington Peninsula property, Jackalope, named one of ‘The World’s 100 Greatest Places’ by TIME in 2018. Now spending most of his time in Shanghai, Louis has hit home soil running, opening the first overseas iteration of Black Star Pastry in Shanghai — with pastries, coffee and art installations all out of this world. We chat to the visionary creator about bringing the immersive Rain Room exhibit to Melbourne, crossing cultures with his venues, and his Shanghai Travel Playbook.
On where you’re from
Kunming is a city located in the southwest of China. It’s called Spring City because the weather is so nice all year round. Kunming is so poetic, so the landscape, the weather have inspired me a lot. But Kunming is not a top-tier city in China, like Shanghai or Beijing, so I didn’t have a lot of access to museums or galleries. In my childhood, I was seeking overseas opportunities to study film, so I went to Melbourne for film school. In 2017, I started my hotel brand called Jackalope in Melbourne, and it took me several years to fully establish that brand. Now I’ve finally got the luxury to expand my business back to China.
On your start as a hotelier
I grew up in a land developer family, so I think hospitality or land development was always within my blood. I was having lunch at Willow Creek Vineyard and the winemaker was telling me the property was on the market. I thought, ‘This is an amazing opportunity to create something truly unique’, because I knew what my ideal hotel would look like and it needed a rural context to contrast it. We started the process of acquiring the land and building my own brand of hotel. That was in 2015.
On your passion for art
I was always very interested in art and I think my art collection started right from the beginning of this hotel. In a majority of hotel projects, art curation is the last step, but in the process of creating Jackalope, it came first. My working processes are: always define a story, then find a suitable artist and designer to work with for perfect integration. Then I curate the artwork and ask the designer to build a space around the art. People realize the difference between decoration and ideation. All the art pieces were defined and we built the environment around them. The art isn’t too decorative — it’s a conceptual layer that is fully integrated into the guest experience and the storytelling.
On creativity in hospitality
I always see storytelling as the key point of difference in my hospitality, because of the film school training. We tell one story through one property. At Jackalope Mornington Peninsula, we try to tell the story of alchemy. Alchemy is deeply related to winemaking, because we turn grapes into juice, and juice to alcohol. We broke the hotel into seven stages, and each area tells one story of a stage of alchemy. The bar is the distillation stage, and the restaurant — the bubbling ceiling — is for the fermentation of alchemy. So when people experience the whole hotel, they are actually completing a journey of alchemy.
On bringing ‘Rain Room’ to Melbourne
When I got the chance to develop the second hotel, I was thinking, ‘What’s the story now? What’s the art curation?’ In the first hotel, gold is luxury — that’s why we chose alchemy. But the second hotel is right in the center of the city in Flinders Lane, which is prime real estate. In the urban context, nature is luxury, so I was thinking, let’s recreate a series of natural phenomenons in a hotel language, so that people can actually experience nature. I experienced Rain Room in 2015 in LACMA, in Los Angeles. Instead of curating smaller pieces hanging on the wall, how about we have a monumental installation sit right in the center of the hotel? This could become one of the most ambitious hotel projects of our time. That’s the reason for curating Rain Room into the hotel.
‘I always see storytelling as the key point of difference in my hospitality. We tell one story through one property.’
On hospitality trends
Post-Covid, there is a lot of warmth and caring in hospitality, in design, in the service model. People are now looking for healing or caring through hospitality. I see that through the use of colors, the use of material, branding, clothing, everything — people inject a lot of warmth and I think that’s a really good thing. That’s why Rain Room is a perfect offer for the next round of hospitality. The healing and soothing nature of the raindrop is what we need. I’m trying to rethink how I catch the trend and offer more warmth, more therapeutic offerings when they come to my hotel or my venues. I’d rather people come to my hospitality venues and forget where they are or their daily identities, and truly have a transformative experience.
On taking over Black Star Pastry
I was amazed by the cross-cultural ability of this single product: Strawberry Watermelon Cake. Whenever I pass by the shop, I see equal amounts of Australian locals and international travelers queuing for that cake. I thought, ‘Wow, this has an international approach. People from different cultures or different demographics love it equally’. I thought I could use my business skills and creativity to take it to another level and globalize it.
On launching Black Star in Shanghai
I think Black Star is one of the most conceptual landmarks in Shanghai. It’s in this red brick building across two floors in a historical neighborhood. On the first floor, we are telling the story of interstellar travel. All of our cake displays are levitating capsules using advanced technologies. We have thousands of meteor installations, where people are seeing the interplay of gravity and levitation. On the second floor, which is Black Star Gallery, we curated an exhibition space called ‘Meta Habitat’. It’s like you landed in a parallel universe, and everything related to human beings and civilization has turned into altered states.
On travel and creativity
Travel really opens your perspective. I’m the kind of person who always appreciates and admires others’ creations, so travel allows me to see what’s happening and who’s doing what. I always learn from travel and others’ creations, and digest, then ferment or turn them into my perspective. People now often travel digitally, but being there is different. Travel really gives me the cross-cultural ability, because you have to be aware of different cultures or consuming patterns. Every brand that I’m now doing has a quality that attracts demographics or people from all cultures, so that’s an invaluable exercise from travel.
‘I think Black Star is one of the most conceptual landmarks in Shanghai. It’s like you landed in a parallel universe.’
