Masters of Design
For success in the future you must recognise the past. So say Alan Chan and Stanley Wong on the eve of an exhibition they’ve curated to pay tribute to the city’s creative flair. The design gurus discuss their ambitious project with Marianna Cerini
For success in the future you must recognise the past. So say Alan Chan and Stanley Wong on the eve of an exhibition they’ve curated to pay tribute to the city’s creative flair. The design gurus discuss their ambitious project
“D esign is everywhere—and Hong Kong brims with it, from the latest furniture store to the typography on the menu at your local cha chaan teng. We should give it the attention it deserves. Don’t you agree?” It takes just a few moments listening to an enthusiastic Alan Chan on the subject of his latest project to decide that, yes, we definitely should.
Luckily, the design and branding guru had a plan—and a partner in its execution, longtime friend and fellow artist Stanley Wong. The result is Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong, an exhibition encompassing “design at large” made and nurtured in the city. Its some thousand works are grouped in 11 categories— graphic & publication, photography, products & toys, fashion, space, architecture, music, film, media, advertising, and comic & illustration— and are on display at City Hall in Central from August 6 and Comix Home Base in Wan Chai from August 17.
The curators of this tribute to our city’s culture and often-overlooked creative flair could not be better equipped for the project. A visual artist, collector and entrepreneur, Alan founded his eponymous studio, Hong Kong’s first major design brand, in 1980, and later established the cultural venues Gallery 27 and Space 27. His works have been collected by institutions such as the Museum of Design in Zurich, the National Art Museum in Beijing and Hong Kong’s own M+, and have appeared at the Shanghai Biennale and other international events.
Also an advertising maven, Stanley has worked as creative director for a number of international advertising companies. Like Alan, he started his own design venture, 84000 Communications, and branched into contemporary art, from filmmaking to photography, with his work being shown at important international events such as the Venice Biennale. He is known in the art world under the pseudonym anothermountainman, and widely acclaimed for his Red White Blue series, works that incorporate different materials—fabric, plastic, canvas—in the three hues.
Collectively, they’ve won more than 1,000 awards in the creative sector. It’s hard to think of a duo more qualified—or more intellectually and artistically in synch—to put together a show of this kind. Repeatedly throughout our interview, they finish each other’s sentences. They take turns answering questions, the other adding details or comments. Alan is the more extroverted: he can hardly sit still as he discusses the concept for the exhibition, talking excitedly, scribbling down notes he’ll later share with the team and occasionally jumping up to point at a Powerpoint presentation on a big screen. Stanley is quieter, more restrained,
but he clearly holds his opinions with equal passion. Their affinity is obvious, and not just on an intellectual level; their outfits are complementary and their black round-framed glasses match.
“We’ve been friends for decades,” says Alan, “and have worked very well together on projects in the past. When I first came up with the idea for the show two years ago, I knew I had to have Stanley on board. We balance each other—almost like husband and wife.” With that, Stanley chimes in: “More than that! Alan’s wife once said I probably know him better than she does.”
But as much as they clearly enjoy working together, both are quick to emphasise that Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong isn’t about them, nor about their personal profit. “The show is about the city and its personality,” says Alan. “That’s where the focus should lie. We’ve been in the business for forty-something years, so we really know it upside down. Very Hong Kong, Very Hong Kong is our way to give that knowledge back to society.”
“We’re being very ambitious [with the programme], but Hong Kong needs an event like this,” adds Stanley. “It’s essential to show support to the local creative scene and to educate the public about what we’ve accomplished as an artistic community.”
Shifting between past, present and future, their exhibition sets out to explore the elements of design inherent to the city, from the players that have shaped the idea of “Designed in Hong Kong” to the everyday items that are so intrinsically local: street signs, clothes, Cantopop songs, crumbling edifices and beehive-like residential and business complexes. By doing so, says Alan, the hope is to “give new momentum to the current pack of visionaries and designers.”
For this first edition, the pair chose 20 entries to represent each category. Selecting them proved to be a moving experience. “We’re both from Hong Kong,” Alan says. “We love this city. Choosing what to display was quite emotional, but organic, too—which is why the show feels so poignant to me. It’s our celebration of what it means to belong to this metropolis.”
“There’s a strong—and quite sad, if you ask me—disconnect between the new generation and the city’s creative past,” Stanley continues. “Most people today don’t even realise the long journey Hong Kong has gone through. They don’t know where they stand, which inherently means they don’t know how to look ahead on their own, without trying to imitate the West. Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong stirs from these considerations and aims to illustrate that we do have plenty to be proud of.”
“Stanley is 100 per cent right,” continues Alan. “Hong Kong creativity is good. It can be
better, that’s for sure, but it is good and it has been good. So, no more underestimating it. That’s imperative if we want to really leave a meaningful mark. Only when you understand where you’ve come from do you learn how to move forward. Who you are. We want to address all this.”
Such resolve might be behind the city administration giving its blessings to the exhibition, and providing financial and logistical support. “When Stanley agreed to join me in the curatorship, he suggested pitching the project to the government,” Alan explains (Stanley promptly adding that Alan’s vision was too good not to go bigger with it). “They loved the idea and offered their backing—although much of the planning has taken place in my office and with my staff,” Alan laughs. “So far, we have a team of around 10 volunteers and four full-time people on it. It’s taken a lot of our time and resources, but we’re fine with that. Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong could kick-start a new chapter in the city’s creative scope. Hence we’ve proposed turning it into a biennial initiative.”
“Someone else would have to curate the next edition though,” Stanley interjects, “so Alan and I can take a step back and rest a little. It would also be interesting to see fellow Hong Kong designers give their input on the selection process.”
“Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong is part of the artistic renaissance Hong Kong is going through,” says Alan. “M+, Art Basel, the Affordable Art Fair … All of these organisations and events are positioning the city as a world-class arts hub. We want this exhibition to have that same reach, with the involvement of the local creative community at large.”
The pair are also working on a bilingual publication on the city’s creative history and evolution to be released later this year under the same title as the exhibition. “They will serve as archives of the city’s design and artistic talent,” says Stanley. Alan takes it up a notch: “They’ll be the Bible of Hong Kong’s creativity.”
I am not sure whether it’s their enthusiasm, their ambitious vision or both, but by the time we say goodbye, I feel a sense of excitement about what the show might come to represent for Hong Kong’s creative scene, not just here but on the international level.
“The dream would be to turn it into a travelling show,” Alan tells me before I leave. Judging by their resolution, that’s likely to happen sooner rather than later.
Very Hong Kong Very Hong Kong runs from August 6 to 20 at City Hall and August 17 to 29 at Comix Home Base. More details on the programme can be found at veryhkveryhk.com
Love Letter to the City “We are both from Hong Kong, and have a deep, personal relationship with the city,” says Alan. “The show is our tribute to it.” Alan wears a coat by Maison Margiela