The Art of Business

Is China importing a Western model of creative marketing?

For some reason, I’ve always loved arriving at Shanghai’s Pu Dong airport. For one thing, in the run up to the World Expo, ambassador Jackie Chan’s face adorned every other poster/video screen in the main terminal and I’ve never been able to watch Jackie Chan without laughing. Even after the Expo ended and the kung-fu legend’s visage was replaced by the customary advertisements for Swiss watches, I was glad to touch down in China again. The heat might be oppressive and the air heavy, but it always seems rich with opportunity and pregnant with possibility. Don’t adjust your sets (e-readers amongst us), I am still talking about the largest Communist country on Earth, a place all too frequently lambasted for its authoritarian regime, and describing it as a contemporary Land of Canaan. Shanghai – and Pu Dong airport in particular, is a testament to China’s level of attraction for opportunists/pioneers/speculators in the creative industries. The architecture is nothing short of spectacular – convex and concave waves ebb and flow over a sea of palm trees, membrane-like pillars and – crucially – an abundance of state of the art technology. It is a magnificent site, a fitting landing stage for the fastest growing centre of economic development in the world.

The ‘business of creativity’ in China is booming. Perhaps that should not seem surprising for a country with a long – or, more accurately – the longest history of producing works of stunning visual art (some of the Jade pieces in the Forbidden City date back to the Neolithic period). That said, it is undeniable that Chinese art since the cultural revolution has had real problems in marketing itself. Suffice to say that the Western market has a certain aptitude for ‘creativity in business’ that does not exist in China – or at least did not until the relatively recent emergence of the Cynical Realists, who began to re-announce Chinese art on a global stage. The most fascinating thing about these artists’ rise to prominence is the pivotal role of Western galleries in promoting them to the wider world. It is the quintessential irony of modern day China that its economic/creative/insert-next-here boom has come as a direct result of its policy to open up its Eastern territory to Western business. Who, for example, was behind the design of the Shanghai airport, iconic symbol of China’s brave new world of blossoming creativity and prosperity? British architect Richard Rogers.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I visited China and Hong Kong over the summer. Most of us have grown up in a society where interaction with China was conducted primarily through the ex-British peninsula. As my last visit to China was prior to Jackie Chan’s nauseating rendition of Shanghai’s ‘Expo Theme Song’, I wanted to go and see for myself how far the mainland had progressed as a place of realistic possibility for creative minds just starting out in international business. In addition to my business as a marketing & communications consultant, I carried with me the questions of artists, photographers, architects, publishers, authors, designers, retailers… to name but a few. Any common themes? All of us work in (or heavily with) the creative industries. None of us speak Chinese.

My first two questions revolved around the latter factor. Does not speaking Mandarin render mainland China inaccessible to those of us without the budget to partner with local businesses? Could we still benefit from using Hong Kong as a legally, culturally and linguistically familiar stepping stone?

In a word, yes. To both questions. But clearly the notion that all Westerners looking to work in China start off in Hong Kong is a ridiculous – not to mention extremely antiquated – suggestion. There are some evenings in Shanghai during which you could be forgiven for thinking that it was still the British, French and American ‘International Settlement’ of the late 19th/early 20th century (and that includes the penchant for far Eastern narcotics). Since those days, and even before them, China has held a frontier-like fascination for European and American entrepreneurs. One of the more contemporary pioneers is the man known to his peers as Hu Run – Rupert Hoogewerf. Rupert first started working in Shanghai in 1999 as an independent researcher on a mandate from Forbes Magazine to found and compile the publication’s Rich List for mainland China. Four years down the line, Rupert was dropped by Forbes, but immediately found another backer and has continued to produce his ‘Rich Lists’ in addition to a well-known periodical, the Hurun Report.

While you wouldn’t expect a magazine now (somewhat ironically) described by many as the ‘Forbes of China’ to exhibit a keen knowledge of the creative sector, Rupert has been adroit in linking the Chinese luxury market with its aspirational aft-runners. For years he has been publishing research, lists and periodicals that reflect China’s burgeoning bourgeoisie’s avarice for the arts – both as major editorial sections within and separately to the monthly Hurun Report magazine. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that art is big business but there’s certainly something to be said for doing it in a place as foreign and unforgiving as China. Rupert’s Hurun Report is a superb reflection of how quickly art can become a commodity and how, with the right attitude and a certain nous, those of a trend-making persuasion can capitalise on it. Even 5730 miles from Windsor, it seems you shouldn’t bet against an Old Etonian being one of them.

