City Weekend

Meet the young designers leading growth in Hong Kong’s creative industries despite challenges

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has pledged to boost the city’s creative industries, but struggling young entrepreneurs say so far help is lacking

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 11:07am

Hong Kong’s young creative entrepreneurs have insisted they continue to face significant social, financial and cultural barriers to success despite being hailed as key to the generation who will drive the city’s economy into the future.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to boost creative industries as the city loses ground on its traditional strengths such as retail. But those working in the creative sector have suggested their success is almost entirely self-made, as they battle to survive in a difficult economic climate with minimal government assistance.

It remains doubtful whether Hong Kong’s highly bureaucratic government has the means to push forward creative industries. The city lacks an overarching authority dedicated to the cause. The government set up CreateHK under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau in June 2009 in a bid to drive development, but it lacks the power to formulate policy. This responsibility lies solely with the bureau.

CreateHK supports the Design Incubation Programme, administered by the non-profit Hong Kong Design Centre, which aims to nurture start-ups. But between 2005 and 2015, the programme supported only 170 design start-ups – less than 20 per year. Designers have claimed that is not enough to supply demand in the city. The government, which celebrated a 12th consecutive fiscal surplus this year, has promised it will be expanded.

Ceramicist Grace Tong Hiu-yan, who runs her pottery business Hiuchi from a rented studio at a converted factory in Kwai Chung, said it was “really difficult” to start her company in 2015 because of a lack of government support for independent design businesses.

“Many local designers are frustrated because they can hardly make ends meet,” she said. “Korea, Japan and European countries have provided substantial support for their designers; they are given funds to rent studios. But the Hong Kong government hardly provides any support for us. If local artists are forced to stop pursuing their path because of money, it will be a pity and a shame.”

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Tong, 27, who studied fashion and design at Caritas Bianchi College of Careers, said it would have been almost impossible to launch her career without the support of her family.

“It was hard at first because I’m a one man band; I do everything in the company,” she said. “But I am thankful that my family are supportive. That is very lucky for me. Some families in Hong Kong would not like their children to do design and art. My family don’t have a design and art background, but they do appreciate it.”

Creative growth

Although Hong Kong has not traditionally been considered an arts hub, and typical Hong Kong families have tended not to encourage creative careers, such industries have nevertheless shown signs of growth in recent years.

Between 2005 and 2015, employment in cultural and creative industries increased 24 per cent, from 171,990 to 213,880, according to figures from the Census and Statistics Department.

In the same period, the value added to the sector as a percentage of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product increased from 3.8 per cent to 4.7 per cent.

Shot in the arm for Hong Kong creative industries

Supporting this growth, in June 2009, the government established the HK$300 million CreateSmart

Initiative to “provide financial support to projects with objectives that are in line with the strategic direction to drive the creative industries”. By March last year, 270 projects had been given HK$570 million of funding, but small-scale designers and artists complained they were being ignored in favour of more lucrative projects in areas such as architecture.

In 2015, about 16,220 people were employed in the design sector, which included interior and furniture design, multimedia, visual and graphic design, fashion and accessories design and industrial design. The sector had an added value of about HK$4.1 billion that year, according to government estimates.

One of the biggest challenges faced by creatives is high rents in what is the fourth most densely populated place in the world. Hong Kong’s industrial buildings, which offer larger spaces for comparatively lower rents than residential and commercial properties, have consequently become a haven for young artists to start new businesses.

Since 2014, Sisi Ng Wing-sze, owner of fashion and lifestyle brand Mosorsisi, which primarily offers handmade hats, has been paying about HK$12,000 per month for a studio in the same converted Kwai Chung factory as Tong. Like her contemporary, 27-year-old Ng refuses to open her own store in a shopping mall for fear that her products might deteriorate in quality and become more homogenous to others on the market.

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But Ng, who started her business at home six years ago after studying fashion design at the Clothing Industry Training Authority, does sell her products in LOG-ON, a lifestyle store which is part of Hong Kong supermarket chain City’super.

She said sustaining her business was even more difficult than launching it, mainly because of high rents.

“Even though I rent a flat in an industrial building, I think a handcraft shop can hardly afford that,” she said. “I would never consider opening my shop in a shopping mall. If I moved into a shopping mall, everything would be different and would deteriorate. For handcrafters like me, I think we have to maintain our original will and belief when running a business.”

