Q: What are the strengths that Hong Kong has and must capitalise on in the future? A: Cultural fusion, a level playing field, the rule of law, social morality and respect for professional ethics Hong Kong should not wallow in its current woes, or it will risk missing out on a golden opportunity, warns the city's design guru. The city should seize these next few years to tap into its own competitiveness, while it is still ahead of the mainland, and play a smart game to survive and thrive in the flow of history, says Kan Tai-keung, an award-winning graphic designer. However, Kan fears that Hong Kong was already heading into a decline well before the recent political rifts over the selection of the chief executive in 2017. He notes the findings by human-resources consultancy ECA International that ranked Hong Kong 33rd among the world's most livable cities, a fall of 16 places from its 17th spot last year. "It came as no surprise to me," says Kan with a sigh. "I knew more than ten years ago that Hong Kong wouldn't be able to keep its competitiveness, not even in the Greater China region, much less in the world. "The true international metropolis in China is Shanghai, which is second to none in its geopolitical location in the Yangtze Delta, and in its business talent from the Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions, to whom Hong Kong owes its rise, too," he adds. The wayward path China took after closing its doors in the 1950s held back Shanghai, and Hong Kong profited from the freeze, says Kan. Born in Panyu in southern Guangdong, he witnessed the historic switch in the titular positions of the two cities. He arrived in Hong Kong in the fateful summer of 1957, when the mainland was engulfed in a nationwide anti-rightist campaign that morphed into the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, and purged many of China's intellectuals until the late 1970s. It was during those decades that Kan worked his way up from being a tailor's apprentice to the city's top designer, his career expanding along with Hong Kong's transformation from an entrepot to a finance centre. He owes his success, Kan says modestly, to Hong Kong's unique advantages, which undergird the city's competitiveness. "East-West cultural fusion, level playing field, rule of law, social morality, and respect for professional ethics are the five major strengths of Hong Kong. I reflected on these when I turned 70, and those are the areas we should safeguard in order to stay competitive," he says. But he warns there are disturbing signs that threaten the city's competitiveness. "Our culture has always been inclusive regardless of East or West," he says. "But now it's no longer the case, as Hongkongers have become rather exclusive and tarnished our core values," he adds, referring to the recent rise of anti-mainland sentiment among some locals. "The Tang dynasty [618-907] became great because it took in all cultures. The same was true in Hong Kong in the 1960s. I was among the first generation to have long hair and listen to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. But Beethoven was my favourite, too. Everything was open and only the sky was the limit. "But now people have imposed upon themselves either yellow or blue," he says, referring to colours linked, respectively, with support or opposition to last year's Occupy protests. Kan likens the old colonial government to a "skilled gardener who tended the tree that is Hong Kong with the latest scientific know-how from the West so it grew strong". "But the roots remain Chinese, along with its culture and way of life. The deeper and more extensive the roots, the stronger the tree will become," he adds. Absorbing Western culture did not weaken Kan's deep-rooted sense of Chinese culture, thanks to his traditional family upbringing and early education on the mainland. But he admits he underwent a "soul-searching rethink" in mid-career, which brought about a breakthrough in his design philosophy. "It was in the mid-1970s that I began to re-acquaint myself with China; not with Communist Party politics or Mao Zedong's Little Red Book , but its culture. I went back to the old Chinese tradition of landscape ink painting and through it reconnected with my grandfather, who was a painter. It was from the old masters and traditions that I launched my career, with fresh inspiration and materials for my art and design. "I was never again a copycat of the West. That got me nowhere," he recalls. Kan firmly believes that answers to the city's problems can be found in art and culture. As an example, he points to the national education controversy of 2012. In what was the first political crisis for the new Leung Chun-ying administration, the chief executive was forced to drop the proposed mandatory subject in the face of mass protests. "National education is necessary but I think traditional art and culture should be the main content," says Kan. "No-one regards appreciation for refined art as brainwashing. When a person is fond of his culture, it's only natural that he would be fond of the country, not the regime "Articulation in art is conducive to creativity and competitiveness as well as depth and critical thinking," he says. "Art is a generic term that also includes literature, dance, music and so on over the long Chinese history. Literature alone contains the so-called 'hundred schools of thoughts', so it can't involve indoctrination in one given ideology." Drawing from his own experience, he says art education should start from