A much shorter journey on Swire’s Dragonair airline took me to Hong Kong International Airport (much better than London Heathrow, the Eurasian gentleman on HKIA’s video adverts gleefully tells me). Here I am due to meet another British expatriate catering increasingly to the Chinese market, Elaine Young. Elaine’s Shama serviced apartments represent, quite simply, the best form of short-term accommodation in Hong Kong. Anyone who has been to Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island would laugh at any attempt to describe the Shama building there as “an oasis of calm” – mainly because the thronging masses of humanity that swarm outside its doors defy any relation to a desert. Let’s put it this way – Shama Causeway Bay is the ideal place to arrive at 2am after a flight, a 30 minute long distance call (on your mobile) to your bank asking them why your card doesn’t work (it worked on the mainland!) and a veritable scrummage through the still-packed streets outside the MTR (subway) station. There’s something very relaxed about the Shama apartments. Elaine and Shama’s relatively new mother company, the Thailand based Onyx Group, have managed to create something that the swathes of newcomers to the ‘luxury’ market just cannot match – namely an effortless, no fuss luxury experience.

As you might expect, Elaine’s clientele has changed rapidly in recent times in accordance with the changing face of the luxury market. ‘The majority of our clients are corporate clients, the Fortune 500. I would say most of our tenants are from, say, 25 to 45 and definitely in the upper echelon of the company…In Hong Kong, [though, ] we really cater to families. Nowadays, I would say that about 60% are expatriates; whether that’s Chinese, overseas, or South East Asia – not necessarily Caucasian.’ So what’s changed since Elaine first started in 1996? ‘What’s changed is [that there are] more Chinese are in senior positions…The Chinese have huge spending power now. I keep reading that in 2014 or 2015 they are going to be the absolute largest buyer of luxury goods in the world. Twenty years ago – 15 years ago maybe – it was the Japanese. Now it’s absolutely the Chinese.’

What was very apparent from my meeting with Elaine was that Shama would be treating the new market force in almost exactly the same way as the old. The marketing model and general approach that works so well for Westerners is apparently considered equally fitting for the Chinese. As Elaine puts it, the mainlanders are attracted to the ex-pat playground because of ‘[the] glamour factor associated with Hong Kong, and I don’t honestly see that lessening any time soon.’ The island oozes genuine quality where the mainland struggles at times to rise above mere imitation. The bottom line? Shama’s approach to aspirational lifestyle marketing is just as fitting to the Chinese demographic as it is the Western.

Beijing skyline at night (photograph: Charlotte Page)
Shichahai Shadow Art Hotel, exterior (photograph: Shichahai Shadow Art Hotel)
(Photograph: Shichahai Shadow Art Hotel)
Shama on Causeway Bay (photograph: Shama Serviced Apartments)

The same lesson is true for another of Hong Kong’s old expatriate establishments. Christian Rhomberg’s KEE Club had been originally both a physical and ideological meeting place for Hong Kong’s wealthy expatriate ‘council of elders’. It too has now also accepted the Chinese, if not with indifference then at least with an attitude of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Christian speaks readily and with great enthusiasm of the club’s history and original purpose: to be a neutral platform for the arts. He spontaneously runs through a long list of stellar artists that frequent the club – Konstantin Bessmertny (painting, other visual arts), Chris Doyle (film director), Antonio Mak (sculptor) as well as a list of DJs that would make house music fans weep with joy. In the club’s 10th anniversary year, Christian tells me that he wanted to establish KEE as a European style club, in contrast to Sir David Tang’s China Club. It is that European, perhaps somewhat colonial, appeal – driven through the creative sector (KEE curates events from film festivals to Viennese opera workshops) – that has naturally appealed to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong crowd in recent times. It is interesting to learn, however, that Rhomberg’s next project is to be in Suzhou, a picturesque town on the mainland near Shanghai. Christian’s eyes light up as he reveals magnificent plans for the club in Suzhou: it will be 1.5 square km encompassing a yacht club, a wellness centre, health clinic, organic farm… all with an emphasis on sustainable luxury.

