Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 1)

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Festivals, General, Markets

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.

A steamy view of the skyscrapers, post-storm in HK

A steamy view of the skyscrapers, post-storm in HK

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.

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Retail therapy, Hong Kong style – a typical Sunday at Times Square, one of HK’s large shopping malls

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.

Fabulous Kiki, my talented hairstylist - and trendsetter,  with an ever-evolving hairstyle herself

Fabulous Kiki, my talented hairstylist – and trendsetter, with an ever-evolving hairstyle herself

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.

The polarizing, but at the very least unique, molecular xiao long bao at Bo Innovation

The polarizing, but at the very least unique, molecular xiao long bao at Bo Innovation

Even during a Sunday brunch in kid-and-dog-friendly Stanley Plaza – punctuated unexpectedly by competitive breakdancing.

A hopeful competitor at a breakdancing contest, at Stanley Plaza

A hopeful competitor at a breakdancing contest, at Stanley Plaza

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Even the tots get into breakin'!

Even the tots get into breakin’!

More little gangstas, waiting their turn to strut their stuff on the dance floor

More little gangstas, waiting their turn to strut their stuff on the dance floor

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!

A small window into the witty and delightfully naughty mind of Chinese cartoonist, Tango Gao

A small window into the witty and delightfully naughty mind of Chinese cartoonist, Tango Gao

Whimsical menus illustrate Duddell's sense of humor, alongside some serious wines and intense cocktails

Whimsical menus illustrate Duddell’s sense of humor, alongside some serious wines and intense cocktails

Street-inspired wall art at cheeky eatery/rooftop lounge Fu Lu Shou

Street-inspired wall art at cheeky eatery/rooftop lounge Fu Lu Shou

Ho Lee Fook!! Embracing icons (mah jong tiles, lucky waving cat figurines), double entendre, and churning out some of HK's most delicious modernized Chinese cuisine

Ho Lee Fook!! Embracing icons (mahjong tiles, ‘lucky’ waving cat figurines), double entendre – and churning out some of HK’s most delicious modernized Chinese cuisine

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.

The buzzy lounge downstairs at the In Bed With Designers event inside the Mini Hotel

The buzzy lounge downstairs at the In Bed With Designers event inside the Mini Hotel

Belgrade-born, China-based Jovana Bogdanovic's quirky-cool egg-shaped Yun vases, on display in a hotel room at In Bed With Designers

Belgrade-born, China-based Jovana Bogdanović‘s quirky-cool egg-shaped Yun vases, on display in a hotel room at In Bed With Designers

SPOT Design Award/French Kiss 2014 winner and Swedish-born, Hong Kong-based jewelry designer Malin Ohlsson, showcasing her stunning designs at In Bed With Designers (The winning piece? The crochet-inspired, 180-piece, sprawling stunner directly to her left - trust me, it is gorgeous when worn!)

SPOT Design Award (French Kiss) 2014 winner and Swedish-born, Hong Kong-based jewelry designer Malin Ohlsson, showcasing her handmade pieces at In Bed With Designers (The winning piece? The crochet-inspired, 180-piece, sprawling stunner directly to her left – trust me, it is gorgeous when worn!)

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.

Looking out over the courtyard, the Qube, and the Hollywood building at new design headquarters, PMQ

Looking out over new design headquarters PMQ – the courtyard, the event space Qube, and the Hollywood building

Christmas decor, as envisioned by PMQ

Christmas decor, PMQ-style

Looking at Hong Kong from a fresh perspective - through a window at PMQ

Looking at Hong Kong from a fresh perspective – through a window at PMQ

The night sky over PMQ

The night sky over PMQ

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.

Polly and Andy. the design team behind Loom Loop - creating contemporary individualism via fashion, with a nod toward the past and consideration of sustainability

Polly and Andy. the design team behind Loom Loop – creating ‘contemporary individualism’ via fashion, with a nod toward the past and consideration of sustainability

Yours truly, in one of Loom Loop's sophisticated silhouettes - a modern interpretation of the traditional cheongsam dress, reimagined in responsibly sourced denim with edgy zippers and a sassy swing skirt

Yours truly, in one of Loom Loop’s sophisticated silhouettes – a modern interpretation of the traditional cheongsam dress, reimagined in responsibly sourced denim with edgy zippers and a sassy swing skirt

The lovely and talented Christine Lam, the designer behind clothing label Aly & Rachelle

The lovely and talented Christine Lam, the designer behind classic-with-a-twist clothing label Aly & Rachelle

Just one of Aly & Rachelle's ever-changing window displays (fronting an impressive new collection almost monthly and a custom service - threatening women's wallets and closet space all over HK)

Just one of Aly & Rachelle’s ever-changing window displays (fronting an impressive almost-monthly new collection and a custom-design service, threatening women’s wallets and closet space all over HK)

Mag Tse, the inventive jewelry designer behind aogp - crafting modern lariats, adjustable body chains, and more, each handmade and custom-sized

Mag Tse, the inventive jewelry designer behind aogp – crafting modern lariats, adjustable body chains, and more, each handmade and custom-sized

The architectural storefront of urban men's fashion label Harrison Wong

The architectural storefront of urban men’s fashion label Harrison Wong

Home Works, PMQ's proprietor of 'mindful living' - and the only place I would actually consider dropping around HKD 150 for a bar of delicious-smelling handmade soap

Home Works, PMQ’s proprietor of ‘mindful living’ – and the only place I would actually consider dropping around HKD 150 for a bar of delicious-smelling handmade soap

Luxe pastry design shop Phoenix Sweets, and home of honestly the most elegantly beautiful bespoke cakes I’ve ever seen

Luxe pastry design shop Phoenix Sweets – home of honestly the most elegantly beautiful bespoke cakes I’ve ever seen

Fermata, a moving (literally) jellyfish-like installation at PMQ Qube - a collaboration between architecture/fabrication lab LAAB, Allan Au, and women's fashion designer Chailie Ho

Fermata, a moving (literally) jellyfish-like installation at PMQ Qube – a collaboration between architecture/fabrication lab LAAB, Allan Au, and women’s fashion designer Chailie Ho

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Imported from design mecca Japan and featured at the humbly named Good Design Store – modern reinterpretations of classic Komon patterns, inspired by Edo-era samurai uniforms (and one beautiful outcome of the Tokyo Crafts & Design 2012 project that partnered aspiring designers with established craftsmen – in this case, Yuko Minamide + Atsushi Tomita)

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The prismatic and colorful evolution of traditional Edo Kiriko glass cutting, also featured at Good Design Store (from a collaboration of Hideko Fujimoto + Tatsuaki HIrota)

Which one of these is not like the other - a little girl stakes out her spot amidst the mannequins and sculpture at Vivienne Tam's PMQ store

Which one of these is not like the other – a little girl stakes out her spot amidst the mannequins and sculpture at Vivienne Tam’s PMQ store

Night Market at PMQ’s open courtyard – featuring food, cocktails, beer, and opportunities-a-plenty for a little drunken retail therapy

Night Market in PMQ’s open courtyard – featuring food, cocktails, beer, and opportunities-a-plenty for a little intoxicated retail therapy

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Browsing during one of PMQ’s weekend Design Markets

There's something for the whole family at PMQ - including casual kids' portraits

There’s something for the whole family at PMQ – including casual kids’ portraits

The riotously popular and very kid-friendly 1600 Pandas exhibit, in its final display venue in the courtyard at PMQ

The riotously popular and very kid-friendly 1600 Pandas exhibit, in its final display venue in the courtyard at PMQ

Hmmm...

Like I said, something for everyone – to mitigate his boredom while I photographed 1600 Pandas, Mark took advantage of his naughtily creative eye and discovered a few (in his words) ‘porno pandas’

Hmmm...

Hmmm…

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.

Ladies relax and mingle upstairs at PMQ during Nightmarket

Ladies mingle upstairs at PMQ during Night Market

Tjoe & Griffin Jazz Duo perform in PMQ's courtyard - with the 8000+ crystal 'Prologue' sculpture by Fredrikson Stallard for Swarovski as a backdrop

One half of Tjoe & Griffin Jazz Duo, performing in PMQ’s courtyard – with the 8000+ crystal ‘Prologue’ sculpture by Fredrikson Stallard for Swarovski as a backdrop

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!

 

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All images © 2015 deb fong photography

 

Related posts:

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 6 – The People and Their Culture)

 

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Posted by

Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

8 thoughts on “Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 2) | HONG KONG FONG

  2. Wonderful post! I’m at that weird moment when wondering am I wasting my time when not moving to another places! The photos are awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Megan! I’m a full believer in expat life 🙂 It’s amazing. Really appreciate you reading/viewing and your kind compliments!!

      Like

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