The HK Design Legacy

Kan Tai-keung is an icon of Hong Kong design industry. As mainland was ushering in market reform, Kan led the mainland creative sector to grope its way towards blossoming. He witnessed the dedication from both mainland designers and policy makers. Now, Kan is ready to spearhead efforts alongside Hong Kong design elites to fight another bitter battle.

Kan said, “When I first enrolled in design school, I barely had any idea about the subject. I simply wanted to take some art course. It was sheer luck that I came across with some excellent design mentors.” The Hong Kong graphic design indusrty burgeoned around 1967 as Austrian graphic designer Henry Steiner launched business here. Steiner amazed the local designers by integrating the ideals of Bauhaus School with Chinese elements.

Kan added, “I didn’t have any clue about a (designer) career since there was no local precedent. I became a pathfinder simply because I did what I loved to.”

Kan was famous for his diligence and he eventually founded a design firm with a friend in 1976. As a member of the sprouting design community, Kan found the freedom and fun of creativity entirely delightful. He evolved his own design style and was excited by the whole new world of running a bussiness.

Late 1970s saw the commencement of another historic chapter when the just- ended-Cultural Revolution has left the country in abject destitute. As Deng Xiaoping pressed ahead with his open reform initiative, Hong Kong was the only channel available for accessing the western world. The territory was therefore in many ways a driving engine for further reform momentum. Design sector definitely was one of the key components of this engine.

According    to    renowned    Hong    Kong sociologist Lui Tai-lok, Kan, born 1942, is among the first batch of post-war baby boomers. His fellow associate Freeman Lau, born late 1950s, represents the second echelon baby boomer. Kan, in the vanguard of Hong Kong designers stationing mainland, has secured a stable business. His story is also a testimony of the mainland design sector, which started from scratch and then developed at a stunning pace.

It must however be admitted that Hong Kong now no longer enjoys the benefits as the sole channel to reach western ideas as three decades ago. Mainland is more open than before, while internet has enabled state-of-the-art technology, newly found knowledge and recently inspired concepts to spread on Chinese soil directly.

The tide waits for no one. Many multi-national giants have already by-passed Hong Kong to set up their regional headquarters in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. They can find local employees who had “guanxi” in mainland, many of them have studied overseas. Hong Kong is now fighting an uphill battle to find a niche.

Hong Ko, born 1978, entered the design industry in 2000 upon graduation. There was already relatively little room and opportunities for development. Ranking the fourth generation of post-war period, Ko is facing competition from his mainland counterparts, who are equipped with a more open mindset plus a deeper understanding of mainland culture.

Ko said,“When I first met mainland designers, they impressed me a lot. This was because most of them, at around 25 or 26, already had ran their own design firm with some 25 employees. In contrast, Hong Kong designers were mostly freelancers or working at design house. It was the market environment, rather than individual designer’s calibre or background, which made the difference. I concluded that one should find the right battlefield (market) before he or she could develop.”

The edge of Hong Kong designers is getting thinner and thinner, Ko admitted. He urged Hong Kong designers to adapt to the thinking of mainland market so as to win recognition from mainland clients. The late comers have missed the hey day yet Ko insisted that every dog has its day. Ko said he is more market oriented, putting clients’ needs in perspective.

He added, “I recently found that some Hong Kong companies were hiring mainland design firms which charged lower price. The prospect of Hong Kong design firms is anything but great. When your boss gets no job, designers end up unemployed...”

On the other hand, the Chinese central government has realized the significance of upgrading its industries. The authorities are hoping to change the “sweatshop” into a service centre for high added-value products. Thus, the process of “made in China” would emerge as “created in China”, which means a larger proift margin. The Chinese government has stipulated in its “11th five yearly plan” (2006 -2010) that creative industries shall be an emphasis and that the coastal cities shall develop clusters of creative industries. The policy has set the foundation for the further flourishing of the sector.

Recently years, “798 Art Zone” in Beijing, “M50 Creative Garden” and “Bridge no 8” in Shanghai are applauded by many. In the vicinity of Hong Kong, the Futian Cultural and Creative Park in Shenzhen has secured tenants from various creative industries. Separately, Shenzhen also won UNESCO City of Design title in 2008.

The rise of cultural industries were accompanied by the looming of bourgeois especially in the first-tier cities. Kan, whose headquarters in Hong Kong for the last three decades, are shifting the focus to mainland. With the preferential policies of Shenzhen authorities which allow more flexibility, the Kan and Lau’s Shenzhen setup is now even bigger than its Hong Kong office.

Still, Kan, despite a veteran with versatility, is not immune from challenges. He is facing the gap between Hong Kong and mainland’s different culture. He said, “Since the focus will be in mainland, I wish some Hong Kong staff can work in Shenzhen office. However, they are reluctant to do so. “

It is nevertheless a reflief that most of the Hong Kong staff are demonstrating more responsibility towards the company. He said, “Most of them (hk staff ) work here for decades. Few of them are hired for less than two years. Some even chose to return after leaving.”

In comparison, Shenzhen office was plagued by the brain drain problem. He said, “Mainland youngsters tend to be more ambitious and impatient. They felt that they are quick learner and are willing to leave the company for an extra fifty yuan in monthly salary. In fact, they are not ready even if they stay here for two years and so they are not competitive enough.”

Another cultural gap related problem is the way to handle business. Kan cited kick-backs as an example, saying that the corruption has been notorious in the mainland industry. Those who insist not paying the illegal commission receive little job, if not none.

Yet Kan said, “The mal-practise may be in line with your own immediate interest but it is against the industry’s. The bribery is at the expense of industrial dignity. “ He stressed that he would safeguard the “integrity” of the industry and is adamant to pass the notion to the younger generation.

Kan realized that he was investing for the long haul to adhering to his principles and ideals. He said, “The fidelity and honesty, that I bring to this place (mainland) , shall prevail and sets the benchmark.”

At a time when designers from Taiwan and overseas are jostling the mainland market, Kan stressed that Hong Kong should embark on a different quest. Regardless of their age, Hong Kong people and officials should search their souls and ask the very question about the positioning and core- value of Hong Kong society. Only when the quest undertaken could Hong Kong locate its niche and strength.

The future offers challenge for Kan and the Hong Kong design sector as a whole. Against an even bigger backdrop, these issues requires thorough contemplation and responsive actions among the Hong Kong community.


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