A Tour of China’s Design Cities: Shenzhen

December 15, 2014

For the Shekou project, Luisa E. Mengoni, Brendan Cormier, Sunny Cheung, and Rong Zhao travelled to five cities in two weeks, to research the current state of design in China – to see how design is produced, perceived, consumed, and discussed across the country. All of this, to figure out how the V&A, through its work with the Shekou Design Museum, can contribute in a meaningful way to the broader ambition of China to become a significant design presence in the 21st century. Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing reports from each of those cities – Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing – and the thoughts and observations gained.

Shenzhen – 19-22 Nov 2014

When I first came to Shenzhen two years ago I had no expectations. I knew that the enormous city of 15 million inhabitants as we know it now experienced a very fast urban development, prompted by its designation in 1979 as the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in China. A master plan of giant proportions by the man – Deng Xiaoping – who has since been named ‘the chief designer’ (总设计师). But I then left with a very deep impression of the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of the city and the staggering diversity of its inhabitants, coming from all over China to find jobs and opportunities. A sign in Shenzhen airport states in big characters: ‘When you arrive in Shenzhen you become a Shenzhen citizen’. It could not be more appropriate.


Shenzhen is still growing
Shenzhen is still growing

Despite the close proximity to Hong Kong (only an hour away by ferry or tube) Shenzhen is a completely different social and urban environment. This was confirmed to us by the many people we met during our trip. Key financial center in Asia, Hong Kong provides strategic financial and logistic support to business in the city and in the mainland, as well as being consumers’ shopping paradise ‘par excellence’. Shenzhen – located in mainland China- is instead widely known as the largest manufacturing center in the world, with industrial zones now dislocated in the suburbs of the city. Their mass –produced ‘made in China’ exports are part of people’s daily lives all over the world. The city has now become one of the largest hubs for electronic goods, not limited to the manufacture of established foreign brands. Strong Chinese companies are expanding in the domestic and international markets and young innovative start-ups are developing and prototyping new products. This is probably one of the most dynamic sectors in Shenzhen at the moment. Experimentation, in the past as well as in the present, continues to be a feature embedded in the city’s DNA. The proximity to production, and the freedom provided by the SEZ status, also prompted many companies and designers to establish their independent practices in Shenzhen in the 1990s. They were the driving forces for the development of a thriving graphic design industry in Shenzhen and several have been represented in the V&A show ‘China Design Now’ in 2008. We will encounter a few of them during our visit, as well as new comers and rising stars, the new wave that will define Shenzhen creativity in the near future.


Fishing continues in town
But fishing continues in town



In our first afternoon in Shenzhen we drive for more than an hour to reach the foot of the Wutong Mountain, a bucolic location hit by tourists and trekkers in the weekend where Fiona Lau and Kain Picken have established their residence and in-house workshop. Their company ffiXXed is a unisex, prêt a porter fashion label with a minimalist edge. As many others, the company is registered in Hong Kong, where it is easier to manage the business and source a larger variety of textiles and high quality natural fibers, but manufacture happens in Shenzhen where rent and production costs are lower. Their employees are former sample makers, who can make garments from start to finish and provide good quality in the details; most of them know each other through friends and relatives. Fiona and Kain seem to have struck the right balance in between quality of life and business demands, and their workshop looks more a busy family business, miles away from factory production lines. They tell us that Shenzhen is in fact experiencing a shortage of skilled workers as many garment factories are moving out of China and relocating in Bangladesh and SE Asia. We also hear about the problem of being copied in China, how potential fakers approach companies and strategies to minimise the risk. Fixeeed may be less of a target as a large proportion of fashion consumers are more interested in big brands and garish outlooks, certainly far away from abstract and simple lines. Fiona and Kain, as designers and Shenzhen residents, contributed to the V&A Rapid Response display curated by Corinna Gardner at last year’s Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, not with garments this time but with something that for them encapsulates a key aspect of the city: a fake I-phone.


