Hong Kong interior designer in Beijing stocks his store with stories

The items in Lau Hiu-fai's experimental shop in Beijing all have tales of their own to tell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 4:15am

The year 2003 was one most Hongkongers would rather forget. For months, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) cast a pall over the city. Lau Hiu-fai's sadness was deepened by the deaths of Canto-pop stars Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Anita Mui Yim-fong. The young designer, then 25, wanted to escape, and decided to move to Beijing, which he considered a city of art and tranquility. After almost a decade of ups and downs in the capital, Lau turned from graphic arts to interior design, opening a vintage shop called Delia in Beijing's Wudaoying Hutong in 2011. For Lau the store is more an experimental workshop in which he displays products that tell stories, notably of Hong Kong's glory days in the '70s and '80s.

Why did you open Delia in Beijing?

I am a designer and love collecting retro objects. I wanted to display my collection of favourites in my shop and share them with people in Beijing. Delia is my experimental workshop for displaying items that tell a story. For instance, I placed a pair of European glasses, a Japanese handbag and a Chinese restaurant menu from 1989 together in a display. All these items inspire different messages for different people. I also link the theme of my displays with news events. When the Bo Xilai scandal emerged, I displayed some books about Chongqing.

What are the characteristics of the things you sell?

I am interested in Chinese design culture from the '60s to the late '80s. Many people might not remember the Cultural Revolution favourably, but I am still taken with the idea of "serving the people" in design. Products of that era were functional and designed for daily life. I like this concept, which is something today's designers should know about and keep in mind. Other vintage shops sell mainly clothes and bags or furniture, but my shop sells more objects that reveal the characteristics of an era. Even as you choose clothes in my shop, you might also be attracted by a chair, a pair of glasses and a handbag from the same era. Although the products are so different, I have more room to be creative and to tell different stories with my shop displays.

What reactions have you received for your story-telling displays?

Some customers find them very special. Foreign visitors are more likely to ask me why I put certain objects together. One young Beijing man asked why I displayed the Chinese restaurant menu. He said: "It should mean something." I was happy about his curiosity and replied: "What do you think?" Foreign customers are more interested in my products as I think they cherish and appreciate the culture of other countries. British people like buying postcards, posters and drawings, and the Germans prefer furniture. Chinese customers are less interested as the things in my shop are more familiar to them, and they may even use them at home. But Beijing welcomes people from different cultures, and there is a lot of room here for me to run such a shop as a space to demonstrate creativity. If I opened a similar shop in Hong Kong I am afraid no one would be interested.

You also sell vinyl records of Hong Kong's Canto-pop singers such as Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. What stories do you want to tell about them?

As a Hongkonger, I have a responsibility to bring Hong Kong music and design to Beijing. Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung are my idols, and they represent Hong Kong's glorious era in the '70s and '80s. Their music and stories are part of Hong Kong's history. I have Hong Kong friends who send me their collections to sell in my shop. These objects, such as postcards and paintings, catch the attention of foreign and mainland customers who cherish culture and history. It is sad that such things are not as appreciated in Hong Kong. Learning from history is a basic tenet for design, so our creativity will be impaired if we live in a city that does not work at preserving its history.

Have you taken any new design ideas from Hong Kong to Beijing?

I hope my shop can be a platform to exchange the new and old cultures of Hong Kong with mainland people. I have introduced jewellery by a young Hong Kong designer, Cheung Lik. People in Beijing can get a glimpse of the energy and creativity of Hong Kong's younger generation. I have also sold albums of the Hong Kong band The Pancakes.

You have run this shop for more than two years. What is your next dream for Beijing?

I will display some design pieces, mainly furniture, at the Beijing Design Week next month. The idea of my works is to make use of old things to create something new. For example, I used three mirrors made in Shanghai in the 1920s to create a teapot. I also combined an antique chair with a Rolling Stones album cover. I hope to inspire people with objects that they may already have forgotten. I hope to tell people that new designs can be inspired by history. I have been in Beijing for 10 years, and I really want to let more people know that Hong Kong design can gain attention in Beijing, or even Europe. Someday I hope my work will be recognised by the people in Hong Kong, my hometown.