The Briton in Beijing who made Mao suits fashionable again, and his 25-year journey from backpacker to TV personality
Naughty, irreverent and cool, Plastered 8 is an extension of Dominic Johnson-Hill’s personality, the fashion and art entrepreneur says. He muses on the weirdness of Chinese censorship and how he gets away with publicity stunts
Wearing a Mao suit and toting a revolver, a pouting girl titillates with a come-hither look. Sporting a Peking opera headdress, a cheeky-looking panda takes aim with a slingshot.
Such tongue-in-cheek takes on Chinese Communist icons in Dominic Johnson-Hill’s three quirky Beijing stores have made drab Mao suits and female Red Guard uniforms desirable.
Johnson-Hill’s creative streetwear brand, Plastered 8, is naughty, irreverent – and cool. His designs, commissioned from artists, adorn T-shirts, tourist souvenirs and the walls of cafes and hotels around the Chinese capital.
The British father of four, who is 45, says his brand is a celebration of his life.
“The brand is just an extension of my personality. I am very childlike, playful, a bit naughty and very energetic,” he says.
“When I started out in 2006, the design aesthetic was quite simple. Then as I …worked with more talented artists and had more money, I tried to create beautiful artworks that celebrate the Beijing that I love.”
In the city he has called home for nearly three decades, Johnson-Hill has gone from penniless single father sleeping on a friend’s sofa to TV personality and entrepreneur.
While he loves the Chinese capital, he pulls no punches in making fun of its ills through his designs.
His Beijing Air and Beijing Pollution Globe souvenirs poking fun at the city’s notorious smog have sold like hot cakes since their launch a few years ago.
While he stresses that he has no interest in politics, his designs have ruffled feathers occasionally. Officials came to one of his shops in 2010 and made him remove a stained-glass window of Chairman Mao.
“I don’t have any heavy messages [in my artwork]. If you asked me to talk about politics, I wouldn’t be able to come across as smart anyway. It’s not me. It’s not who I am,” Johnson-Hill says.
The middle-aged, motherly saleswomen in his shops act as gatekeepers to keep out designs that cross a line.
“I’ve never done a bad piece of artwork about [famous Chinese communist icons]. If I did that, my a-yi wouldn’t like it.”
“[My shop also has] a stained glass window of [late Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping. They love that. I also made one of [late model communist solder] Lei Feng and they put me on a Chinese newspaper [saying a foreigner has made a stained glass window for Lei Feng Day].
“But they didn’t like the one on Mao. It’s same glass but it’s a different style. [They didn’t see it] as being very flattering,” he says.
Johnson-Hill praises the way China has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty in just three decades, and says the country is a real gift to the world, offering innovation and new technology in fields such as medical science.
“It sounds like I’m towing the party line. But the more I get to know Chinese people, the more I love this country.”
Rather than leaving him exasperated, the censorship of his work he has experienced has bemused and baffled him. Because of his publisher’s objection, the title of his ghostwritten biography published in 2014 had to be renamed, with passages about his wilder youth expunged.
“I wanted to call my book Na Er Liang Kuai Na Er Dai Zhe [go and stay where it’s cool] because it’s a Beijing saying [a polite way of telling someone to go away] and I thought it had real attitude, but the publisher said, ‘You can’t have that’.”
The book was eventually called A Foreign Entrepreneur’s China Dream.
Johnson-Hill says what raises the eyebrows of censors is often “the weird stuff that you wouldn’t think of”.
Local radio and TV stations bleeped out mentions on talk shows of his star sign, Libra, and a Western pop star.
“They had a button called the dumb button. If something said was too sensitive, they would hit it and it would cut out eight seconds. And then it would loop back together.
“I mentioned Justin Bieber and [they pressed it] as [the singer] had just visited a Japanese shrine or something,” he says.
While he makes censors nervous, the Chinese public and his customers love his boldness in pushing buttons. His stunts to promote Plastered 8 have earned him wide publicity and resulted in long queues snaking around his shops.
He wore a T-shirt with a gun pointing at kids for a photo shoot for Time Out magazine’s family edition. “I thought it’d be fun to have that on a family magazine because people would get upset. I can’t believe I got away with that,” he says.
On a TV chat show, he wore a T-shirt which showed his phone number juxtaposed with a sticker advertising illicit drugs for sale, which he found on a Beijing street.
“Most people didn’t believe it’s my real number. I got a lot of phone calls.”
Through appearances with his family on reality TV shows such as Extraordinary Parents, Johnson-Hill has crafted an image as a family-loving, funky laowai – and as a result doesn’t have to spend a penny on advertising Plastered 8.
“The more playful and ridiculous I am, the more appreciated [I am] by the Chinese audience,” he says.
Johnson-Hill adds: “Chinese can be conservative when it comes to family values, education and work ethic. But when it comes to fashion, they are very daring. You see a guy in his forties walking past, wearing a bright shell suit, bright hat and ridiculous sneakers. Something may be too bold for Western audiences, but in China, they love it.”
The university dropout says his ability to tell a good story and connect with audiences means his brand will stay fresh even in the age of social media and live streaming.
Still, with young, flashy, Mandarin-speaking foreigners ubiquitous in Chinese media nowadays, Johnson-Hill, who travelled from Britain to Beijing in 1993 as a backpacker, is no longer a novelty.
“When I first started out on TV, I knew almost all the foreigners who were TV regulars. It was a small circuit. I would be called up by a TV station every single week. It is harder for me to get attention in the media than before.
“Recently, I was asked to do an [online] show. There were, like, 10 foreigners who are all in their twenties. They all speak very good Mandarin. I realised I was old.
“I went to the dressing room. They were doing my make-up and they handed me a mobile phone [and asked me to] talk to the audience. The whole show was broadcast live, on mobile, not TV. The [phone audience] sent me [virtual] flowers, pictures and ‘red packet’ money. The media has changed dramatically.”
Over the past year, Johnson-Hill has travelled around China with a film crew from the state news agency Xinhua to do a 24-part online TV series introducing places in China and its traditional culture.
“[For each episode] I met a local and hung out with them. Like I had lots of joking and banter with a guy from Dongbei. I drank and ate with a Hunan guy who drives a combine harvester and his family. It’s the relationship [I struck with locals] that is the most interesting part.”