Within a few months, discerning Hongkongers seeking the very finest in creativity and design will probably feel compelled to board a ferry bound for Shekou.
The port and former offshore oil base on the western periphery of Shenzhen, which hardly existed prior to the 1980s, is to be home to a major new design museum, on schedule to open early next year and created in collaboration with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
The Shekou Design Museum is a symbol, if any were needed, that the city, still dismissed by many Hongkongers as a purveyor of copy handbags and cheap massages, is an emerging epicentre of design and creativity. Shenzhen’s positioning of itself as an international “design city” has been so rapid that it has left Hong Kong struggling in its wake. In terms of “creative juice”, compared with the dynamic former factory town, Hong Kong appears to be running on empty.
“When you think of design, think of digital design and then think of the impact of digitisation in our daily lives, that is Shenzhen,” says Luisa Mengoni, head of the visiting V&A team, gazing down at the museum construction site from her office on the 28th floor of China Merchants Tower.
This is the first overseas collaboration undertaken by the V&A, explains Mengoni, adding that it combines a consultation service to the client, China Merchants Shekou Holdings, with the delivery of a V&A design gallery within the museum.
Together with the recently launched Design Society, the “all encompassing brand”, the museum is headed by renowned architecture historian, editor, curator and lecturer Ole Bouman.
“Shenzhen is unique because, in the process of reinventing itself, it had the [unique selling point] of being able to produce anything – to create new sources of revenue,” says the former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, who moved his family from Amsterdam to Shenzhen a few months ago to “live within the centre of a frenzy of human drive”.
“This is an opportunity to be involved in something unfolding,” says Bouman, and the facts tend to support his observations.
In 2004, the Shenzhen municipal government ambitiously announced its intention to build a “capital of creative design” and heralded the slogan “From Made in China to Created in China”. Soon afterwards, it set up a 300 million yuan fund to support creative start-ups and by 2008, Shenzhen had successfully applied to Unesco to become the first Chinese city to join the Creative Cities Network as a “City of Design”.
Shenzhen has more than 6,000 design companies employing more than 100,000 staff, according to a recently published report by Marco Bontje, assistant professor in urban geography at the University of Amsterdam. And Shenzhen claims that its cultural and creative industries (CCI; which encompass everything from advertising and architecture to television and video-game development) have grown at an average annual rate of 25 per cent. In 2010, those companies were valued at 72.6 billion yuan, representing 7.6 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product and, by 2015, that share was projected to have become 14.5 per cent.
The validity of some of the data should be treated with scepticism – and the definition of CCI varies, depending on who is doing the defining – but the overall trend is undeniable; Shenzhen is forging ahead as an international design city and it is motivated by sound economic pragmatism as much as by municipal pride.
“Creative city strategies have become very popular in the past 10 to 15 years ... because creative industries are, or have been, one of the fastest-growing economic sectors since the 1990s,” explains Bontje, who lived in Hong Kong for three months while carrying out his Shenzhen fieldwork.
The buzzing optimism in Shenzhen stands in stark contrast to the feeling of frustration and stagnation among designers and many parts of the creative sector in Hong Kong. Venues mired in delays and controversy (the M + museum for visual culture), collapsing (the former Central Police Station) or simply closed (the Museum of Art) seem to be a metaphor for a wider malaise in the city.
“Hong Kong is not a great place to develop a design, to be honest,” says Kiesly Tsang Chiu-ki, founder of Design 1+1, a platform for promoting the best in local design. “It is very commercial.”
Speaking at design store Aluminium, in Central, she admits that despite glowing press reviews and long hours, it is taking time to develop her concept into a commercial success.
“If I am to promote Hong Kong designers I want people to reach our platform and see something really great. I would like my own flagship store but the rental is impossible. I am not making money from [Design 1+1] but it is my passion,” she says, defiantly.
Hongkongers do not value local design, often preferring established overseas brands, and will put products back on the shelf upon learning they are created locally, says Tsang.