China Merchants Group (CMG) History Museum –招商历史博物馆

The idea of setting up this museum may come as a surprise but in fact the CMG company takes pride in its history and identity, and wishes to be seen as a long-standing key contributor to Chinese modernisation and economic development. The photographs, copies of archival documents and models span the time from its establishment in 1872 as a company specialised in railway construction, coal transportation and ship repairs, through to its involvement in setting up the special economic zone in Shenzhen in 1979. CMG is now focussing on financial services, property development and transport activities, and regards culture as a key component of public life. I am looking forward to seeing the Museum of Design in Shekou and the V&A Gallery as part of this story!


OCT Lofts – Bi Xuefeng 毕学峰

A must see in Shenzhen for whoever is interested in design and creative industries is OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) Lofts 华侨成, an area developed by the company Overseas Chinese with the aim of combining design/architecture studios, galleries and retail. It is also a leisure venue with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants, and there are always events, screenings and lectures to attend. Here we meet Bi Xuefeng, former President of the Shenzhen Graphic Design Association (深圳市平面设计协会), who welcomes us in his buzzing studio in OCT.


Shenzhen is a green city - the buildings in OCT too
Shenzhen is a green city – the buildings in OCT too

One of the strongest areas of activity in Shenzhen is graphic design. Freeman Lau had already mentioned to us that in Shenzhen alone there are around 100,000 designers, not including fashion designers and architects. Bi Xuefeng belongs to the so-called ‘second generation’ and has a vast experience of projects in and outside Shenzhen. After having studied and been influenced by western design, he is now hoping to develop a new global language inspired by Chinese tradition. He tells us that the freedom and opportunities created in Shenzhen in the 1980s encouraged the opening of several design activities despite the lack of local culture and government support at the time. The community became so established and widely recognised in the following years that the Chinese government began to support graphic design more directly. In 1992 the first national exhibition of graphic design was held in Shenzhen, and the Shenzhen Graphic Design Association, the first non-official design association in China, was established three years later. The association promotes design as a discipline, facilitates links between designers and clients, and provides work opportunities, including participation to large government projects. Several designers are also involved in teaching and in consultancy work, for example at the time of the nomination process of Shenzhen as UNESCO City of Design (status granted in 2008).


Bi Xuefeng showing one of his latest posters
Bi Xuefeng showing one of his latest posters

We talk at length about the challenges of teaching design as a discipline at university level and how design should move from being an abstract concept learnt from books to something closer and more meaningful to people’s daily lives. A museum should ideally facilitate this process and encourage awareness of design in its many forms, as well as recognition of its creators.

We leave Bi Xuefeng’s studio in the late afternoon and rush to OCT Art and Design Gallery (OCT 华美术馆), where we hope to catch a glimpse of their current exhibition. The gallery, opened in 2004, is managed by Overseas Chinese and hosts a regular series of exhibitions on design and contemporary art. The current one is a solo photography exhibition by Yang Yankang devoted to Tibetan Buddhism and Catholic practices in China. I am absolutely fascinated by the striking images taken amongst the Catholic communities in China.


Guanshanyue Museum 關山月美術館 – Huang Zhicheng 黄治成

Bi Xuefeng’s perspective is nicely complemented the day after by the views of Mr Huang Zhicheng, reflecting what is happening at government level. Mr Huang is senior curator at the Guanshanyue Museum, one of the largest galleries in China devoted to modern and contemporary Chinese paintings, but increasingly involved in design related projects as a result of the government initiative to promote design in the country. He explains to us that design is in fact a very recent concept, born in the late 1970s, and for many years design was considered a branch of fine arts. A fuller recognition came only later, also prompted by the nomination of Shenzhen as the first City of Design in China in 2008. The Guanshanyue Museum was the venue of the first Design Triennale held in Shenzhen in 2012 and managed at the time by the Ministry of Culture. It is interesting to hear about the selection process and how this can be improved in following editions. The Shenzhen government is now planning to set up a state-run design museum that could host future events and design awards of the same calibre and size, although such a museum will focus on Chinese design and will certainly not have a global approach.


