Meet The Rising Stars Who Are Redefining Culture In Hong Kong
Culture in Hong Kong is not dead. In fact, in spite of all appearances, and the city’s rather unfair reputation as a cultural wasteland, it’s thriving. That is, if you know where to look—which, as it turns out, might be right under your feet.
“For a long time, Hong Kong culture was all about taking influence from the West,” says Tedman Lee, who, in the parlance of the moment, could best be described as a multimedia multihyphenate. “But in the last few years, people have really started to embrace homegrown talent. And with the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to find art or music that speaks to you.”
Lee, 34, is a fashion designer, a DJ, the founder of a creative agency and a party promoter. Recognisable by his signature curls, colourfully painted nails and deceptively moody demeanour—he’s easily one of the friendliest people you’ll meet in these circles—Lee is part of a socially well-connected wave of young adults who are approaching careers in creative fields without any set of expectations or parameters, or even a plan, and nevertheless having an outsized impact.
Other members of the movement include Arthur Bray, co-founder of clothing brand and music collective Yeti Out, and graphic designers Mildred Cheng and Ron Wan, whose practice is also difficult to pin down in ten words or less.
You might find them hosting a podcast on creativity one day and opening an alternative radio station that is literally underground the next, but the point is that you will always find them somewhere, sometimes together, doing something interesting.
Through various routes, these four undefinable professionals are redefining retail, art, music and nightlife in Hong Kong. Part of their success, compared to the experience of previous generations of cultural upstarts who existed mainly on the fringe, comes from the speed at which ideas can germinate thanks to social media and direct access to consumers.
Ron Wan & Mildred Cheng
“Tell them about your rugs,” Wan teases as he gives Cheng a playful nudge in the arm during a recent visit to Sheung Wan co-working space The Hive. It seems Cheng, who moonlights as a painter, has just purchased a tufting gun so she can turn her trippy artworks, some of them bordering on the erotic, into rugs.
“A lot of my personal work is based on psychedelic experiences,” says Cheng, a 27-year-old vegetarian who goes by the alias “I Ride Dolphin” on Instagram. She is simultaneously head-in-the-clouds and sharp-as-a-tack, and received her bachelor’s from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)’s former campus in Hong Kong in 2017. Despite being relatively new to the field, she has already been commissioned by Zheng Mahler, the Hong Kong-based artist-and-anthropologist duo of Royce Ng and Daisy Bisenieks, to design their book, Psychedelics and Technics. Cheng created a set of fluorescent pink and blue designs of eye-popping waves and ripples to get readers in the right mood to study the influence of mind-altering substances on the evolution of technology, which Ng and Bisenieks wrote in collaboration with Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As a day job, Cheng works as a graphic designer for the local creative agency Hecho, which manages brand identity and content creation for some of Hong Kong’s most recognisably cool restaurants and labels, including Ronin, Sake Central and Sunday’s Spirits. But she believes design has a higher calling, as reflected in her more mind-altering personal projects.
“Recently I’ve been really interested in social design: how a designer’s role contributes to society, not just to entice people to consume but to solve societal and community problems,” says Cheng.
Wan and Cheng, as long-time friends and collaborators, are also pushing the boundaries of Hong Kong’s art and design scene through their own design collective, which is mysteriously called “DTBY_”. When asked what the acronym stands for, or even means, Cheng and Wan shoot each other a look and laugh, saying that it’s an inside joke they’ll never reveal.
“It’s actually very lame,” says Cheng.
“Mildred is very intelligent and a bit more soft-spoken,” says Wan, 34, who returned to Hong Kong from Toronto in 2012. “She’s a listener, and I don’t shut up. My design is starker, whereas Mildred likes to paint organic body parts and body movements in soft colours. But we both really appreciate these differences. She understands where I come from, and I have a high interest in how she looks at the world.”
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Two years ago, Wan received a seed grant from the Design Trust, which supports creative projects across the Greater Bay Area. He and Cheng took over a dilapidated three-storey textile shop in Sham Shui Po owned by restaurateur and art collector Alan Lo, a co-founder of the trust who has spearheaded several projects to bring up-and-coming artists into the neighbourhood. Last year, the building became Phvlo Hatch, which brought together a sustainable cafe, Colour Brown, on the ground floor and exhibition and workshop spaces on the upper floor run by eco-friendly fashion label, Phvlo, and local NGO, Hatch.
“Alan has been a great mentor, and we both share a passion for bringing people together through food and design,” says Wan. “He was really supportive of our concept and basically handed us the keys and trusted us to do what we wanted with the space.”
Wan and Cheng operated the first instalment of their non-profit venture there, the Be There: Design Festival, which has intermittently hosted pop-up events and displays of artists from local craftsmen to provocative filmmakers and photographers like Bruce LaBruce and Laurent Segretier.
“It was about expanding the community’s knowledge of stories from artists all over the world; immigrant stories, housing stories, sexuality. We wanted to make everyone’s story valid and offer a platform to communicate that with the community in Hong Kong,” says Wan.
“Art is where different stories can exist, just being there and experiencing them without prejudice, even if we don’t understand them,” he says.
“That’s why we decided to call the design festival Be There,” adds Cheng. “All we ask for is your presence.”
At one point, Bray was juggling a full-time job as an editor at Hypebeast, the online men’s fashion platform, with hosting parties throughout Asia under the banner of his own music collective and apparel brand, Yeti Out, which he co-founded with his twin brother, Tom, and a friend, Eri Ali.
