Hong Kong might be a commercial paradise for international brands, but it’s time for the city to nurture homegrown talent and maintain its own cultural identity, says Douglas Young, founder of design-brand-slash-retailer Goods of Desire.
Douglas Young founded G.O.D. with his business partner two decades ago with the mission of making Hongkongers proud of their own culture. The brand specializes in fashion, home and lifestyle items that play on uniquely Hong Kong elements. Today, G.O.D. has shops scattered across the city and regularly collaborates with other Hong Kong brands on design and cultural projects.
1. Hong Kong is one of a kind
Of course every city is different, and Hong Kong has its own unique DNA. We say Hong Kong is east-meets-west, but so is Istanbul, Beijing, Tokyo. However, Hong Kong is unique to the rest of the world because of its history. We have a different history compared to, say, Shanghai. We’ve been ruled and influenced by the British. We’ve been an international city for a longer period than many other Asian cities. We’re very cosmopolitan. Our cultural mix is different. I think even the way we speak, the way we mix English words into our local lingo, the way our architecture is influenced by western architecture and combined with local characteristics, the way we dress, the way we eat — all this reflects our history and our heritage. This is what style is about. Style comes from these cultural sources.
2. Chinese culture is undervalued
I see cultural injustices. I see there are still many undiscovered layers to Chinese culture. If only somebody brought them up and discussed them! I wanted to make it my mission to bring everything up to the spotlight and share with the rest of the world.
And as a designer or an artist, you need to provoke. The ultimate insult you can give to a designer is to not notice their work or be indifferent to or not have a feeling for their work. I think artists, including writers and musicians, moviemakers, designers, they feel a need to change this world. They feel a sense of injustice. To me it’s cultural injustice, as I was saying. And to enable change, the artists really need to kick the system in the teeth. That is why we need to provoke. We need to shock. We need to get people to take notice.
3. There’s no lack of talent in Hong Kong, but there is a lack of resources
The world is fair. Talent is equally distributed all over the world. There are talented people in London, talented people in Hong Kong, talented people in Syria. But why is it that you have cultural capitals like London, New York? Why is it that you have such a high concentration of great designers or well known designers there? Is it because all the talent is concentrated there? The answer is an emphatic no.
Because we have equally as much talent, but I feel there aren’t as many opportunities. Opportunities include clients. Patrons. People who support the talent, like the government, and individual customers. There’s also been a lot of talk about our educational facilities not being on par with the institutions in developed western cities. It’s true. But i think it’s more a case of lack of support. The government doesn’t support Hong Kong people enough, we don’t have this tradition to support local businesses, local talent. As a result, there isn’t that chance, and an ecosystem hasn’t been developed to nurture talent. I think that is the problem.
4. Hong Kong is losing touch with itself
As Hong Kong becomes more and more international, it is actually losing its indigenous characteristics. Nowadays I see kids educated in Hong Kong speaking English, thinking it’s probably cooler to do so. Unfortunately, sometimes when you’re trying to book a table at a fancy restaurant it does help to speak English — that sort of thing.
I have nothing against speaking English and lots of my friends speak English or are westerners. But I just feel that the reason why the kids identify more with western culture or music is because there aren’t enough local examples for them to be proud of. They feel that if you dress more Chinese, you’re bound to be loh toh (老套, lame) and not up to date. And it’s probably true, because most designers in Hong Kong follow western trends. There aren’t many alternatives for them to choose from, so I don’t blame them.
A lot of Hong Kong brands, they have a sort of very western look and style and name, to the extent that they’re almost denying they’re from Hong Kong. When you ask [some of the designers], ‘Why don’t you have your Chinese name [in your brand]?’ They’ll say, Chinese names are loh toh. But why? Why should Chinese characters be equal to loh toh? It’s probably because nobody has bothered to update the Chinese fonts. Same with the Chinese dress, the Chinese jacket. People think they are loh toh because they are shiny, made of silk, loose-fitting. Then don’t make them out of silk. Make them out of cotton, denim! Don’t have them loose-fitting, give them a better cut!
5. Profit can’t always be the bottom line
I think in Hong Kong, we have very few craftspeople, we have very few people who can really afford to pursue a career in design and creativity. Hong Kong is such a commercial place. Recently I was in Bangkok — when you go to the Bangkok markets, it’s just full of life. Young people can work on handicrafts at home and sell them at the weekend market and make a living. They don’t need to open the shop if they don’t feel like it. That is what being an artist is about, actually. And in Hong Kong, nobody can afford to do that. As a result, what we have are very commercial entities. And it’s okay, commercial entities inside shopping malls are fine. But if you want cultural projects like PMQ or (the upcoming) CPS to be artsy, then you need to have less rigid content. And that just doesn’t exist in a city like Hong Kong. Everything is about making money, and it’s anathema to the spirit of cultural centers.
I’ve been predicting this for many years, but I would love to see more respect for local creativity. More support. In a way I do see it, I do see these retro cha chaan teng popping up, I see Hong Kong being reported more in the international media, but we haven’t reached the tipping point yet.
There’s still a ways to go. I think the rise of Asian culture is happening, but it’s happening slowly. I think non-Asians might not be able to differentiate between Hong Kong stuff and Japanese or mainland Chinese stuff, they’re all being lumped together. But I think there’s genuinely an interest, and I can see this more and more.
I think the Koreans are amazing, what they’ve done. Considering most people don’t even understand their language, they’ve been able to establish a certain cultural dominance with their music, movies, fashion within a short period of time. And with a place like Hong Kong, we’ve been open to the world, we are much more cosmopolitan, we speak more English than they do. If they can do it, so can we.
The Hong Kong government is very reactive. Ideally, you would have a government that is very proactive at preserving local heritage, identifying what is worth keeping, or being patrons of local crafts. But in reality, we don’t. Our government reacts to pressure. I think if the public can show the government that there is this desire for local heritage, local history, and local culture in terms of theater performances, movies, fashion and food — if we can show the government that we have the appetite for it — then the government will act.