The Steiner Series: The Problem With East Meets West

“Hong Kong is where East meets West.” If you’ve heard this line before, there’s no wonder: it’s one of the most oft-repeated phrases to describe the city. A quick internet search reveals thousands of iterations, and thousands more variations. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council uses it to describe the city’s business climate. The New York Times quotes a professor who uses the line to contextualise Hong Kong gender relations. It’s found in countless travel guides breathlessly describing Hong Kong’s mix of cultures and traditions.

On its surface, the phrase reflects an undeniable truth. Hong Kong is a Chinese city that was shaped by 156 years of British rule whose legacy is omnipresent in nearly every aspect of society, from law to government to business, education, religion and popular culture. But it is also a shorthand for a sentiment that has existed since the early days of its existence as a British colony: Hong Kong is exotic, but safely so, thanks to being securely nestled within the framework of Western modernity. 

“This idea of Hong Kong culture as the meeting place between two monolithic cultures is a common stereotype that continues to be used in contemporary criticism, journalism, and tourism promotion,” notes design critic D.J. Huppatz. And it is as problematic as it is pervasive: “‘East meets West’ [is] a cliché which served to neutralise the impact of colonisation in its various forms.” 

Huppatz made these observations in his essay “The Chameleon and the Pearl of the Orient,” a critical examination of the work of Henry Steiner. Known as one of Hong Kong’s pioneering graphic designers, Steiner is also a proponent of what he calls “cross-cultural design,” a theory he promoted in his book of the same name, which was co-authored by writer Ken Haas and published in 1990. As Steiner’s graphic design studio prepares to mark its 60th anniversary, with an exhibition of his work planned to open at M+ museum next year, it’s worth digging into the theory that defines so much of his very influential outlet – one that also reflects a common idea of Hong Kong and what it is as a city. 

So what exactly is cross-cultural design? In a review of Steiner’s work titled “A Harmonious Encounter Between East and West,” Italian graphic design magazine Progetto Grafico describes it as “a pragmatic, intuitive and informal approach typical of the American school, but reinvigorated by assimilation and reworking of elements from the Chinese visual and cultural tradition.” In other words, Steiner took the training he received at Yale from modernist master Paul Rand, among others, and adapted it to the local context of Hong Kong. 

From today’s perspective, that sounds almost self-evident: why wouldn’t a designer in Hong Kong incorporate Chinese influences into his work? But Steiner has been clear about one thing over the years. What he is proposing isn’t a kind of fusion. In fact, in his book, he disparages the idea, equating it to a cup of yuen yeung or (jyun1 jeong1 鴛鴦), the “yin-yang” blend of coffee and tea that is available at any cha chaan teng. “It tastes as you would imagine: the worst characteristics of both are enhanced,” he writes. “Combination, mixture, blending – these are useless concepts as they will result in a kind of mud.” Instead, “the individual character of the elements should be retained, each maintaining its own identity while also commenting on and enriching the other, like the balance of yin and yang.” 

He has stuck by this idea over the years. “If you just throw everything in a blender, you get mush,” he told journalist Sarah Lazarus in 2014. In an article for the South China Morning Post, she wrote: “According to the principles he pioneered, when East meets West the two don’t fuse; they collide. Steiner seeks the sparks that fly when images from different visual and cultural traditions are juxtaposed and invigorate each other. His work plays on the contrasts between East and West, highbrow and lowbrow, old and new, the mundane and the extraordinary.”

One of the ways Steiner achieved this was through contrasting imagery, such as the face of a Cantonese opera singer set against that of the Statue of Liberty in a 1980 annual report for HSBC, which also featured a pearl next to an apple – the Pearl of the Orient versus the Big Apple. He took a similar approach in creating a logo for RTHK Radio 3 that pairs the Roman numeral III with the Chinese character for three,  saam1 (三) rendered in calligraphic script. “A dialectical technique, the split image is the most basic way of juxtaposing visual elements in order to achieve a synthesis,” Steiner writes in his book. “A new icon results from the combination of disparate elements. It can be perceived as a metaphor of the synergy resulting from the meeting of two cultures.”