kindergarten and be taught at all levels as a proper subject, like mathematics and language. It should not be an elective part of general studies. Again, drawing on his own experience, he believes a person can be rooted in Chinese art and still maintain a global worldview. "When I decided not to join the emigration wave during the Sino-British talks on Hong Kong's future in 1983, I put together a motto for myself: I am based in Hong Kong, but I am a Chinese designer, and a global citizen too as my works belong to Asia and to the world," he says. For those critical of the mainland, Kan advises that they showcase Hong Kong's strengths to the people there. This is something that he has been taking pride in since the early days of China's opening up in the late 1970s. "I take Hong Kong's professional ethics to my branch office in China. Over the past 10-plus years, contrary to the practice of some there in the design business, I have not taken a penny in bribes, and my company has expanded from five staffers to more than 40 now," Kan says. On what it would take for China to embrace different ways of managing and nurturing art, Kan cites his eight years as dean of the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design at Shantou University as a case in point. "In China, the party secretary is the boss. During my deanship, I worked very hard to be an equal to the party boss. It was very difficult at first and at one point I even asked for a replacement. You can see how naive I was. "Over time, I learned how to carry out the reforms within my authority as a dean, and to assure the party chief of my support for his work and to count on his support for mine. "In the end, I obtained autonomy in academic and financial decisions while paying him respect in party and ideological work. While there was space for change, it had to take into consideration the stakeholders, including the state, and the country's realities." He says that his adjustments paid off towards the end of his tenure, when the school's party chief talked in an internal speech about equality of power for the university's administration, academics and political office. "That was absolutely unheard of, and wouldn't have worked if I had taken an uncooperative attitude towards the party boss, who, by official protocol, is above the dean." "Of course, this happened in a school, not the Hong Kong SAR. But what it did show is how we explored reform within a given framework to bring about progress. The Shantou model, though small, has drawn national attention," he adds. "Likewise, Hong Kong should seize the rare historic opportunity in China's modernisation drive and contribute, through successful cases of reform that can radiate to the Greater China region." Eighteen years have passed since the handover in 1997. On what's ahead, Kan advises: "We should not give up on the rest of the 50-year period and take an antagonistic stance. "Instead, we should do our best to find space and make a difference within the perimeters." Kan Tai-keung: from tailor's apprentice to design guru Born in Panyu in 1942, Kan Tai-keung received his early education under the nationalist government and, after 1949, the socialist regime where he was taught "to love your country more than your parents", he recalls. He counts himself lucky to get the best, from classics to modern literature, during the so-called Hundred Flowers period in 1956. He left for Hong Kong when things nosedived into the anti-rightist campaign a year later. But he confronted another kind of quandary in the then British crown colony. "I was 15 and no school would accept me because I knew no English. So I worked as an apprentice at my father's tailor shop and that's where I was for the next 10 years," he recounts. Kan decided to enrol in evening school to study English - with daily classes starting at 10 pm - and, in 1967, pushed himself further with a diploma course in graphic design at the extramural school of Chinese University. "I completed the course and scored first in the class. But the school did not issue me a diploma because I did not have a secondary school certificate," he laments. But it did not take long for the young man to gain recognition in design contests and obtain prestigious tasks such as designing the stamp for the Year of the Pig in 1969. "With memories still fresh from the 1967 riots and the Cultural Revolution raging across the border, things got sensitive even with the stamp. So much for freedom of expression," he says. The image of a white pig - a label used by the rioters for the British-Hong Kong police officers - and the colour red were explicitly banned in the design contest. Not having a diploma did not dent Kan's job opportunities. Besides teaching part-time at Hong Kong Polytechnic, he applied and found himself soon shortlisted for a job at the new Independent Commission Against Corruption. "The interviewing officer was Jack So [Chak-kwong] and he wanted me to join and offered me the highest salary point for a non-diploma applicant," he says with a laugh. But Kan decided to stay in the design profession and in 1976 took over from his boss who left for Canada. In 1979, he became the first designer to become one of the Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons, a top accolade for the city's young professionals, including Leung Chun-ying in 1988. In just 12 years, a tailor's apprentice became the city's top designer who would go on to greater acclaim in the succeeding decades - in Hong Kong and on the mainland.