It’s easy to miss patterns within Hong Kong’s jumbled visual landscape. Mundane folk designs are so commonplace they become invisible, like the geometric tiles of old shop floors, iron gates with floral designs wrought like filigree, or the star and coin shapes punched into zinc mailboxes. Ubiquitous though these patterns are, their absence would be stark.
Some patterns, subtler still, chart Hong Kong’s course as an entrepôt between East and West, industrial powerhouse, centre for commerce and creative force in its own right. “Patterns are very interesting to me because they’re not really taken seriously because they seem frivolous. They seem decorative,” says Bruce Li, assistant curator at CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile). Clad in an indigo dyed shirt with a circle motif that suggests flowers, Li takes patterns very seriously. Surrounded by artefacts and swatches, Li and his team are busy setting up Patternways: Visualising Hong Kong in Transition, a special display housed at The Mills that spotlights four patterns and how they tell Hong Kong’s story.
A flippant remark from the 1987 Hong Kong film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World serves as introduction to the exhibition’s first artefact, a large square of wrapping paper featuring a vibrant three-colour print: “Appearance is everything in Hong Kong. Our worth is determined by the clothes we wear. Think about how Chinese goods will never be perceived as good as Japanese ones – this all has to do with the wrapping paper!”
The modernist patterned print on show is a reproduction of wrapping paper once used at the Japanese department store, Daimaru, which opened its doors on Paterson Street in 1962, dominating Causeway Bay with its enormous red neon sign reading “大” (daai6, “big”) and transforming the area into Hong Kong’s biggest shopping district, which came to be known as Little Ginza. Though the store closed in 1998, it still serves as a shorthand for the intersection of Paterson and Great George Street with many minibus signs stating their destination to be Daimaru (daai6 jyun2 大丸).
Daimaru’s minimalist wrapping contrasts sharply with contemporary examples from local competitors Lane Crawford and Wing On. While Lane Crawford’s packaging evoked an air of staid British luxury, Wing On and other Hong Kong retailers presented literal depictions of their splendid wares and, in some cases, images of the department store buildings themselves – perhaps an indication of prestige that comes with landed property in Hong Kong. Daimaru’s understated green and red print implies an exciting sense of energy, a modern style of retail offering Hong Kongers a third identity that was neither British nor traditionally Chinese. It was a new style to accompany Hong Kong’s growing fortunes and emerging identity: Asian, international and aspirational.
Li says Daimaru brought with them a fresh approach to graphic design, with geometrical forms that look good flat as well as in a three-dimensional package. This deceptively simple strategy brought the concept of cohesive visual systems and graphic design language to Hong Kong.
And the exchange would not go unreciprocated. Hong Kong, as a cosmopolitan city with links to the West, was a place Japanese visitors observed and learned from as they crafted their own postwar persona. “Japan was still emerging from World War II, they were trying to modernise how they were perceived in the world,” says Li. “Hong Kong, it just so happens, was an open place and free port. A lot of goods, in particular Western goods, flowed through Hong Kong. In the 1960s, Japan was more closed off in terms of trade, and Japanese businessmen needed a base in Hong Kong to reference high quality goods so that they could develop their own products. Hong Kong became very strategic and this marked the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship.”
This time of change found Hong Kong discovering and reinventing itself as an international hub. But in the 1960s, this transformation had not yet been completed. At this point, Hong Kong was still an industrial centre, a part of the city’s tale told through other patterns – ones that represent the way in which Hong Kong was being brought to the world, but also how the world was coming to Hong Kong.
Patternways: Visualising Hong Kong in Transition is now on display at CHAT. Click here for more information.