Don’t talk to Douglas Young about kitsch. If there’s any word that gets the designer/entrepreneur worked up, it’s this one. “The South China Morning Post called me the King of Kitsch,” he says. “I think Hong Kong people were brought up to think their culture is ugly or kitsch. People say our products are ngak gweilo – made for gweilos or tourists. When I hear that, I get really upset.”
It’s something Young has dealt with ever since he launched Goods of Desire, a cheeky, provocative lifestyle brand that mines Hong Kong culture and history for inspiration. If there is anyone in Hong Kong who still doesn’t know G.O.D., they will certainly have seen one of its irreverent products: cushions printed with the façades of tong lau tenements, bum-shaped mooncakes, boxer shorts that reference the glory days of Hong Kong comics – not to mention t-shirts printed with the brand’s slogan, Delay No More, a reference to a vulgar yet remarkably common Cantonese phrase.
Young has published a book, My HK, that explores the design elements of the Hong Kong vernacular. He has crafted art installations based on red market lamps and the Kowloon Walled City. Starbucks hired him to design the interiors of two coffee shops, one based on traditional bing sutt cafés, another an homage to Hong Kong cinema. Young’s interest in Hong Kong extends to its more transgressive side, too, and there is rarely a boundary he isn’t tempted to push. In 2007, he was arrested for selling a t-shirt that police said was a reference to a local triad group. (He was never charged.)
It all goes back to one thing: Hong Kong. Young is an earnest, heartfelt enthusiast of the city he calls home. As with many enthusiasts, it is easy to dismiss him as naïve, or not sufficiently critical, but his goal is really quite simple: he just wants everyone to appreciate Hong Kong as much as he does.
There’s no better place to see Hong Kong through Young’s eyes than at the G.O.D. Design Studio and Street Culture Gallery, a warren-like space in Shek Kip Mei’s Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Though it originally opened in 2008 as a retail store and public gallery, it now doubles as G.O.D.’s office and a repository for Young’s personal collection of Hong Kong objects. Visits must be booked in advance. “I like to show people around myself,” says Young.
The first steps into the space can be overwhelming. Hundreds of items are piled in every corner: old wooden stools, tin mailboxes, plastic toys, vintage cha chaan teng booths, a wall of medicine cabinets from a traditional Chinese pharmacy.
“They are in the twilight zone between junk and antiques,” says Young. “A lot of these things I’ve just kept or found at home, and I’ve just added to that.” He gestures to what appears to be a huge pile of objects hidden in a corner. “It’s always changing because people donate things. I’m the custodian of these things – they don’t belong to me. I feel if I don’t save them, they’ll be lost altogether, like a lot of Hong Kong things. We don’t have a tradition of evolving our culture. When something is old, it gets torn down or thrown away and replaced by something new.”
Young’s believes that all design is rooted in culture, even the sleek, ubiquitous products of Apple, which reflect a certain Californian sensibility of how things should look and behave. “I’m constantly thinking about the roots of things,” he says. “[Culture] is kind of like a toolkit.” So why shouldn’t Hong Kong mine its own roots for inspiration in architecture, interiors or product design?
Young was born in Hong Kong in 1965 to an affluent family; his grandfather, William Louey, was one of the founders of the Kowloon Motor Bus company. When he was 14, Young was sent to boarding school in the United Kingdom, where he eventually trained as an architect. He returned to Hong Kong in 1991. Five years later, he founded G.O.D. with Benjamin Lau, who runs the business side of things while Young focuses on design.
It wasn’t until he returned to Hong Kong that he noticed all of the little things that made the city unique. “I didn’t appreciate any of this until I went overseas,” he says. Coming back, he felt as much a foreigner as a local. “Foreigners pick up on things we think of as normal.”
For much of its history, Hong Kong has been a city of immigrants who look forward, not back. That has changed with the city’s post-handover identity crisis, which has led to the rise of the localist movement, a new interest in heritage conservation and the rise of such concepts as “collective memory.” This new awakening has provided Young with fertile creative ground. “I like things that are still in the memory of living people,” he says. “I like to show them things they knew as a child – and see their reaction.”
That’s one of the reasons he has commissioned master model maker Wong Wing Chun to create miniature versions of everyday Hong Kong settings. “He’s old school,” says Young. Each model is made by hand, a process that takes up to three months. Most of G.O.D.’s models are on loan to the Hong Kong International Airport until January 2017, but several impressive examples remain in the Street Culture Gallery, including an intricate dai pai dong scene—complete with tabletop cans filled with melamine chopsticks, green bottles of beer and weathered pots used for making milk tea—and a bamboo theatre.
“That’s real tin on top and the banners are real fabric,” says Young, gazing at the theatre’s spindly frame. Bamboo theatres never figured in his childhood and he views them with unabashed admiration. He is fascinated by the grace and thoughtfulness of their structure, which is erected for just a few weeks before it is disassembled and rebuilt somewhere else. “It almost reminds me of Shakespeare when it was first performed [in 16th century London’s simple wood-framed open-air theatres],” says Young.
Next to the theatre is a scale model of two 1950s-era shophouses on Yu Lok Lane in Sai Ying Pun, which were torn down as part of a recent urban renewal project. (Two prewar shophouses were preserved.) The model is less an example of the architecture than it is of the informal alternations that residents made over the years: enclosed balconies, awnings, railings – features meant to make small spaces slightly more liveable.
“This is something special in Hong Kong – architecture is not just the work of the architect but the work of the users as well,” says Young. It’s an apt metaphor for what he is trying to do with his work. “It’s up to us to say who we are.”
The G.O.D. Design Studio and Street Culture Gallery is located at L2-09 Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei. Appointments can be made to visit on weekdays between 14:00 and 18:00. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.