A few months into our relocation to the modern, traditional, bustling, serene, wacky, fun, east-west cultural mash-up that is Hong Kong, I had already fallen madly in love with this city and the exhilarating feeling of being an expat. I was somewhat stunned that I didn’t miss New York City nearly as much as I had expected – to the point that I really began to question myself. Unable to fathom how I could have been so initially resistant to the move, I began to wonder if I had in fact stayed in NYC perhaps too long. Maybe I had become complacent.
While I had developed my addiction to travel years and years ago, were those few weeks of annual exploration called ‘vacation’ ever really enough to satisfy? Why hadn’t I sought the adventure of moving to another country sooner? Had I been missing out all those years?
The truth is, NYC is an amazing city. Even with the enhanced objectivity that is borne out of distance (both literal and emotional), I realize with some degree of self-reassurance that there are very clear reasons I stayed there for so long. And while I don’t miss it overall as much as I originally anticipated, there are distinct aspects that do still occupy a special place in my heart and leave me slightly longing. She is a city with edge – raw, confident, gritty, bursting with creativity and ambition, perpetually on the brink of discovering and showing off something (or someone) new – sometimes good, sometimes bad, frequently exceptional. Almost always original.
I missed that grit, that creative vibrancy and spirit. Hong Kong has much to offer – but there is no MoMA, no Met, no DIA or PS1, and only a small smattering of state-of-the-art performance venues with a comparatively limited rotation of cultural events of variable quality. I couldn’t seem to find much of an artistic underground scene, either – being new, perhaps I just didn’t know where to look.
Far from sterile or proper, Hong Kong still seemed..orderly, rule-abiding, a tad deferential. Sometimes this is a very good thing. I’m sure you saw or heard news coverage of the recent anti-mainland protests (or read my post) that highlighted their overall orderliness and peaceful conduct (with a couple exceptions) – respectable, absolutely, and certainly preferable to a much more violent alter-ego – but also a bit surprising.
Sometimes ‘rules’ are a hindrance. While mostly incredibly convenient, there are some processes here that seem nonsensical in their red tape – such as opening a bank account, which can take hours or even days (a rule-ridden remnant of the old British system). HBO is ‘cleansed’ of cursing, its sex scenes abbreviated before (gasp!) getting too overheated. What’s the point of showcasing provocative programming, if you stunt its ability to provoke? I wondered if perhaps this innate adherence to rules was impeding some cultural progression. Creatively speaking, after all, it is almost imperative to break a few rules to leap forward.
HK is largely driven by finance and tourism, luxury real estate and voracious consumerism. It is not a city renowned for its inspiring artistic underpinnings or sense of innovation. Historically, it has a culture that better understands the concept of its people blending in – rather than standing out.
So amidst my general excitement in the process of discovery and exploration of our adoptive hometown, I swept my disappointment in HK’s apparent lack of edge under the proverbial rug. Until hints of it began to reveal themselves – because after scratching the surface, there is always more than initially meets the eye.
I began to notice flickers of inspiration here and there. It started simply, with a glimpse of a group of twenty-somethings with a strong sense of street style – not too commonly seen here. Discovery of contemporary jewelry/accessory shops, Ame Gallery, Pretty Dangerous, The 9th Muse, and Kapok (I’m a sucker for a cool modern piece!). An appreciation of my fantastic hairstylist, Kiki (at the sleek Marek Art of Hair salon, recently renamed La Biosthetique Coiffure Beaute) – unafraid of switching up her look (including her hair, of course) whenever she likes.
A visit to a restaurant like Bo Innovation – which while not entirely satisfying and arguably over earnest (and definitely overpriced), it did at least demonstrate a desire to reimagine the traditional, such as in its reinterpretation of xiao long bao (the rightfully famous soup dumpling) as a ‘molecular’ gelatin-based sphere.
Even during a Sunday brunch in kid-and-dog-friendly Stanley Plaza – punctuated unexpectedly by competitive breakdancing.
Wholly original? Perhaps not completely. But I believe that everything ‘original’ still takes some influence from the past or other cultures, even if subconsciously. Basically, you gotta start somewhere. I took these as harbingers of creativity yet to manifest in other ways.
