INTERVIEW: MONIKA TU, Founder / Director Black Diamondz Group
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INTERVIEW: MONIKA TU, Founder / Director Black Diamondz Group

Where her Chinese-focused business is headed given ongoing COVID constraints.

By Terry Christodoulou
Mon, Mar 15, 2021 7:01amGrey Clock 3 min

Monika Tu doesn’t mince words. Nor does she carry any passengers.

How else to explain what is now a rather well-worn tale – a story, hers, that details a Chinese immigrant who landed in Australia from Shenzhen in 1988 without any English.

She studied, claimed an RMIT scholarship and subsequently turned a basic market stall into a successful international electronics business. She’s since found incredible acclaim — and arguable dominance — as a property agent within Sydney’s tightly-held prestige property market.

There’s more to her work than simply opening residential doors — helping to forge and foster cultural and community links for her largely immigrant (predominantly from China, Middle East, Europe) client list, alongside arts philanthropy and an unwavering dedication to each and every day.

We caught up with Tu to discuss the difficulties of 2021 — and to better understand the road ahead.

Kanebridge News: There’s an incredible resilience that seems to frame the Sydney prestige market – but how difficult was 2020 in regards to your business and key clients?

Monika Tu: Obviously, Covid-19 had huge impacts on many businesses last year and ours was no exception. The restrictions on international travel hit us hard, however, we saw a surprising rise in local Chinese buyers wanting to buy a property quickly.  People may think that most of our buyers are international. However, that’s not the case and many of these people had been holding out for the ‘perfect’ property — but when Covid hit they relaxed their expectations slightly because their main aim was to secure a property.

KN: And how do you view the road ahead?

MT: I see the market continuing to do well. The prestige market will always follow a different trajectory to the general market, but I don’t see things slowing down.  With the influx of movie stars and wealthy individuals wanting to call Australia home, there’s only one way prestige property is going, and it’s up.

KN: There’s a belief in some economic quarters that things must naturally end, and soon.

MT: People have always said this, even prior to the pandemic. But Sydney and Australia’s prestige property market is robust, resilient, and has proven itself repeatedly.  As long as Australia is seen as a world-class lifestyle destination, people will always be willing to pay.

KN: What was the allure of property that made you start Black Diamondz?

MT: If I’m honest, it wasn’t so much the allure of property that made me start Black Diamondz. It was the gap in the market of servicing the multitude of high net-worth individuals, predominantly from China, who were looking to call Australia home. Some agents were more than capable of finding them a great property but could not open other doors such as schools, lifestyle, business opportunities, networking, and philanthropy.  This is the gap that I knew I was able to fill.

KN: How did you get your start in the prestige market?

MT: Black Diamondz really started by chance.  There were a lot of conversations at the dinner table about new migrants searching for luxury homes, but a lack of services or guidance for them when it came to making decisions.  One of my friends had a friend from China looking for a property and was having no luck with local real estate agents. I took him for a drive around Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and just asked him what type of house he liked. He picked one, I knocked on the door and the owners said it was not for sale. Fast forward five days later and they sold it for $13.5 million. That is when I realised the need for this type of service was out there and took full advantage.

KN: Does the size of the deal you’re working to close ever intimidate, or is it something that drives you?

MT: For me it’s never about the size of the deal. I treat a $5 million apartment with the same work ethic that I treat a $50 million home. For me it’s all about giving my clients, both buyers and sellers, the very best experience possible.

I love smashing records, like selling Sydney’s most expensive home in 2019, but those things don’t happen every day and if that’s what drives you, you won’t last long in real estate.

KN: What do you think gives Black Diamondz a competitive edge?

MT: On the surface, it’s our proven ability to achieve consistent, market-leading results over the past ten years, as well as our international database. But deeper than that is our standing within the community. I know almost everyone in Sydney, and I have nurtured these relationships over the years. This is the key to a successful real estate business — your network and influence.

KN: You’re a self-confessed workaholic, is that a necessary mindset to achieved success especially in the market you work?

MT: I think the entrepreneurial mindset I have is what has made me successful — not only in real estate but in life. I never stop working but I also don’t see it as work, it’s my life and it’s what I do day in, day out.


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”