Douglas Young of Hong Kong lifestyle store G.O.D. on the places that inspired his designs
One of Hong Kong’s creative pioneers wanders around a changing Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei, and wonders whether it’s time for a change of leadership at brand he helped launch and has run for 20 years
Carrying a huge woven basket, wearing a backwards trucker cap, yellow flannel shorts, plimsolls and a panda and bamboo print shirt, Douglas Young cuts a colourful figure, even among the stalls of Sham Shui Po’s fabric market. The co-founder of lifestyle and fashion store Goods of Desire (G.O.D.) is taking us on a tour of his favourite Hong Kong neighbourhoods.
One moment he’s inspecting colourful rolls of Hawaiian-print fabric propped against a wall and the next he’s pointing out rusting, sun-bleached Chinese signs jutting out haphazardly along the street.
“I find these signs really beautiful,” says Young, who was raised in the city’s middle-class Kowloon Tong district and moved to Britain at the age of 14, where he went on to study architecture. “Even if you can’t read Chinese you will be able to appreciate the graphics and typology.”
The classic Hong Kong signs have inspired many of the brand’s popular graphics since its early years. “There were so many before that they were all overlapping,” Young says. “But now, as the shops are closing, the area’s transformed lately because business has been going south, everything is changing.”
It’s been almost two decades since Young and his business partner Benjamin Lau founded the brand that celebrates Hong Kong culture. Among a mere handful of successful home-grown design brands, G.O.D. was one of the first to shine a light on authentic, working-class Hong Kong.
The city’s dense architectural mishmash has inspired their most famous and quirkiest products: tin letter boxes, housing estates, cha chaan teng and even cockroach prints adorn everything from underwear and flip flops to shower curtains and tableware. After so many years, hasn’t the local design hero ever run out of inspiration?
“That’s a question that people ask me the most and probably the question that I ask myself the most, too. But I can safely say, no. I was worried that I might run out of ideas, too, but it’s kind of like a momentum … the ideas follow each other, like a snowball [effect]. I can’t stop.”
He’s not exaggerating. Young’s enthusiasm for these streets and buildings is infectious. By the time we reach Yau Ma Tei’s old fruit market, he’s looking to purchase speckled aubergine from an aged vendor, and I’m barely keeping up. Suddenly, he drops a bombshell: “I’m 52 years old now, it’s been 19 years since I started. I’m actually looking for a successor. You know anybody good? I feel it’s time for a new generation to take over the helm now.”
The question of succession is tricky. There are very few individuals in Hong Kong’s creative scene who would be capable of matching Young’s irreverence and playfulness. He’s become something of a home-grown hero whose tongue-in-cheek designs titillate, stoke controversy and occasionally land him in hot water.
Who else would have had the gall to make T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the slogan “Delay No More” (a play on an obscene Cantonese phrase)? At this time of year, with Mid-Autumn Festival looming, you can’t help but smile at the G.O.D. mooncakes shaped like bare buttocks. And who can forget the time Young and 17 staff members were very publicly arrested by the police for selling T-shirts adorned with “14K” – the name of a notorious triad gang.
More recently, during the 2014 Occupy Central protests, G.O.D. produced T-shirts bearing the phrase “I did it on Harcourt Road” – the main thoroughfare closed down by pro-democracy protesters.
It’s no accident that many of his most popular goods and prints have been controversial in their time. “When I started G.O.D., people accused me of being a rich boy playing poor, but I can’t help what moves me or inspires me. I genuinely feel a love for this sort of stuff,” he says, referring to how he first made prints from photos of densely packed Hong Kong housing blocks with laundry hanging outside the windows.
In the early days, critics accused Young of poking fun at these working-class areas, but that was never his intention. “I’m genuinely inspired by them. The grittiness of the area is part of the spice. Hong Kong never fails to inspire,” he says.
“This is what Hong Kong always has; it’s about energy, density, it’s about variation within chaos,” he adds. “To be creative is to be able to express an opinion, and when you do that, there’ll be people who disagree.”
Young still waxes lyrical about the ageing housing blocks; the barred, makeshift balconies. He expresses an ardent admiration of a 1930s-style building with curved corners and arched, metallic- frame windows – a relic from a colonial area of industrialisation, modified years later to hold air conditioners.
“I can think of so many Western brands that have been inspired by their own native or grass-roots culture, like Levi’s or even RRL [by Ralph Lauren], and if you apply the same logic to a Hong Kong brand, you just look at these scenes and are likewise inspired,” he says.
Young stops by to say hello to an old vendor selling an assortment of fabric rolls at this stall. It turns out that they’ve known each other for more than a decade, and Young had even hired his son as a G.O.D. campaign model years ago.
Another man emerges and they all stop to greet each other and gossip about the area in Cantonese under the blistering sun. The scene is charming, almost cinematic.
These street scenes are changing, however. The drive to redevelop and gentrify parts of Kowloon has been most evident in the past few years. It’s proved a double-edged sword for Hong Kong’s development, Young says.
“It’s good and bad. Good that Hong Kong is changing. Change is good, I don’t resist change but I also feel that they shouldn’t throw everything away. Evolution is better than revolution, and evolution is keeping some of the old, turning some of the old into the new. I hope they are not just tearing everything down. An ideal would be a mixture of old and new, West and East, a kind of fusion – that’s what I’m hoping.”
It’s not only the city’s architectural history that is at a crossroads. The creative industries are undergoing a big shift, with local sentiment vacillating between confidence and extreme insecurity. Hong Kong creativity might be garnering more global attention, Young says, but the local industry often still feels it lacks a forceful and truly compelling “original identity or style”.
“I think it’s partly the government’s fault,” Young says, “because our leaders should really be giving us more direction. They should be encouraging more local identity, supporting local creative businesses and encouraging local talents to blossom.”
Young says the lack of well-paying opportunities for the many creatives types in the city is a problem. Although G.O.D. works with some of them and has a pop-up room in its shop at the creative hub PMQ dedicated to showcasing collaborations, many artists and designers still have to work day jobs to support their independent creative endeavours. This may be one reason why Hong Kong lacks the potent force necessary to become an Asian cultural capital.
“I’m lucky because I come from a wealthy background, I can afford to indulge my passion,” Young says bluntly, “but I see a lot of really talented people who aren’t so lucky. They can’t afford to develop their talent full time. That’s such a shame.
“I think [Hong Kong Chief Executive] Carrie Lam [Cheng Yuet-ngor] understands and sees that, but I think she also has a lot of other issues to deal with, too. So creative industries might not be on the top of her list. There are a lot of other problems in Hong Kong.”
“Wow this is getting political,” Young says, then shrugs. Having reached this age, he says: “I don’t really care any more. When I was younger I was more concerned about my reputation, but now I’m caring more about the future, the next generation. What will they be?”
Young has never been a shrinking violet. His success with G.O.D., and other projects, helped pave the way for others to present less glamorous, more authentic visions of Chinese and Hong Kong style. Designers in the West have been doing it for a long time, but in the Hong Kong context it’s hard not to see Young as a pioneer, even if you don’t appreciate his humour.
“I can’t help but have detractors, but I guess it’s good to divide opinion, which is why the late, great Sir David Tang is one of my greatest idols of all time. He invited love and hate in same measure.”
If you’re the kind of person to take risks, Young says, “I suppose it’s something that can’t be avoided.”