But this binary approach raises a lot of questions. Steiner doesn’t like yuen yeung, but — to perhaps belabour his metaphor — what about its beloved cousin, milk tea? Isn’t that a similar fusion of cultures, a peculiar twist on milky English tea adapted for Hong Kong’s Chinese working class? Isn’t just about every aspect of Hong Kong identity and culture a fusion of some sort, a blend of sometimes disparate ingredients that come together not as mush but as something new and unique? 

“What I found most curious about [Steiner’s] cross-cultural design theory was the idea of two monolithic cultures — East and West — and Steiner’s insistence that these two traditions should be kept separate and never mixed,” writes Huppatz in an email. “I think the first part of this equation is problematic (cultures have always borrowed from one another) but it falls easily into the idea of Hong Kong as the place ‘where East meets West.’ But by the 1960s, the East and West had been ‘meeting’ for centuries (consider the 16th century porcelain trade, for example) – there’s a long history of exchange of ideas, people, objects and aesthetics between Europe and Asia. Another problem is that this binary tends to be characterised by clichés and a narrative by which the East is backward, traditional, stagnant, and the West progressive, modern and dynamic.”

Tina Pang, curator of Hong Kong visual culture at M+, takes issue with this interpretation. “I believe that this may be a misreading of Steiner’s process,” she says. “In seeking the ultimate in readability in his designs, he often uses images and iconographies that are widely understood. This is a principle he applies across all his work. His way of using images and text from different cultures in his designs shows his ability to reflect the languages of not just one, but multiple audiences. This skill has also been an effective strategy for many of his clients at a time when Hong Kong was becoming an important centre of regional and global trade, tourism and finance.”

It makes one wonder whether Steiner’s theory of cross-cultural design is an attempt to post-rationalise his work. “I think it’s useful to separate Henry Steiner’s practice as a designer from his theory,” notes Huppatz. In practice, Steiner’s process is intuitive and perhaps more syncretic than he is willing to admit. “You just do it and then you figure out ways to justify it. You make up the story after creating the design,” he told Zolima CityMag contributor Billy Potts in a recent interview.

This can be seen in the many brand marks and logos Steiner has developed over the years. One of his earliest projects in Hong Kong was a logo for the Hongkong Hilton, which arranged the letter “H” in a way that resembled hei2 (囍), the Chinese character for “double happiness” — particularly appropriate for a hotel that included a large banquet hall that would be used for weddings and other celebrations. A few years later, Steiner once again played with the letter “H” in a logo for Hongkong Land, which evoked both a building’s floorplan and the character for sau6 (壽, “longevity”). The way these logos incorporate Chinese characters is more sophisticated than simple juxtaposition.

Steiner’s relationship to Chinese influences begins to make more sense when you understand that he never became fluent in Cantonese or literate in Chinese, for reasons that would be familiar to many professionals who moved to Hong Kong as adults: he never had the time or opportunity to learn. But he nonetheless became fascinated by Chinese calligraphy and visual culture, elements of which he has been collecting for decades. “I was the outsider and I said, ‘What are all these things?’ There was this wonderful symbolism,” he tells us. “I look at things and I can’t necessarily read them but I can see how beautiful the arrangement is, how the characters balance.”

It’s also worth considering the context in which Steiner was working. “Graphic design is not just about appearance, it reflects the client behind it and the larger environment that is driving the business,” says Wendy Wong, a professor of graphic design at York University in Toronto. “Things have changed. The [recent] wave of nostalgia has changed how people see Hong Kong design. But in the 70s and 80s everyone wanted to look American.” 

Steiner was rare in his desire to incorporate Chinese elements into work that otherwise fit into the modernist framework developed by his mentor Paul Rand. Wong remembers visiting Steiner’s office decades ago and noting that he had collected an old Hong Kong shop sign, well before such things were seen as having much cultural value. “He did something in his work that wasn’t just purely international without acknowledgment of local culture,” she says. 

Today, “there’s a much more fluid sense of cultural identity, with ideas, images and stories travelling all over the place all the time online but also a great deal of travel,” says Huppatz. “I suspect Steiner’s approach is seen as quite rigid today in terms of his ideas about cross-cultural design.”

But it’s also possible to see Steiner’s work as a kind of middle ground, one that reflects a variety of cultural influences in ways that his theory doesn’t quite express. It’s a bit like the idea of East and West: there’s certainly some truth there, but the reality is far more complicated. 

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