At the Guanshanyue Museum
At the Guanshanyue Museum


Shenzhen Creative Culture Centre (SCCC) 深圳创意文化中心 – Wang Hua 王华

Our meeting in the Guanshanyue Museum is immediately followed by a short but very productive conversation with Mr Wang Hua, Deputy Director of Shenzhen Creative Cultural Centre, a government association that promotes creative culture in Shenzhen and has recently –  and not surprisingly – been merged with the Shenzhen Press Association. A clever strategy to reach out more effectively. They have launched a Design Creativity award and are connected with all design associations in the city. In our conversation it is clear that design is one of the strategic priorities for Shenzhen government and the development of a closer relationship between designers and manufacturing industries is regarded of crucial importance. We also touched on the need of a more international perspective in design displays and a wider approach that could relate design to wider and meaningful social issues and not exclusively to aesthetic values. We could not agree more.


Stanley Wong 黄炳培

We jump on taxi for our next meeting with Stanley Wong, an eclectic and inspirational Hong Kong based designer, artist and photographer whom we were unable to meet earlier. Luckily he is in Shenzhen for work and we squeeze in a lunch with him. Stanley combines collaborations with high-end development projects and luxury brands with more independent projects inspired by humble everyday elements, such as his ‘redwhiteblue’ series (Venice Biennale 2005) – objects made out of the plastic tarpaulin used on building sites. I also really like his ‘Lanwei’ series – photographs depicting people in half-completed or abandoned buildings, which was recently collected by M+. Stanley is absolutely charming and shares with us his own critical views on design. Having worked in Hong and Kong and in mainland China for the last thirty years, he finds the latter a much more dynamic and interesting place, but also laments the fact that students in both places have generally very little sense of history. Stanley has recently worked on a project related to the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang and thinks that historical awareness should not be underestimated when providing a design education. He is equally very critical of the ways in which design is generally presented and perceived, and he would welcome a reinterpretation of design values beyond mere consumerism. We like that.


URBANUS – Meng Yan 孟岩

In the same afternoon we go to URBANUS, an architectural firm established in 1999 by Meng Yan, Liu Xiaodu and Hui Wang and now recognised as one of the most influential practices in China with offices in in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Amongst their projects, the OCT Lofts and OCAT Art and Design Gallery. Having a conversation with Meng Yan, one of the leading voices in the architecture scene in China, can only be a source of inspiration. He considers Shenzhen the strongest city for design in China, as opposed to Beijing and Shanghai that are more focussed on fine art and luxury brands, and gives us a very vivid portrait of the city as a more spontaneous and dynamic urban reality, although its upper-middle class is arguably less mature than Beijing and Shanghai. We have a very good discussion on university education in architecture, building skills, and general design awareness, and we reflect on how the Shekou design museum and the V&A gallery could define their own unique identity and become key opinion formers for Shenzhen and local audiences.


Enjoying our conversation with Meng Yan
Enjoying our conversation with Meng Yan

NODE – Doreen Heng Liu刘珩

Another interesting architecture practice in OCT is NODE (Nansha Original Design or NO Design), established by Doreen Heng Liu in 2004 and focusing on urbanism in the Pearl River delta region.  Doreen sees us at the end of a very busy week and just before setting off with his team for a celebratory cinema evening. She makes very insightful comments on the fact that most of the exhibitions and gallery projects in China are undertaken very quickly, while more time should be devoted to concept development, research of contents and themes, and interpretation. This is a crucial point for the V&A project: to be able to research and share curatorial ideas before their final implementation, as well as developing a public programme relevant to local audiences and practices. Doreen also reiterates the importance of an international and inter-Asian perspective, which is currently not the focus of the planned state-run museums of design in Shenzhen.  Another serious shortcoming is the lack of critical theory on architecture and she hopes that in the future the history of modern and contemporary architecture can be revisited and interpreted with new paradigms.

Doreen will curate the Shenzhen Biennale ‘Re-living the city’ next year, together with UTT and THE.

Captured by Doreen's enthusiasm
Captured by Doreen’s enthusiasm


At the end of a very long and fantastically dense day we are almost fainting, but it was all worth it!

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