“I once did Bangkok on a Friday, Taipei on a Saturday and then returned to Hong Kong to work on Monday. It got to a point where I had to make a decision,” he recalls. In 2017, he hung up his five-panel hat at Hypebeast to focus entirely on Yeti Out. “I’m not gonna lie, it was scary.”
His bet paid off. Yeti Out, a name inspired by Bray’s belief that “everyone has an inner creature, an inner yeti” that comes out at night, now encompasses a clothing brand and an internationally recognised music collective that manages a roster of DJs and releases music through the record label Silk Road Sounds. In 2019, Bray made his Coachella debut, sharing the stage with the likes of Aphex Twin, Four Tet and Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Louis Vuitton.
“I think that duality is what makes us special,” says Bray, 34, who grew up in Hong Kong and is half British and half Chinese. His flawless Cantonese draws a few gasps from those on set for this photo shoot. “Hong Kong is such a melting pot of cultures. If we can all be under one roof, breaking bread and enjoying music together, that’s all that really matters.”
Last December, he took on the role of project director at FM Belowground, a 24-hour alternative radio station housed in Landmark Atrium’s new cultural and retail concept, Belowground. From the beechwood-clad studio, the station plays local and international DJ mixes, and produces original shows and podcasts.
“The storytelling aspect has always found its way into to every project, not so much in the sense that it needs to be a story, but in what experience we are trying to create,” says Bray. “Yeti Out came from club culture, so if we take away the parties, as we’ve done during Covid-19, how do we still push the foundations of what Yeti Out is?”
Bray saw FM Belowground as the perfect opportunity to offer a platform for his peers to showcase their talent and share their stories with a wider audience. The station has aired talks with Florian Melinette, founder of Hong Kong’s Shi Fu Miz music festival, and Vick Okada, mastermind behind the Tokyo-based arts and music collective Tokyovitamin.
“It’s about maintaining this Asian family of like- minded individuals,” says Bray. “Opening a radio station at Landmark in Central is definitely different from doing secret warehouse parties in Tai Kok Tsui [another up-and-coming cultural pocket in Kowloon].”
Nearby the radio station is a retail space selling Yeti Out’s clothing line, which makes nostalgic nods to Hong Kong culture. Last summer, Bray paid homage to one of his favourite icons—the red minibus—with a collection made in collaboration with local street artist Xeme and the city’s last-standing minibus sign painter, Mak Kam-sang.
“It’s about people coming together, being stoked about something and creating,” says Bray. “I’m stoked to hang out with people. I’m stoked about learning with people. I’m just forever stoked, man.”
"Hong Kong mainstream culture right now is at an all-time low,” says Lee, who is the founder of creative agency Triple Happiness Club. “The older heads who run mainstream TV, music or fashion ... I don’t think they really understand the change that’s happening, and how to cater to this new audience.”
As brands struggle to stay relevant and keep up with what’s cool, they look to Lee, who says he “has a responsibility to push boundaries for the kids in the younger generation”, to inject a bit of edge by way of videos and design. One of his favourite projects was COS Urban Landscape, a short concept film made for the fashion brand’s collaboration with architect André Fu and his studio AFSO.
In 2016, Lee also launched his own brand, The Private Label. His designs draw inspiration from Hong Kong, featuring details like frog buttons and mandarin collars—think kung fu meets Brooklyn.
“The whole thing came about in a weird way,” Lee says. “At the time, I felt like I was in a bit of a creative rut. I started to wonder if people really liked the things I was doing. So, I thought, I’m going make something, not put my name on it, put it out there and just observe.”
Currently, he’s working on a new collection called Still Private in collaboration with Still House, a local boutique in Causeway Bay. The collection features the aesthetics and colour palettes of The Private Label, produced with the craftsmanship of Still House, which is known for its understated style.
“All the products are designed and made in Hong Kong,” says Lee. “The look book explores the topic of privacy in the modern digital world. I have been playing with the concept of ‘private’ in all of my recent collections and shoots. We’ll be showcasing the unisex pieces on a couple being monitored by digital devices while still carrying on with their daily lives.”
Music is another one of Lee’s passions. He’s a DJ who has shared the stage with names such as Neon Indian, Blood Orange, Jacques Greene and Ryan Hemsworth, and is the lead singer of indie band NI.NE.MO. “We haven’t really been active since 2018, though,” he says.
Prior to the pandemic, he hosted a series of parties called Night of the Living Discoheads, inspired by Kowloon’s disco scene in the Eighties.
“Hong Kong is always changing. You look at photos of the city in the Sixties or Seventies, and it’s unrecognisable. None of it exists any more. We as a city haven’t really done a good job of preserving our history. Cantonese as a language might be dying as well,” Lee muses, adding that he’s seeing a growing desire to hold fast to Hong Kong’s unique identity.
“After 2019, all eyes were on Hong Kong. I think any time there’s political unrest, anywhere in the world, that’s when creative stuff starts happening,” he says. A few homegrown talents worth watching are Young Queenz, a rapper Lee manages and who started as his intern, the fashion designer Robert Wun and independent toy designers Asa and Poppy, who go by the name Don’t Cry In The Morning.
“It’s easier than ever for emerging artists to connect with fans who genuinely relate to them. You don’t have to go the mainstream route or compromise your creativity. You can be who you are, do what you want to do, and the right people will find you.”
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- Photography Alex Maeland
- Hair Cooney Lai
- Make-Up Antonia Rudebeck
- Styling Syan Leung
- Stylist's Assistant Sam Yeung