Made in Hong Kong

The value of Hong Kong’s total exports of cultural and creative goods around the world increased from HK$422.4 billion in 2005 to HK$537.9 billion in 2012, before falling to HK$487.9 billion in 2015, according to figures from the Census and Statistics Department.

Mainland China continues to be Hong Kong’s biggest export market for design services, and there is consequently an increasing demand for high-end products from the city, according to a report from April last year by the Design Centre.

Ng, whose artistic inspirations include 1980s Hong Kong films and elements of Japanese culture, said she feels passionate about ensuring Mosorsisi remains a Hong Kong brand.

“The manufacturing industry was the most flourishing industry in Hong Kong in the past, and I think we should retain it,” she said. “My goal is to open my own production line with a few more workers, but I will only open that in Hong Kong. It’s just like safeguarding Hong Kong; I want our city to be lovely again.

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“It can be difficult to persuade people to buy my products, because often people don’t want to spend the extra money on certain items. But they don’t account for the fact that I am making these products by hand.”

Meanwhile, Tong described how her products were primarily popular in Hong Kong, but she hoped she could increasingly promote her business abroad, in Taiwan and Europe.

She said she decided to focus on handmade ceramics and jewellery after she graduated because it was a niche market, as opposed to the saturated fast-fashion market. Last year, her products, which range from a HK$180 pair of earrings to a HK$1,680 minimalist pottery clock, were featured at Tokyo Design Week.

“My designs are most inspired by nature; the scenery and animals,” she said. “I go to country parks during the winter and take pictures for inspiration. I also get inspired on my travels, particularly in France and Japan, by the scenery, architecture and museums.”

The government often highlights the transformation of a former factory in Shek Kip Mei into the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, which houses about 100 artists and art groups to produce and showcase their work, as signifying its commitment to the arts.

Meanwhile, there have been criticisms of the cultural revitalisation project at the former police married quarters (PMQ) in Central, which opened in April 2014 after redevelopment. In 2015, shop owners, some of whom have now left the site, complained of high rents, low traffic and poor business because they claimed the project was managed like a shopping mall rather than a cultural hub.

Meanwhile, Professor Eric Lim, chairman of the Design Centre, said he was confident this government would continue to invest in creative industries, although he admitted it was “not easy” for some entrepreneurs to establish themselves.

He suggested the government consider setting up a creative design park equivalent to the Hong Kong Science Park, providing subsidised living and working spaces for creative entrepreneurs.

He added that Hong Kong should look to London for inspiration on how to develop this sector.

“As long as we can seize the opportunities through creative industries, we can have much more innovation,” he said. “I hope the government can give us more support.”

A spokeswoman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said creative industries were one of the powerhouses of Hong Kong’s economy.

“In order to capitalise on the high growth potential of creative industries in Hong Kong and to maximise their contribution to Hong Kong’s economy, CreateHK is committed to engaging creative and energetic people to develop their potential in our city,” she said, “and to sustain Hong Kong as a trend-setting creative hub as well as a metropolis rich in arts and culture.”

Some of Hong Kong’s award-winning artists and achievements

Acclaimed local designer Stanley Wong has won more than 500 local and international awards for 84000 Communications, which specialises in graphic design, photography and brand consulting.

Another local artist, painter Sarah Lai Cheuk-wah, a fine arts graduate from Chinese University of Hong Kong, has won numerous local art awards. In 2010, she was a finalist in the Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

Tsang Kin-Wah is another notable name in the scene. The visual artist, who moved to Hong Kong from the mainland as a child, is known for his wallpaper art installations. He won the Sovereign Art Prize at the age of just 25 in 2005, and represented Hong Kong at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Hong Kong has also been a site for art shows. Since 2013, Art Basel Hong Kong has brought an eclectic mix of art to the city. In March, more than 70,000 people visited the one-week show, which featured works from 34 countries and territories.

The government has also set up the West Kowloon Cultural District, which sits on 40 hectares of waterfront land close to Yau Ma Tei, to promote arts and culture. It hosts regular arts events but it will eventually be home to various concert halls and M+, a museum of contemporary culture.