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“It's so easy to just read magazines and follow trends,” says Douglas Young, founder and designer of G.O.D. “You can make yourself look like someone from New York or London, but I don't think that's creative or interesting. That’s not me.” Hong Kong, with its short but eventful history spanning colonial rule to handover, has flourished as a global financial hub. But some argue that in its race to grow its economy, the city has left its culture in the dust. “We were always taught to idealize Western culture, that it was more sophisticated, or that English speaking people are better educated, more wealthy, you know, all those positive attributes,” he explains. “I want to make Hong Kong culture fun and exciting.”
G.O.D., short for Goods of Desire, is Young’s love-letter to the Hong Kong identity, which he feels has been gradually and helplessly dissipating. His mission to celebrate Hong Kong culture is inherent in the name of his brand, Goods of Desire, which in Cantonese — jyu hou di — playfully translates to “to live better.” This witty east-meets-west approach extends to everything Young designs, from glowing multi-colored chopsticks to contemporary Chinese garments to mahjong-themed birthday cards.
Young turns up to our interview wearing his newly designed cheongsam, built with a center zipper in place of traditional buttons. “I’m always testing my products,” says Young soon after we sit down. “It would be so much easier to just use a trendy Westernized design. But for what I design, I really have to start from scratch most of the time.” Wading through what feels like the unbeatable current of a globalized Hong Kong, the man lives and breathes G.O.D. In this segment of Dark Side of Creative, Young discusses some of the personal and professional challenges of operating G.O.D.
Please describe your childhood.
I was born in 1965 and went to school in Hong Kong until Form 2 in high school. I was sent to boarding school in the U.K. at 14, and I didn't come back to Hong Kong until I finished university. I worked in London and came back. When I returned to Hong Kong, I was 28: I spent 14 years in Hong Kong and 14 years in the U.K. Since I left Hong Kong at 14, I could speak and read Cantonese and Chinese, and I could also speak English. At G.O.D., a lot of our designs play with these two languages.
So what do you identify as?
I see myself as an Asian person, a Hong Kong person, but I'm also quite westernized and I have an international view of things. I don't want to lose my Chinese side because I think it's easy to lose your Chinese side. It's so easy to just read magazines and follow trends. You can make yourself look like someone from New York or London, but I don't think that's creative or interesting. It’s not me. So for a while, I was looking around for things that spoke to my Chinese and Hong Kong identity, and realized that there wasn’t really anything in the market for that. That’s when I decided to create G.O.D., really just for myself, initially.
“I want to make Hong Kong culture fun and exciting.”
Is G.O.D. specifically rooted in Cantonese culture?
I'm glad you mentioned Cantonese, because it is specifically Hong Kong… Nothing political, just personal. I feel like I'm a Hong Kong person, I identify myself as Hong Kong, and China is quite different. I'm proud of being Chinese, too. I think, however, my particular focus is Hong Kong because I think we're losing a sense of that identity. I think many of us Hong Kong people don’t treasure our identity enough. I want to make Hong Kong culture fun and exciting. I think this is the best and most natural way. So that's what I'm trying to do with G.O.D. as well, to try and make things that are gwong dung waa, funny and appealing.
What has been the biggest challenge for G.O.D.?
I think the challenge is really to fight this ingrained mentality with a lot of the local people that maybe being Chinese is not cool or that being from Hong Kong is not cool. I think it's a colonial thing because Hong Kong was a British colony.
“We were always taught to idealize Western culture, that it was more sophisticated, or that English speaking people are better educated, more wealthy, you know, all those positive attributes.”
All this makes it very difficult for somebody like myself to try and promote a Hong Kong brand to be at the same kind of level as established Western brands. So I'm well aware that I'm fighting against this in so many ways. It would be so much easier to just use a trendy Westernized design. But for what I design, I really have to start from scratch most of the time.
I think, in a way, China doesn't have that problem because I think there is this nationalistic kind of resurgence or feeling where people are very proud of things that are Chinese. I think all countries need a certain degree of pride, but I think Hong Kong is lacking a bit of that.
You put your own spin to the Starbucks on Duddells street.
Everyone knows what a cha chaan teng is, but nobody knows what a Bing Sutt is. People saw it as a shocking interior design concept because it was SO Hong Kong and local. I remember there were even Starbucks fans that were boycotting it. But it turned out to be a big success for us. And people started doing Bing Sutt and similar concepts. You had to be in Hong Kong in 2009 to really appreciate that we were the first to have done it. I think in Hong Kong, people don't give credit to people who've done it first. It’s this thing where if I copy you really well, then I'm just as good as you. That's why Starbucks felt that place was losing its edge.
“It’s a shame because I really do think we have talent in Hong Kong, but I don't think we have enough businesses that are tasteful, imaginative or brave enough to give these designers a shot. There needs to be a better sense of cooperation and mutual appreciation for innovation.”
How has G.O.D. evolved since you first opened?
We're not so much into furniture anymore because rent has gone up and furniture takes up a lot of space. We couldn’t afford the space. So we focused on things that are more compact and could fit in smaller shops. Clothing is great for that. I was never formally trained in fashion, but I saw so much potential for clothing to express myself. I'm not saying what I'm doing is fashion, but I guess what I'm doing is kind of different from mainstream fashion.
How do you come up with your designs?
We brainstorm. That's the easy part. We always joke and play around with concepts. I am very lucky to have a good team. We have really good chemistry and communicate on the same channel. So if Julia mentions something in passing, I'm able to take what she said and build on it, make it more crazy, and someone else will be able to take it and make it even more crazy. I think that kind of teamwork and bouncing ideas is very important.
We always try to explain to people that for creatives, our sense of fulfillment comes from being appreciated for our work.
Yes, and to be credited. It’s not just about money. Money is great of course, but I mean, if you're in this business, and you don't you don't get satisfaction from the work, then you're not in the right business, because this is not a money-making industry. If you want to just make money, you should be in banking or law.
“What satisfies us is doing good work and being respected for it.“
A lot of creatives become jaded as well. A lot of people start off being super creative when they're young, but they lose their edge because they're so used to clients limiting them to really boring work. It’s a bit sad.
What advice would you give to young creatives?
You need to unlearn everything you've ever learned. You need to remove all the idols you’ve created in your head and just start from nothing.
I'm just trying to think about when I was young... I used to have all these idols, and I used to be like, “oh, I love this company and I love that designer.” I needed to forget all the things I learned because I wouldn't be doing anything new otherwise. The key to being creative, the definition of “creative,” is to bring something new to this world. Maybe not completely new, but at least a new blend of something.
People say that it's not possible to create anything that's a hundred percent new, okay, yes. But at least there's some sort of originality. And the more idols and the kind of people that you are emulating, the less you’ll be creative. You need to get rid of all these things, and just tread on the unbeaten path and do things your own way. It's not going to be easy because it's easier to walk a path that's already been walked. So to beat your own path, and to go in a direction that nobody has been before, it's very, very scary, but you need to do it creatively. That's the only way. I think that is probably the most valuable lesson.
In case you missed it, check out our interview with YeP YeP magazine Founder Kenny Li.