In stark contrast, upmarket boutiques in Shenzhen sell locally designed fashion despite high price tags.
“The concept is really changing in the younger generation, who want to be different and seek smaller brands, including local Chinese brands,” says Mengoni. “I see this particularly in fashion and it’s a new phenomenon.”
It’s curious why such a marked difference in attitude should be observed over such a short geographical distance.
“Maybe it’s our colonial legacy,” says Leslie Lu Lam, principal of the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), in Tseung Kwan O, suggesting that Hong Kong consumers have been conditioned over decades to believe that the finest designs must come from Europe.
Also, says Tsang, many of the designers she knows in Hong Kong are forced to take “day jobs” to make ends meet.
“In Hong Kong, it is still very tough to get a job in design,” agrees Mengoni, “but in Shenzhen it is a developing area and there is huge demand.”
About 2,000 students graduate from the HKDI every year and the number of applicants for design-related courses is on the rise, despite what Lu sees as an ingrained cultural bias.
“Traditionally, Hong Kong parents don’t encourage their sons and daughters to be designers but if they really insist, then they should at least stick to architecture or interior design,” he says.
His institute is bucking the trend, says Lu, despite a challenging landscape for newly qualified designers.
“There are a few well-known product design studios left in Hong Kong but very few small independents or start-ups,” he says, and the result is that many of HKDI’s most talented graduates move on.
“There are no precise figures, but my rough estimate would be that at least 30 per cent of our students go to work [in China] and many others work overseas,” he says, adding that those who remain in their home city are expected to be “kick-starters”, who can solicit their own work as freelancers, which can be a challenge for young graduates with no business experience.
The institute organises pop-up exhibitions and other events to help expose the talent of alumni but it can only do so much to promote home-grown designers.
“It is not a healthy picture for Hong Kong,” Lu says.
Justin Li Pun-wang’s predicament is typical of the Hong Kong design dilemma. A talented, young, self-taught graphic designer who develops user interfaces for online apps, Li and his friends won a coveted award at a recent hackathon event for their digital solution to the environmental problem of discarded fishing nets. Despite his success at this and other competitions, Li has no intention of pursuing a career in design and has applied for a university place to study sports science.
“Graphic design is not really recognised in Hong Kong and it’s hard to make any money out of apps,” he says.
As Lu is keen to point out, there is no shortage of creative talent in Hong Kong, and neither is there a lack of political recognition of the economic value of creative industries such as design. Last year, the government’s statistics digest suggested that “Design is playing an important role as a source of innovative content and a key driver of enhancing economic value of products and business competitiveness,” but, compared with Shenzhen, the numbers are tiny. In 2013, the value of design industries to the economy (generally defined as the digital, graphics, products [including fashion] and spatial and environmental disciplines) was HK$3.7 billion, accounting for 3.5 per cent of the total CCI value, and the sector employed 15,120 people.
By comparison, there are 100,000 designers employed in Shenzhen design companies alone, before taking into account the fashion designers, jewellery designers, architects and urban designers, freelancers, and industrial-product designers employed in factories.
Since the formation of Create Hong Kong, under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, in 2009, the statistics do show that the value of CCI as a percentage of Hong Kong GDP has increased from 3.8 per cent in 2005 to 5.1 per cent in 2013.
At its offices on the 30th floor of Immigration Tower, in Wan Chai, a location not known for radical creative thinking, the head of CreateHK, former film industry executive Jerry Liu Wing-leung, explains that much of this improvement is driven by the growth in architecture triggered by the construction boom in China.
CreateHK says it is dedicated to spearheading the development of Hong Kong’s creative industries, and has a staff of some 70 people and a budget of about HK$200 million to invest in projects. Liu is passionate and instinctively supportive of the creative sector, and he thinks the contrast with Shenzhen should not be overplayed. He points to incubation and mentorship programmes for young design companies (currently limited to 20 per year) funded by the CreateSmart Initiative scheme and the hosting of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Design Biennale in September.
