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“We Will Be The Chicken!”: Power to the people of Hong Kong’s design community

Father and son designers, Winston and Alex Shu, launch a new incubation model for the design community threatened by Hong Kong’s competitive markets and downscaled breakthrough opportunities.

In November 2019, violent protests between police and student demonstrators at Hong Kong Polytechnic University saw some 1,500 tear gas canisters fired and more than a thousand demonstrators arrested and/or identified. Depending on news sources, between 5,000 (South China Morning Post) and 7,000 (Washington Post) arrests have taken place in streets, subways and airports where once-peaceful demonstrations against a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China transformed over 2019 into a direct – and ongoing – challenge levelled at Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong. Chinese President Xi Jingping, who has long warned challenges to China’s rule aren’t to be tolerated, has said “restoring order is Hong Kong’s most important task.”

A month later, pro-democracy protesters dressed in black, marched en route to the consulates of Australia, Britain, the European Union, the United States, Japan and Canada with diplomatic petitions in hand. President Donald Trump had just ratified legislation requiring the State Department to annually certify Hong Kong’s autonomy, bearing out favourable trading terms. Since the beginning of 2020, the world has turned its collective gaze upon the global ramifications emanating from central Hong Kong – an incredible show of international solidarity for continuing democratic action.

Meanwhile, the ramifications for Hong Kong’s arts, design and architecture sectors have been dire. Art Basel Hong Kong, BODW:  Business of Design Week Summit, the Design for Asia Awards, the Fashion Asia Hong Kong program and the deTour Design Festival have all been cancelled in the wake of escalating demonstrations, dwindling tourism numbers and outbreaks of coronavirus. deTour curator, Shin Wong told Dezeen “A lot of designers and their shops are not doing very well because nobody has really got the time or they’ve got more important things to worry about than shopping. It’s a chain reaction from there to these events.”

“We need to keep a positive outlook”, says Winston Shu of Hong-Kong based firm Integrated Design Associates (IDA) and recent winner at the World Architecture Festival. “It is more important now than ever.”  According to Alex Shu, Winston’s son and IDA’s Design Strategist, “the market for design and architecture in Hong Kong is extremely competitive, pricing out young design firms who struggle to stand out and grow.” Combined with the current suppression of these vibrant sectors, these highly competitive market forces and uncertain trade and political landscapes throughout the region continue threaten both the viability and the sustainability of Hong Kong’s architecture and design community for generations to come.

“Social sustainability is very much a part of our major considerations at IDA,” says Winston. “We borrow the thinking of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development methods, focusing not just on energy, but also taking into consideration a whole range of social aspects and care for the local industry. We want these considerations to be involved in every aspect of our design thinking. It’s a natural progression that this now is at the heart of T.H.E Design – our latest venture.”

T.H.E Design is the creative workspace with the mission to grow the design community and build upon Hong Kong’s creative ecosystem. Located at the heart of the city, with convenient access to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon’s local craftsman communities, and Shenzhen’s manufacturing and prototyping hubs, the genesis of T.H.E Design speaks so much to the nation’s political desires and the growing momentum behind ‘global’ industry pathfinding.

“It all started when my father and I were having a conversation about the struggles young designers in Hong Kong regularly face,” says Alex. “I am an architect and designer, and my father has been practicing for a number of decades. These kinds of cross-generational conversations are very important, I feel, because ultimately, they reveal what design really means to us. Together, my father and I kept speaking about Hong Kong’s culture, the integration of people and place and, by extension, the interaction of technology, humanity and environment. Technology, humanity and environment – T, H, E – that’s how T.H.E Design started.”

But unlike traditional incubation projects which regularly see companies receiving equity for funding start-ups, T.H.E Design enjoys its stake through the reciprocal benefits of mentorship. “As father and son designers, we have so much to offer Hong Kong’s architecture and design communities – particularly the younger generation who are more often than not priced out of establishing and growing their offering. We look at this not only as an opportunity to give back, but also as a real opportunity for IDA. It seems obvious that through nurturing the Hong Kong design talent pool, we will all benefit … at every scale.”

“One of the problems a lot of companies find these days – and especially in the design industry – is talent attraction and retention. But one thing we don’t often focus on is the question of also protecting the volume of jobs and clients needed to sustain this talent. If we look at the entire architecture and design community of Hong Kong as a talent pool instead of just hiring and firing them between projects and across firms, then the entire talent pool then starts to look something like a big team of collaborators. Everyone gets to tap into this pool of expertise, creativity and networks. Through T.H.E Design, for instance, IDA gets to share projects and project credentials, as do the other companies and practitioners who are a part of this collective. Ultimately, we get to share a workforce. To both myself and Alex, it seemed like a win-win solution.” – Winson Shu, Co-Founder, T.H.E Design.

It’s early days of the collaborative hub which launched November last year, coinciding with Hong Kong’s escalating political situation, but for Alex and Winston, there is every reason for the country’s design community to maintain a positive outlook. An exhibition in the T.H.E Design space in December 2019 offered one fortunate product designer the breakthrough moment of which dreams are made. “One of the IDA clients came to the exhibition by chance,” says Alex. “When they saw the exhibitor’s work, they were impressed and have since requested to have this start-up collaborate with IDA to be a part of the facade design of their building,” he continues. “This is really great simply because such opportunities in Hong Kong for emerging talent are very rare – and rarer still for product designers. It was an incredible achievement for T.H.E Design’s first month.”

“See, this is a great example of exactly what we are trying to do,” says Winston. “We mentor the young designers, offer them a space, and under our resources and supervision, we all grow and benefit from the ecosystem of support. It’s sort of like that old chicken and the egg situation. We knew we could break the mould, and so we said ‘Enough! We will be the chicken!’ T.H.E Design has laid this egg for that product designer, and in the future they will do the same for another. It’s a very simple solution, but for Hong Kong’s design community, it is a breath of fresh air.”

The world watches on as Hong Kong’s once-silent majority continues to speak out clearly for greater democratic action for all. Meanwhile, Winston and Alex Shu’s desire to nurture the future of the country’s architecture and design talent gives us every reason to be optimistic. Technology, humanity, environment – a recipe for people power if ever I saw one.

 

If you liked this article, we think you’d enjoy a conversation with comedian, presenter and ‘design nerd,’ Tim Ross. Stay in the loop, join our weekly newsletter.

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