November 27th, 2008

Selling Hong Kong’s Heritage

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“A lot of the these things were just picked up from the street. They were just junk, literally, from the skip. It’s interesting how once it’s in here people start to take pictures.”

It’s exactly what Douglas Young had hoped for. The 42-year-old architect, designer and co-founder of Goods of Desire, a Hong Kong lifestyle brand better known as G.O.D., has spent years collecting bits of ephemera – the remnants of everyday Hong Kong life. They have long been the inspiration for the Hong Kong-themed clothes, furniture and accessories that have become G.O.D.’s trademark. Now they are on display at G.O.D.’s latest initiative, the Hong Kong Street Culture Gallery, in the newly-opened Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.

The Street Culture Gallery is a hybrid gallery-boutique. G.O.D.-designed products are sold there, along with books on Hong Kong history, art and culture, and CDs featuring Cantonese pop hits from the 1960s. But throughout the space are hundreds of relics of Hong Kong life, past and present, from old bottles of Horlicks malt powder to Maoist kitsch that would be familiar to many of the mainland Chinese refugees who settled here in the 1950s and 60s.

“We’re not really doing much sales, full stop,” admits Young. “It’s more like a club, I think, where people can sit and chat, have a drink and absorb the atmosphere, talk about Hong Kong culture. It’s like a Hong Kong culture club.”

In 1996, G.O.D. came into life as a small design firm in Ap Lei Chau. From the beginning, Young’s aim was to create a uniquely Hong Kong brand, starting with its name, which is meant to sound like jyu hou di, a Cantonese expression meaning “live better.” (The character for di, incidentally, is purely local – it cannot be found in standard written Chinese.) Young emblazoned pillows, shirts and notebooks with photos of Kowloon tenements, rusty tin mailboxes and old Chinese newspaper classifieds.

With growth came confidence. G.O.D. now operates three retail stores and a concept department store called Delay No Mall, where temporary “pop-up” fashion boutiques share a former cinema with art and performance spaces. Its approach to design and marketing is decidedly cheeky. The brand’s attention-grabbing slogan, Delay No More, sounds like an especially naughty Cantonese swear. And last year, police raided G.O.D. outlets after they began selling a t-shirt that referred to an infamous Hong Kong triad. 18 people were arrested, including store clerks, designers and Douglas Young himself.

Click on the above image to see images of the Street Culture Gallery and listen to Douglas Young speak about G.O.D.

While G.O.D. is one of the few retail brands that sees Hong Kong culture and heritage as its main source of inspiration, it is not alone in the art and design world, which has taken a particularly keen interest in those themes in recent years.

That’s good news for artists like Karden Chan, 26, who was thrust into the public spotlight when two of her woodblock prints became symbols of the fight to save the Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry clock tower in 2006. Social issues, such as heritage, are an essential part of Chan’s work. Her medium of choice, woodblock printing, is a reference to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when students in Beijing used woodblock prints to spread their message of social and political reform.

“I think everyone in society needs to help one another, to look out for each other. [The Star Ferry demolition] sort of represents the destruction of Hong Kong. It’s unjust that the establishment had to take this space from the people. It’s unimaginable that they wanted to destroy it,” she says.

Last year, Chan was invited by Douglas Young to take part in a G.O.D.-sponsored art event, but she declined.

“[Young] is a very curious person,” she says. “He’s exploiting history. His heart is not into preservation, really. He doesn’t care about what is behind the design and only cares about the aesthetics.”

Chan also objects to the high sticker price of many items sold by G.O.D. She sells her prints on t-shirts and bags, but they are priced just above cost, she says, and they benefit local community organizations. “Personally, I’m quite afraid of putting a price on my work. The bags I sell are made by a women’s group. I mark the price to $120 only because the cost of production is quite high.”

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Karden Chan’s original Star Ferry prints

On a bright Sunday afternoon in November, the Street Culture Gallery was thronged with visitors, many of them armed with cameras. Here’s what some of them had to say.

“It’s my first time here. I don’t think it’s nostalgic. It’s more like a novelty.”
— Kit Lun, while taking photos of a model wedding banquet

“I brought my son here to see what I experienced. It’s a personal interest for me because I grew up on the mainland and I used many of these same things when I was young.”
— Mrs. Yeung, while looking at a collection of old jars, dishes and tins

“I think there should be more galleries like this. This is Hong Kong culture. It should remain in the city. I’m 29 but I see this in old movies or television, so I can feel the old Hong Kong and imagine.”
— Kay Yan, student at Shue Yan University, while documenting the gallery for a school project

“It’s beautiful. I like the way they are showing these materials. I think that they are part of the Hongkongese culture. I like that it is also a shop because you can see where these things they are selling come from, the link between the present and the past.”
— Mauro Marchesi, Italian artist working on a project in Aberdeen, while looking at some books

“At first I found it a little bit strange. You see the old photographs and other old things, but also some new ideas. I don’t know how to link that.”
— Meng Wen, Baptist University student originally from Beijing, while researching a school project

This project will be published next week on the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre’s Hong Kong Stories website.


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One comment

  1. Sue Anne says:

    I wish there was a more artist driven, less commercially oriented drive to commemorate shikumen and longtang life in Shanghai. One that is more organic. Most of the young generation in Shanghai no longer live in longtangs, they’d be hard-pressed to recall much less create a gallery like this.

    January 24th, 2011 at 9:10 pm