Redrawing the line in Hong Kong

With the handover of Hong Kong drawing near, UK designers working there are obviously concerned for the future. Sharon Marshall asks whether they have anything to worry about

You can guess the attitude of the Chinese towards the Brits just by looking at their architecture. In Hong Kong the towering Communist Bank of China has knife-sharp edges pointing directly at Government House.

Governor Chris Patten judged it necessary to avert bad luck with a few strategically placed trees. UK designers may have to think a little harder about how they will cope when Hong Kong is officially handed back to its motherland this month.

For years the cream of UK graduates and design firms have gone East to seek their fortune. colonial Hong Kong was eager for UK design skills and Western culture. The tax system was lenient. The work abundant.

But as the Union Jack is lowered and the red flag of China hoisted over Hong Kong harbour, there are fears that much of the groundwork in establishing UK design groups will disappear too. Brits will have to operate on an equal footing to every other nation including the locals. Hong Kong and Chinese firms, which once had the reputation of not being able to handle complex design issues, have rapidly improved their knowledge and skills.

“Lots of people have expressed concerns that there will be a period of Brit bashing,” says Rodney Fitch, who has a small office on Hong Kong Island and handles accounts such as the retail division of Hutchison and the identity and graphics programme for the Hong Kong and China chain of Park ‘n’ Shop supermarkets. “We’ve never had any problems, so if it is true it will be sad and unjustified. We’ll just have to take our chances along with everybody else.”

But others say these fears are overblown. “Brit bashing? No, that wouldn’t be fair to say,” believes Peter Knapp, creative director at Landor who has worked in Hong Kong for two years on projects such as the rebranding of Hang Seng Bank. “There will be no massive backlash against the British because there is a general admiration for British design skills. But it is fair to say that there is a groundswell of confidence and determination from the local design industry.”

He adds: “Local consultancies are competing in what was previously the exclusive domain of the international clients. There are still no home-grown Chinese design groups which could support a global branding system so the door will remain open for British designers. There will continue to be opportunities for the builders and purveyors of the big brands for some time yet but there is a growing desire to express Asian culture through local design groups.”

Home-grown design consultancies are proving increasingly capable of handling local major design projects. They also have more knowledge of the local culture. One apartment block in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay, for example, contains a five-storey hole in the middle – hardly a traditional UK design. It is designed so that the “bad luck” demons who live in the mountains behind have a clear flight path to the sea.

Britain is regarded as one of the top five centres for design, and for years Hong Kong has been hungry for knowledge and skills from the West. Only a handful of institutions in Hong Kong offered formal design courses, with only one, the Hong Kong Polytechnic, educating to degree level.

But education has improved. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council is promoting design internationally after the Government identified design, albeit after lengthy lobbying from local firms, as one of the colony’s top ten priorities. Now institutions such as Tsing Yi Technical College are offering vocational courses, and the standard, say observers of design course graduates, is rapidly improving.

“In the Hong Kong Polytechnic the students are outstandingly good,” says Mike Denny, managing/design director of Roundel Design which is creating a unified corporate logo for Hong Kong’s Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation

“The general standard in their last exhibition was better than a hell of a lot of exhibitions in the UK. Their best is not as good as our best, but it is still very arrogant to assume that Hong Kong must need to import Brits to do their design work,” says Denny.

And, as the competition begins to operate on a more level playing field, so too do the contacts needed to get the business. According to Fitch there have been historical strengths for UK firms. “There have been natural links with the English civil servants in the governmental structure and links between projects in the UK and Hong Kong,” he says.

Post-handover the civil servants will return to the UK, and the Chinese will claim the top jobs. Although many will be deputies who UK firms have already dealt with, relationships will still have to be reforged.

“It’s a matter of understanding the market. Relations with the government are good, but British companies are going to have to work at it,” says Philip Hodson of the Enterprise Identity Group, whose projects through Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise in London and Ainstree Enterprise in Hong Kong have included the new identity for Hong Kong Post.

“It means a lot more work on PR and entertaining and saying you can help. It’s all down to UK firms having a strong local partner,” says Hodson. “Business is run in a different way. It’s a very family-oriented culture.”

And it’s a culture which the British can never be fully accepted into. “The expats and the local society are sufficiently different and divided. There is a strong sense of a separation between the two societies over there,” says Landor’s Knapp.