THE BIENNALE WAS to be hosted at the newly revitalised Central Police Station complex, but the collapse of a roof and wall in May has forced a change in venue, to nearby PMQ. This is an interesting choice because PMQ, once hailed as the landmark for local design talent, has been under fire from some quarters.
“PMQ’s mission is to nurture local ‘create-preneurs’ and designers by providing them different types of space and support to facilitate their sustainable growth and enhance their brand value,” says spokesman Wong Cheuk-yiu, but Tsang is not even considering the former police married quarters as a venue for her business.
“I can get an entire retail building in Sai Kung for less than double the rent of a tiny space on an upper floor [at PMQ],” she says. “We need our own community with our own vernacular that people readily associate with Hong Kong culture.”
Tsang is reluctant to criticise but, like many others, she asks why established and overseas brands such as Goods of Desire, Vivienne Tam and Britain’s Tom Dixon should form part of a creative centre for new local designers. Many others sympathise with PMQ management, who tread an impossible line between being a supportive hub for start-ups and local creative types and being commercially viable.
“The last thing that creative young designers need is a government project in the most expensive part of the city,” says Dr Tat Lam, an urban designer and the founder and chief executive of Shanzhai City, a social development incubator that operates in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and San Francisco. He worries, he says, about the “lack of mechanism to scale up cultural innovation in Hong Kong”.
Even Lu, who is generally supportive of the project, expresses doubts. “The management has a really tough choice deciding if they want to be a creative place or a shopping mall,” he says.
“As an oasis of semi-uncommercial, avant-garde anarchic zaniness and fun, PMQ is cr*p,” concluded local blog Big Lychee recently. “But in Hong Kong it’s surprising that it’s there at all.”
In Shenzhen, old industrial buildings have been turned into creative centres but, generally, they are not in the heart of the city, so it is cheap and easy for young designers to work and collaborate. Mengoni says Shenzhen schools have introduced art and creative design to the curriculum and the municipal government has initiated “maker spaces” – something else supported by the V&A. She also points to the power of WeChat (or Weixin), which has become a major online sales platform for Shenzhen designers.
There is a concern in both cities that too much planning is “top down” and the idea of a “man [or woman] from the ministry” inspiring innovative design is a contradiction in terms, but, Mengoni says, she sees signs of convergence between “top down” and “bottom up” initiatives in Shenzhen.
There is an energy and entrepreneurial vitality in the new city that rubs off in terms of design and creativity and it is no surprise that the Hong Kong government is desperate to partner with its neighbour before Hong Kong gets left behind completely.
“We are responding to this very aggressive branding by Shenzhen as a city of design by seeking collaboration, and this is backed up at government level,” says Liu, referring to a formal memorandum of understanding signed by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in February. Liu rejects the accusation that this is Hong Kong desperately hanging on to the coat tails of the more creative and dynamic Shenzhen.
“Given the critical mass and legacy of Hong Kong as a creative city, our collaboration with Shenzhen is not about giving up our role because they are so far ahead and can scale up so much more quickly,” he says.
Bontje thinks there is merit in a joint approach even though, in many ways, Hong Kong is much better positioned to be a creative city than Shenzhen. It is older, more cosmopolitan, better educated, has a genuinely international outlook and more freedom of expression (at least for now), but something is holding the city back.
Lu speculates that it could be the lack of local “stars of design” to ignite excitement, and suggests the likes of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Wong Kar-wai have given the Hong Kong film industry a tangible advantage as a creative sector in terms of public attention and enthusiasm.
Bouman talks about motivation creating significant cultural shifts in cities and offers another suggestion.
“In Holland, we talk about a famous rule of slowing down advantage – the fact you are advanced also makes you complacent; when there is little self-esteem or consolidation of brands it is all about the competition of ideas.
“Maybe Shenzhen is a city where complacency has not yet landed as many other metropolises like New York, London or even Hong Kong know it.”