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My life: Alan Chan Yau-kin

The graphic designer and branding guru talks to Jo Baker about the importance of culture and capturing the spirit of Hong Kong

 

I T'S IN THE GENES When I was about 10, my father ran a shop selling fruit and I worked as his assistant. He used leftover wooden boxes to create furniture for people's homes. Although my father had never had any formal training - he came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou in the 1940s - he was creatively inclined. I think I inherited those genes from him. I'm proud to talk about my lack of formal (university) training, because it will be encouraging for the new generation. Of course, you can specialise in whatever you want to do, but anything driven from the heart can become a fulfilling career.

 

ORIENT EXPRESSION Most of my mentors in the early years were foreigners. In the 70s, everything that was regarded as high-grade or prestigious was imported. Then, all these expats arrived. At that time, Hong Kong was considered the most sophisticated city in the East besides Tokyo, so they came searching for a mix of oriental culture. To them, it was a wonderland; they loved everything from Thai noodles to tai chi to Zen gardens. Working in an international agency, all my bosses were expats and I got a global perspective of Asian behaviour, food, art. So after I started my design company in the 80s, I found I could interpret or pay tribute to Asia from a Western perspective. But I am Chinese. I know the inner soul, and how to preserve that synergy in a harmonious way. So my early lifestyle was East meets West.

 

BEST IN SHOW The first time I realised I was better than many other people (in this field) was in the early 70s. The Hong Kong Designers Association was the most respected graphic design association in Hong Kong - it still is - and the first time I participated in its competition I won seven awards for seven projects; from packaging to promotional material. I was working in an advertising agency called Fortune with my mentor, Kevin Orpin, a design art director and photographer. Then we did packaging for fashion designer Pierre Cardin, for which I won my first international award, from a magazine called Communication Arts. That was the bible of design during the 70s and it's still going strong.

 

CORNERING THE MARKET An important part of my itinerary when travelling is to visit Sunday markets and museums; in Paris, London and Japan, and on the mainland. I love the unexpected objects you encounter. Not just antiques, but objects from everyday life that let you discover the way people live. These give me inspiration not just for my commercial projects but also now for my work as an artist. Anything goes, from old packaging from the 30s to old postcards and old photography; a sculpture or a wood-block print from Japan. I bought a couple of bamboo chairs in Beijing that are now bases for my plants, and a wooden tray bought in Shanghai, made in Shanxi province a couple of hundred years ago, which I use as a tea tray. When you start collecting, you realise the deep meaning of such artefacts. I learned this in my early days working with Europeans.

 

CULTURE STOCK I entered the retail sector in the 90s. Seibu was moving into Hong Kong and wanted to present a line of products that showed the true spirit of the city. I designed Alan Chan Creations (which included) Chinese tea tins, stationery, tableware and watches that looked at Hong Kong from a nostalgic point of view. That was before G.O.D. and Shanghai Tang, so it really was the first Hong Kong design brand, and I was able to export Hong Kong culture through this merchandise. It sold in small quantities all over the world, in five-star hotel gift shops here, plus we had four stores in Hong Kong. It wasn't money-driven, but it was fulfilling for a designer. But because of our success in branding and the economic turmoil, I had little time to devote to this. A few years ago, I was lucky to find a young Chinese couple interested in marketing my products. I had no time to create anything new, but talked it over with my partner and wife, Sandra, and she said that since the products were nostalgic, they were timeless. She encouraged me to reproduce my old products, plus limited editions for the launch of my first store in Tianzifang, Shanghai. The store is both a good marketing channel and an avenue for cultural exchange through the products. It didn't start out as a profit-making project but as a mission to let the new generation see that culture should never be neglected.

 

BRIDGE OVER DILUTED WATERS Last year, aged 60, and after 41 years in the business, I gave myself a mission that started with the construction of a bamboo bridge. I wanted to send a message about sharing - to share my experience with the new generation and help them rediscover their cultural perspective. I am planning to open a design museum in Quarry Bay. It will showcase what I've done during the past 40 years, but at the same time will be a platform for promoting young designers. It's easier, in a way, for the next generation because economic development means there are now more opportunities. But the quality has diluted. I think we have to educate clients and society about what good design means, and how design can be a tool to improve business. There needs to be more respect for the creative aspect of design.

 

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