One cannot, or at least should not, be overly serious when exploring creativity. So I appreciate the quietly creative quirkiness that has been popping up around the city. Clever can’t-help-but-make-you-smile cartoons at the In Bed With Designers showcase (or on the cocktail menus and coasters at Duddell’s lounge)? Unabashedly inauthentic Chinese food (American style) and fun graffiti-style mural art on the rooftop at Fu Lu Shou? A tongue-in-cheek wall of ‘Chinese lucky cats’ (you know those slightly creepy little cat figurines with the waving paw – actually Japanese maneki-neko) and neo-retro HK feel at the awesomely named and truly delicious Ho Lee Fook (meaning ‘good fortune for the mouth’ – in itself quite cheeky and innuendo-filled)? Yes, please!
Perhaps you’ve gotten stuck on my mention of In Bed With Designers? Well, it is pretty much what it sounds like – but get your mind out of the gutter! The concept is simple but unique. This past May, the Mini Hotel in Central Hong Kong was taken over by an international array of emerging designers and artists, each featuring his or her creations in individual hotel rooms. A bit odd? Yep. Fun? Absolutely! It was a great way to discover exciting young talent – such as the wonderful Ernest Goh, whose latest projects recast animals in a bold new light, via sophisticated and vibrant portraits.
What I loved about this event, beyond seeing all sorts of cool goods, was its unconventional approach to showcasing emerging designers and artists and subsequently much less formal interaction with the public. As satisfying as it is to enjoy the retail therapy aspects of such an event, it’s an even greater treat to have the opportunity to engage with the designers and artists themselves, learn about them and what inspired them to create what’s on display. And if you want to keep on browsing and buying after the event, check out Buy Me Design for all-too-convenient shopping.
I’ve always been a huge supporter of emerging designers, in fact generally preferring them to established designers. They bring fresh thinking to even the mundane and quotidian, dreaming up creative, intelligent, and functional solutions to unmet needs – making life a bit better, easier, more fun. Having grown up with newer technology, they are best suited to take full advantage of its capacity to improve upon existing designs and push the creative envelope. With no laurels on which to rest, emerging designers bring authentic enthusiasm to their work and their customers. And as one of their customers, I enjoy supporting them in their early days, hopefully playing a small role in their success. But quite honestly, I also just think it’s so much cooler to buy from them, wear their products. It’s a different kind of cachet – a more intriguing distinction than that offered by more well-known designers. While the Louis Vuittons of the world seek to proffer immediately recognizable status, there’s a more subtle prestige that is shared by those in-the-know choosing to support the up-and-coming.
Which brings me to my favorite new spot in all of Hong Kong – PMQ. The newly minted version of the historic Police Married Quarters (and before that, Central School and Queen’s College) is HK’s much more permanent platform for local emerging artists; enterprising designers of home goods, fashion, jewelry, accessories, toys; and passionate purveyors of a range of artisanal products from soaps to cakes. And it’s about time. The site of this new haven has been sitting around for years, prime real estate just waiting to be developed – and thankfully, it has been transformed into something truly worthwhile. PMQ provides young creatives with much-needed and prized brick-and-mortar studio and retail space – and a more tangible way to showcase their burgeoning brands.
The level of talent featured at PMQ does vary, but there are more than enough promising artists and designers offering a variety of goods to inspire almost anyone of any age. A few more established stores, such as G.O.D. (Goods of Desire – HK’s home of well-marketed, locally derived kitsch) and Vivienne Tam (an internationally-renowned, east-meets-west fashion designer); and restaurants including Aberdeen Street Social, Isono, Vasco, and G.O.D’s Sohofama; serve as anchors. To keep you coming back for more, the expansive space also features pop-up shops, night markets, weekend design markets, design talks, special exhibits, workshops, and more. PMQ is also quite family-friendly, with toy stores, kid-focused workshops and cooking classes, and the periodic faux-panda display or holiday-inspired carousel, to keep even your most tempestuous tots at bay.
But even if you’re just not into all that, taking a stroll through the courtyard, relaxing in one of the lounging areas, or just enjoying a cuppa (likely organic, fair trade) joe is still a perfectly pleasant way to pass an afternoon.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side, where I will explore its growing art scene (in galleries, at festivals, on the street) – and what’s next for HK!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography