Hong Kong design has come a long way. Before design was part of our everyday lexicon, Hong Kong was privileged to have foreign-trained pioneers who chose this city to launch their careers, as well as local creative talents who had varying degrees of formal training in art and design and contributed to the burgeoning economy. While we can view art and design in terms of forms, traditions, and disciplines—which happen to be the categories in which this exhibition is organized for practical purposes—art and design can more perceptively be understood as stories of individuals who bring out the beauty and utility of things. As boundaries continue to blur, it would be interesting and fruitful to revisit good design cases from the past. As we began to curate for this exhibition, we work bit by bit to answer the question of why some designs and creations are still fondly remembered today or have changed the way many people view our profession. Hong Kong design has always been about innovating for the public, bringing people together, and making impact internationally.
Alan Chan has decades of experience under his belts. He started earlier in the 1970s. Under the mentorship of mainly expatriate art directors and designers, Alan became aware – more aware than an average Hongkonger perhaps—of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage. More than curios, collectors’ items, or antiques, Alan has learned that objects tell something about ourselves.
One day, Alan started to wonder what he could do for the creative industry as he has worked in it for so many years. He used to be thrilled about what he could do next after completing a big project. There used to be limitless possibilities. To energize and rekindle his enthusiasm about Hong Kong design, he has decided to organize this exhibition. Through a process of curation, Alan wants to walk through cases of outstanding design, instances of prodigious art or art direction, and stories of great talent and perseverance in order to showcase the glorious past of Hong Kong’s creative industry. Only when we understand who we are and where we come from, Alan believes, will we then be able to see what we can do and where are we all heading in the future.
Curating an exhibition of this scale is a laborious and lonely task. Alan’s solution is to partner with Stanley Wong. Having Stanley on board will undoubtedly increase the exhibition’s appeal. Design is not only about the designers. As it involves the general public—professionals, students, people from all walks of life – a second pair of eyes will see what Alan might have overlooked. Stanley graduated and joined the profession in the 1980s. Stanley, as a young designer back in those days, felt indebted to his predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s, and was undaunted by the challenges and uncertainties ahead as Hong Kong entered the transitional period before the handover. On one hand, design had started to take root in Hong Kong, as industries recognized the tremendous value which design could add to a product or brand throughout its life cycle, from its conception to marketing. On the other hand, design was still badly or imperfectly understood by most Hongkongers. Design has always been taken for granted, and young designers and artists seem to face a lot more constraints than Stanley did when he earned his degree.
Stanley Wong also saw the value in curating this exhibition. Besides serving as a pep rally of sorts for Hong Kong’s creative practitioners, curating and showcasing notable instances of designers who have made a difference in people’s lives will inspire the next generation of designers to do the same. Many more will be driven to use design to unleash the community’s potential and solve problems. This is one of the reasons why this exhibition is held.
Granted, today’s society is different from the Hong Kong of the 1970s and 1980s. Alan and Stanley started their careers under very different circumstances as compared with today’s graduates. Today, it is rather difficult for our profession to focus on pertinent topics and blaze a trail for which Hong Kong design is well known. Perhaps more broadly, our society or our industry might have lost their focus and directions for the time ahead. Stanley hopes to share with the next generation the art and design traditions that were passed down from many pioneers, and the future he hopes create with new designers.
With that in mind, both curators invite everyone to raise questions and discuss burning issues as people come to this exhibition and meet one another. Paying tribute to those who came before us without romanticizing a bygone era, we hope many of you will be able to coalesce on important design issues and find personal meaning in the experience.
We work in the creative industry day in and day out, so our perspectives are shaped by our professional experience. For this exhibition, we want to stress that our curatorship is based on our experience as private citizens. Our experiences are probably no different from everyone else’s. For instance, like all of you, we go shopping, we use the Hong Kong International Airport to fly overseas, and we use banking services. As we come across ingenious designs in our everyday lives, we think the public probably enjoys them the same way we do. For this reason, the logos or advertisements of supermarkets, public transportation, banks are included in the exhibition. We choose them for their functionality in the widest sense of the term. Aesthetic should be embedded in functionality, and this is a recurrent theme we see in Hong Kong design throughout history.
The relationship between designers and members of the public is like a two-way street. We are both graphic designers by training so we will use corporate logos as examples again. Many good logo designs are ubiquitous —such as HSBC’s “hexagon” logo and Bank of China’s “coin” logo, designed by Henry Steiner and Kan Tai-keung respectively – and serve to educate the public about the importance of graphic design, branding, and corporate identity. When an informed public expects good designs, corporations and organizations will make design a priority. In this exhibition, we want to convey to the public that design is part of everyday Hong Kong life. We want to make this occasion meaningful to all stakeholders. In design, users are important stakeholders. We hope this exhibition will resonate in society.
This year’s “Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong” features eleven categories. They are by no means exhaustive, and whenever we were in doubt, we brought ourselves back to this exhibition’s reason for being. We would ask ourselves, did the case or work make an impact in people’s lives? Did the case or work change the way people look at design?
The “product and fashion” categories bear witness to Hong Kong’s sudden decline as an entrepot due to the Korean War and its subsequent meteoric rise as a manufacturing base. Recognizing the importance of moving up the value chain to combat protectionism and other trade and logistical barriers, Hong Kong industrialists turned to design to improve their products and branding. The “media and advertising” categories show how creativity is unleashed to win over audiences. Despite their foreign origins, media and advertising became localized very quickly as the creative industry began adapting to Cantonese and catering to Hong Kong audience’s tastes. A generation of creative talents worked in media and advertising, and many moved to other endeavours, such as film and music, which further enriched the city’s cultural life.
The “film and photography” categories illustrate the vibrant filmmaking and photography scenes as images play a vital role in Hong Kong society, culture, and economy. In the “graphics / publications” and “comics / illustrations” categories, encounters between Eastern and Western aesthetics gave rise to many brilliant works. Representing one of the design disciplines that Hong Kong people see the most of in everyday life, cases in the graphics and publications category reflect a society’s rising living and design standards.
The cases in the “space and architecture” categories tell the Hong Kong story through buildings, structures, and places, and every need and scenario was addressed with the creative use of space that has characterized Hong Kong. The “music” category brings back the glory days of the music industry. After all, music could be said to be the bedrock of creativity. Hong Kong is blessed with an uninterrupted tradition of Chinese opera. Popular music has always been a source of inspiration for creative talents and Cantopop, in particular, has united people from all walks of life and helped build a Hong Kong cultural identity.
As curators, we bring different art forms and design fields together with hopes of revisiting the Hong Kong that has nurtured, inspired, and enriched us. Our contemporaries should recognize many of the works and cases showcased here, but may have different opinions. Younger friends might have heard of them, but we hope they will be able to immerse themselves in this experience and appreciate how their predecessors all made a difference.
As designers, we are privileged to work with organizations and people across boundaries. We were also able to feel the pulse of Hong Kong in our creation processes. Our curatorship is a distillation of our experiences and our thinking over the years, but it is also a slice of society and culture taken at many points in time. Hong Kong has always been characterized by changes, and it is this social, economic, and cultural dynamism that has kept Hong Kong moving forward with functional and beautiful designs. We invite everyone to come up with an understanding of the Hong Kong spirit on their own after revisiting the works and cases included in the exhibition. This exhibition serves as a review of the history of Hong Kong art and design, albeit a personal perspective is offered here.
We hope this exhibition will be held every two years, a biennale of sorts. Alan and Stanley got the ball rolling this year, and next time, it is hoped that other creatives will serve as curators, assemble their curatorial teams, and offer other perspectives. And continue to offer lessons of history, issues for discussion, and moments of reflection.