Wednesday, 21.2.2018

Douglas Young - Playing G.O.D. On Triads & Expression


God’s a tough name to live up to but Douglas Young, CEO and founder of G.O.D., is deified in this city. An icon of authentic local design, he spoke to us about Hong Kongers’ difficulty expressing their identity and why he was arrested in 2007...

"We’d made a shirt in Chinese long script with '14K' written in a golden, retro design. It was supposed to look like the golden plaques worn by women at Chinese weddings but the police thought ‘14K' was a reference to the infamous triad gang and they arrested us. About 18 of us were locked up and we had to shut down business for a short time.

What was their legal reason for arresting you?

There’s an archaic law in Hong Kong that says you mustn't promote triad activity - or that triads should never be acknowledged publicly. It dates back to the 50s when triads were everywhere and the authorities enacted sweeping laws to clamp down. A trigger happy policeman decided that we were contravening this law. It became a very high profile case. We were headline news for about three or four days and it was good publicity but we were scared. We didn’t know what was going to happen and it raised loads of questions about the future of our business. It cost us a huge amount in legal fees because there were 18 of us and we had to have someone representing each of us.

Did you notice a spike in interest after your arrest?

Yes. Before the incident we were seen as a niche or cult brand but afterwards we become a household name. We definitely never planned it, and looking back it was certainly beneficial. There was an art group that stood up for us and held a 14K themed demonstration pointing to all the things that could mean 14K. There was a 14K airplane seat, a 14K marathon, a 14K bus route and many more 14K possibilities to show the government all the permutations of 14K. I was very moved by the support and it made me much braver in terms of my designs. It also taught me to never compromise or yield to pressure. I realized that to be a creative person it was partly my responsibility to change society. I know that sounds a little naive and idealistic but it has truth to it. It’s writers, designers and artists who create controversy and push the social agenda. I know that some of our work at first sight can be shocking, but it will slowly be accepted over time.

Would you touch on 14K as a topic again?

Upon my release I signed a piece of paper saying I wouldn’t do the same thing again. In exchange they dropped the charges - but I wouldn’t do it anyway because I don't like to repeat myself. We want people to come back and see something different.

What other controversial items are you particularly proud of?

Each of my products is like my baby so it’s hard to choose, and some of the products that used to be controversial are not taboo anymore. We once made shirts and boxer shorts featuring a newspaper print design and in Chinese society it was regarded as ugly and weird. They just weren't used to seeing something so common applied to another everyday item. It was seen as the epitome of bad taste, as if you had run out of money and you needed to use newspaper for bed sheets or underwear.

Does Hong Kong’s voice come through its clothes and art?

I don’t think Hong Kong has a defined identity. More specifically, I think it has a voice but not a vocabulary. I think that everyone knows that Hong Kong is special and there’s a sense of unique culture here – but nobody can put their finger on it. What I'm trying to do is define the city in terms of design, colours, lines and shapes, while also helping Hong Kong people to be more confident in who they are.

So you think Hong Kongers lack confidence?

Yes. Actually, I think there’s a lack of definition of who we are. If you ask the average Londoner, “What does it mean to be a Londoner?” you’d receive a clear, defined answer - as well as in Paris and New York - but if you ask a Hong Konger, they’d be at a loss. Some people would say that there’s not really any local culture here and that everything is imported, which I think is untrue. We just don't know what it is because we’ve never considered it before. There have been far too few studies on Hong Kong culture and we spend no time thinking about it.

If you look at post Cold War Russia, they've been searching for an ideology or a way to think ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's proved impossible for Russians to artificially create a culture. Do you think Hong Kong will suffer the same fate or will that void be filled?

Well, I don't think I’m trying to artificially create a culture. I'm trying to curate it, or capture its essence and put it into a platform that everyone understands. I want to engender the sense of who we are in the community so we can build pride. Hong Kongers need to be prouder but before you can be proud of who you are, you need to know who you are. For us to succeed in the long term we need a common sense of identity and to reinforce each other’s messages to the outside world so that when people come here they see cohesiveness.

Do you think Hong Kong’s identity is forming, and is it happening quickly enough?

I don’t think it’s happening quickly enough, but it is, evidenced by how well we’ve been received. G.O.D. is one of a few companies in Hong Kong that tries to build an honest, local brand. Most others adopt French names and sound imported. They pretend to be something they’re not.

Where do you like to shop yourself?

I like the markets, the buzz of the streets. The Sham Shui Po area is fun.

Your favourite?

Actor: Matt Damon - I love the Bourne trilogy.
Car maker: I’m mad about Alpha Romeo - they have character and soul. When you see someone driving one you know they’re an enthusiast otherwise they wouldn't put up with it.
Cologne: Issey Miyake, but I don't wear it, so....
Sport? I’m a big skier. In fact, I ski about 4 weeks of the year, mostly in Europe.
TV Show? Oh wow. Well, I like Little Britain because I imagine we (G.O.D.) are the Hong Kong product equivalent in that our items are sometimes shocking and are also culturally based.

Name one characteristic you think you have that you’d like to pass on to your children?
To indulge. Can I say that?

Sure, but in what sense do you mean ‘indulge’?
Indulge in your instincts. Treat yourself well, love yourself, spoil yourself. If you’re interested in something don't be afraid of taboos or what other people think.

If you could have dinner with one person from history who would it be?

Actually it would probably be my grandfather because I miss him rather than Shakespeare.

What product can you not do without?

Nothing. I think I could go without.

What are you reading at the moment?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. His latest novel has finally been translated into English.

Favourite place in Hong Kong?

I love SoHo, it’s east meets west. We benefit from diversity and in SoHo you see it on the faces, in the shops and in the food. I think it’s great. I like the mess.

What would you most like to change about Hong Kong apart from the pollution?

I would love to make Hong Kong bigger. The city’s biggest disadvantage is not having enough space where people can mess around, experiment and have their own workshops.

Favourite restaurant in Hong Kong?

Lucy's in Stanley. She’s a girl who cooks there every night and there aren’t too many owner operated restaurants in Hong Kong anymore so I really like that.

If you could take visitors to only one place in Hong Kong where would it be?

I would actually take them on a boat ride. Hong Kong is about the sea - not many big cities feature beaches so close to the city centre.


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