Many of the fears of the future are grounded in uncertainty. One design specialist, who wishes to remain anonymous, comments: “Everything will be debated under Chinese law rather than UK jurisdiction. There are fears that under Chinese government we could have the sort of corruption that is found in China. Fears over lack of concern for environmental needs and human rights. Nobody really knows what is likely to happen.”

There are also fears that UK staff, hired for their expertise to work in Hong Kong-based extensions of UK groups, may be refused working visas to try to encourage the hiring of more Chinese citizens. However, design is likely to have an easier time of it than professions such as law and accountancy, because it will be easier with creative vocations to argue that individual talents should be imported.

But the daggers that point at Government House are not necessarily drawn for our designers, say observers.

“People are too busy making money out there to be that political. Okay, there are a small number of pressure groups, but the emphasis is on how the handover will change economic growth rather than worrying about Brit bashing or kissing the Chinese flag,” believes Regina Ko, marketing consultant for Hong Kong product design consultancy Design Innovations.

According to Ko, design groups will still be looked on favourably because design is seen as a way of boosting the economy. A recent MIT report entitled Made in Hong Kong concluded that Hong Kong was moving from a price-led culture to one in which products sell on their innovation. Design is therefore a key component for economic success, says Ko.

“In Hong Kong there’s going to be more need for innovation. The competitiveness to sustain your own business in Hong Kong is so great. The design is often the real edge, now that they can’t rely on the cost of labour any more.

“I think people will be too busy thinking how to make more money to start deliberately excluding British firms,” Ko adds.

Others agree. WordSearch Communications organised a 100 000 exhibition funded by the British Council to promote UK design in Hong Kong at the beginning of the year.

WordSearch managing director Peter Murray believes UK design still has a thriving future post-handover. “The whole market out there is still incredibly buoyant. If anything, once Chris Pattern leaves and the sparring is over the whole thing may ease. Most people seem quietly confident that things will just carry on as normal.

“Let’s face it. For all this handover debate, it’s still a darn sight easier for a British firm to turn up and start working in Hong Kong than it is anywhere else,” adds Murray.

Charting the first signs of change

“It’s not as if we’ve all gone in there and started offering to de-Queen everything,” one designer told Design Week. But there has been a definite change of design image to reflect the changing culture of post-colonial Hong Kong.

Design consultancy Revolution, which has a Hong Kong office, says there has been a rush in design work for clients eager to show their pleasure with the reunification. “Hybrid designs are popping up all over town. Sadly, bad ones abound and good ones are hard to find,” says Revolution chairman Ray Taylor.

“Hong Kong’s flower, the bauhinia, together with the Union Jack and the Chinese flag plus the 1997 numerals are the elements most often featured in these designs. Red is the preferred colour after gold. The five yellow stars are twinkling everywhere.”

One of the most radical changes Revolution has carried out is in its literature for Hongkong Telecom. Old brochures featured a series of Westerners who were shown in dominant roles. New designs which are being used now are more pro-Chinese.

Now Chinese people are depicted leading meetings, while only the odd British face appears, and then only in the background. Brochures also carry Chinese translations.

“It would appear that designers are practising self-censorship using what they think China’s leaders or audiences want – red, gold and Mao,” says Taylor. He says typography may be one of the biggest challenges that design groups face in the future. “This is going to be a big challenge since traditionally designers have always given more emphasis to English than Chinese when working on bilingual projects.”

Landor’s work with Cathay Pacific is also an example of how design has been used to promote culture changes. Landor’s brief was to rebrand an ostensibly British Asian airline into an Asian carrier. By the year 2000 Cathay Pacific expects the majority of its passengers to be Asian. It wanted to project a more accurate vision of its identity as an evolving Asian airline.

“We convinced them they could do this through advertising, marketing communications, liveries and even their lounges in Hong Kong airport if their identity was built on a strong graphic proposition,” said Richard Ford, executive creative director Europe for Landor.

He says design firms face the challenge of proving their business worth. “In Asian culture not so much attention is paid to design. Hong Kong, Japan and Korea probably have the most sophisticated sense of the value of a good graphic, product and retail design, but by and large, it is regarded as a decorative tool, rather than a strategic or business-enhancing one,” he says.

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