“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.
“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.
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