Copying the copycats: local artist explores mainland culture

A local artist joins forces with Dutch design firm in a playful exploration of copy culture on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 11:15am

Stanley Wong Ping-pui sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. A case in point is his love affair with the red, white and blue material used in Hong Kong to make the bags often spotted being hauled around the streets, and seen on television as the bag-of-choice for parallel goods traders.

In fact, anyone who has moved house is likely to have a few stashed away in a cupboard. The style has affectionately become known as the city's Burberry.

But for advertising man turned artist Wong - also known as anothermountainman - the material said something more about the identity of Hongkongers, and last year he gave it a new lease of life by turning it into funky totes and accessories.

So when Dutch design firm Droog invited him two years ago to be part of a project looking at the mainland's copycat culture, a project that would see the firm turn the notion of piracy on its head by making copies of Chinese objects, Wong didn't hesitate. It was not just because he is a huge fan of Droog - "its concepts and products are amazing" - but because it provided him with another chance to turn everyday objects into something special.

He was also keen to make a statement about the mainland's widespread abuse of intellectual property rights.

"The project struck me as both interesting and controversial. Copying in China is a big issue and approaching it from this angle, to see how China felt about having iconic Chinese ideas and objects copied, was an interesting concept," Wong says. "I was very keen from the start, but again I wanted to copy something from China's culture or history, something traditional that people seemed not to care about, and give these 'neglected' items some respect, to give value to objects that people did not believe had value and transform them into something special."

This month, Droog unveiled the fruits of that project at a shopping centre in Guangzhou. Called "The New Original", the 26-piece collection draws viewers in not just because it makes a controversial statement, but because it's fun. It includes a classic Chinese teapot with a Western-style handle, a miniature Chinese restaurant table setting placed inside a fish tank, and brightly coloured vases with Ming dynasty-style silhouettes.

Also enlisted for the project were Chinese architects Urbanus, and Dutch designers Richard Hutten and the late Ed Annink. "We did a field trip to [centre of copycat culture] Shenzhen to study the local design heritage and visited factories that copied items. It was an interesting insight into the world of piracy," Wong says.

Wong's contributions to the collection are avant-garde interpretations of four classic Chinese objects: a Ming chair, blue and white Qinghua porcelain, a running horse lantern, and bowls and tea cups.

"The Ming chair is the most crazy of the designs. I gave it a contemporary twist by covering it in cotton. For the tea cups and bowls, I stacked them on top of each other and made them into a lamp."

While Wong makes his sentiments clear about the mainland's copy culture - "It's not moving design forward in a healthy way" - Droog co-founder Renny Ramakers has a different view. She believes "The New Original" collection shows that copying is more than just replication; it is linked to creativity and innovation.

"We have reached a level of saturation in design and in the market ... it's time to think about what to do with the surplus, and use it in the design process. We should take better advantage of our collective intelligence," Ramakers says.

"Imitation can also be inspiration. The shanzhai [slang for imitation and pirated goods] movement in China is about copying products, but adding something to them or changing something about them. If you start copying and looking at what is around you, then you can come to new solutions and new designs. You're turning things upside-down and that can lead to new - and original - object."

Studio Droog in partnership with Today Art Museum, Beijing and OCT Art and Design Gallery, Shenzhen, present "The New Original" collection at the Hi Space Zhen Jia shopping centre in Guangzhou until Apr 9