On traveling for inspiration
I do like major cities like New York and Tokyo because the frequency of start-ups is quite high. If you visit every three months, you see a lot of exciting things happening. I do like Naoshima a lot — it’s a genius integration of nature, art and architecture. I often go back for peace of mind and inspiration.
On your relationship with Shanghai
I still think I’m an observer of the city. Shanghai is booming. Because of Covid, a lot of creative people who lived overseas came back, so I find the creativity pool is so large. The number of new developments or new opportunities is enormous according to our population, so the commercial vibrancy is not affected by Covid. Art and design is definitely the hottest topic in town. People are always looking for a cool restaurant or café, and are always exploring galleries and museums on the weekends. The whole consuming power is looking for a point of difference in creativity and cultural awareness, so there is a drive for creators to achieve better and more creative projects for the market. I do feel quite attached and amazed by Shanghai’s cultural and hospitality sectors. It’s a world-class city.
On a fun fact about the city
When I opened Black Star, I was told that Shanghai is a city that has the most coffee shops. I think we now have over 2000 coffee shops. The coffee capacity really amazed me. That’s why I felt I made the right decision to bring ST. ALi [Australian roastery brand] — they’re shipping the beans to us every month. We are literally the best flat white in town, because we’re using Aussie beans and Aussie milk. Everyone comes to Black Star for a really authentic flat white. I think Strawberry Watermelon Cake could be the best companion with a flat white, so we sell them as a combo and that was a huge marketing success. People think, ‘These are two iconic Australian creations’.
On where to stay in Shanghai
My favorite inner-city hotel is PuLi, because it was a pioneer 10 years ago for an urban resort offering. Now, 10 years later, it’s still standing strong and hasn’t aged significantly, and the service is as good as the initial stage. My favorite rural hotel is called naera. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Shanghai. It’s funded by a Chinese developer and collector — kind of a similar background to me — and it has appointed a leading abstract Chinese artist, Ding Yi, as its Creative and Artistic Director. He has commissioned over 20 domestic leading artists to complete the hotel, so it often reminds me of the process of creating Jackalope. They turned an abstract painting of Ding Yi’s work into a giant swimming pool through porcelain craftsmanship. They made thousands of small mosaic tiles, which are hand-painted by the artist, and they reallocated them according to the sequence of the artwork into the swimming pool, so the swimming pool becomes a vast universe of abstraction.
‘My favorite inner-city hotel is PuLi, because it was a pioneer 10 years ago for an urban resort offering. Now, 10 years later, it’s still standing strong.’
On showing a friend around for the day
We’ll have brunch together at a good café, and if it’s their first time in Shanghai, we would probably go to Xintiandi for wandering around, shopping and site checking. In the afternoon, I always bring them to West Bund, which is the art precinct of Shanghai. It has like five museums and 30 galleries in that precinct, so we can always check out the newest exhibition. At night, we’d probably go to an eatery, followed by a bar. A lot of eating!
On a cozy eatery
BOR Eatery is my favorite eatery right now. It’s Nordic cuisine. You walk into a fully open kitchen — it’s just like you’re walking into someone’s pantry so it’s quite welcoming and inviting. The menu is so shareable — you don’t need a lot of formality when you have dinner with your close friends.
On hidden bars
For bars, I would probably bring them to Speak Low or J Boroski. Speak Low is one of the 50 best bars in Asia. It’s a heavily Japanese-influenced bar which is a hidden gem in the city. It has no signage and is hidden on the second floor of a knife shop. It’s quite discreet and only people who know it can get in. J Boroski is another place I often visit. It doesn’t have a menu so you have to spend like 10 minutes with a bartender telling him the things you like, and he will tailor one drink for you.
On avant-garde retailers
Shanghai is quite an advanced city in terms of fashion. Eth0s is another hidden gem of the city. I’m an avant-garde lover — I love brands like Rick Owens, Boris Bidjan Saberi. The shop has a dramatic staircase that leads you to the basement, and all the clothing is displayed in a 1000-square-meter brutalist showroom underground. It reminds me of shops in London or Berlin.
‘It’s a true inspiration to see what others are doing. They’re doing it fast, they’re doing it ambitiously, and they are all hard working.’
On a cultural outing
Long Museum is my favorite museum at West Bund. A lot of West Bund museums are government-funded, but Long Museum is the most successful, privately-owned and funded museum in China, and it represents the most prestigious shows each year. Namely Louise Bourgeois, Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Chiharu Shiota — all the big international names. It’s so well put together because it’s funded by a major entrepreneur and collector in China. It’s a concrete structure, but they managed to achieve a sculptural aspect out of concrete construction. It’s world-class architecture and overlooks the river. If you’re not an art lover, you can go to the Bund and you can have a picnic there and walk your dog.
On where to get coffee
I like a coffee shop called SLAB TOWN. It’s located at the old French concession. It’s a blend of South American beans with Chinese beans, so you get quite a unique flavor out of the blend. The branding and the interior is so well done, and it’s one of the very first coffee shops that has a neighborhood intention. So the elderly or local residents get a discount or sometimes free coffees. It’s a really warming and welcoming concept. And it’s really qualified coffee.
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle seat, because I don’t have to bother anyone else to go to the bathroom.
On Shanghai in one word
The speed of Shanghai’s economic and cultural development really amazed me. It’s a true inspiration to see what others are doing. They’re doing it fast, they’re doing it ambitiously, and they are all hardworking fellows. This group of people really drive the progression of the city, and I’m so happy to be one of them.