Judging from Christian’s success with KEE – both in Hong Kong and in Shanghai – and his track record of European-style clubs and restaurants on the island, it seems natural to assume that his new venture will have a similar focus. The first name he mentions in association with the new club is that of American Ben Wood, the architect behind the New Soldier Field football stadium in Chicago and the restoration of Grand Central Station in NYC. Wood’s major previous experience in China was the cultural entertainment district of Xintiandi in Shanghai, itself a shining example of modern-day China not so much meeting contemporary Western culture halfway, but more falling over itself to match it. The wealthy Chinese market has come to expect European and/or North American style luxury in everything from their entertainment to their accommodation to their art and architecture. That translates as excellent news for Western creatives with aspirations towards working in China. European and American trained architects are in ludicrously high demand, Western musical and visual artists are growing in prominence and marketing experts used to dealing in European business are increasingly sought after as the high-end lifestyles of East and West continue to blur their borders.

My next stop in Beijing revealed another layer to this fascinating syncretistic onion. Located in the heart of the capital’s traditional Shichahai district, the Shadow Art Performance Hotel represents the most complete synergy of Chinese tradition and contemporary Western creative marketing. ‘Shadow Art is dying in China’, Samantha Feng, their Taiwanese marketing director tells me, but she may as well have been talking about the country’s inherent traditions and culture in general. The preservation/restoration of Shichahai by the Chinese government is a worthy cause, and one that has been championed by various cultural preservation societies and celebrity figures both within China and internationally. That said, some of the activities border on the ridiculous. Ever keen on modernising – and, of course, maximising on the potential for tourist income – the Chinese government delights in knocking down vast swathes of hutongs for the sole purpose of rebuilding them in a manner that is more accessible for tourists. At a time when actions like this are commonplace (note Ben Wood’s garish Xintiandi or Beijing’s glitzy Sanlitun Village), the Shadow Art Performance Hotel, which only officially opened on 25th May 2011, stands out as a real rarity – a truly distinctive and authentic courtyard hotel that defies classification as just another ’boutique’ hotel.

Designed by Taiwanese company ‘The One’, the hotel differs from the many other courtyard hotels in the area insofar as it operates on what is almost an opera-house style structure. All the rooms look out onto an open-plan central sitting area used primarily for Shadow Puppetry shows. This theatre shows free 10minute performances every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for guests to absorb in addition to the plethora of shadow art-related pieces that form an immersive experience. The hotel is “culturally-themed”, Samantha tells me. The shadow art element is a way of showcasing one form of China’s rich artistic heritage and rejuvenating it as an interactive art form. As well as having rooms facing onto the theatre, guests are also encouraged to participate in the shows themselves through backstage tutoring sessions on the history and practice of the puppetry. The hotel also partners regularly with organisations such as TedxBeijing and CHP Beijing to provide free events for ex-pats and local Beijingers on the subject of the protection of local Beijing heritage and wider Chinese culture.

As Samantha proceeded to tell me about the organic structure of the hotel, with its structure and design intrinsic to the concept behind it, I was struck by the similarities in vocabulary between the information on the hotel and various marketing pitches I have heard at art fairs, auctions and galleries over the years. I found myself confronted by the same buzzwords for selling art and art-related lifestyle products but, on this occasion, with a distinctly Chinese twist. Curated lifestyle products and/or services have become, Samantha tells me, the norm in China – perhaps even more so than in Europe. Although the old traditions of the hutongs may be dead and gone, the Chinese government would do well to replace them with something of the standard of the Shadow Art Hotel. Samantha and the team behind the hotel succeed where others have failed in supplying a respect and appreciation for tradition in combination with a consideration for Western values.

This increasing proliferation of Western ideals amongst Chinese trend-makers is particularly well reflected in the art world. While in Beijing’s legendary 798 art district, I had the privilege to visit Yue Minjun’s latest exhibition at the Pace Gallery. Minjun is considered one of the fathers of the Cynical Realism movement, a trend emerging in the late 90s/early 00s that frequently parodies the increasing influence of Western culture on the Chinese way of life. The pre-eminent pieces of Classical European religious art are the focal point for Minjun’s new works. In The Baptism of Christ, Minjun’s version of Piero della Francesca’s 15th century painting of the same name, Minjun’s trademark grinning Chinese subjects enact a confused, drunken-looking ceremony at a generic, clinical beach resort (Sanya? Macau?).

There is a palpable irony to Minjun’s work – both on and off canvas. Despite his apparent cynicism towards a reality in which his own countrymen are increasingly subject to the same appetites for Western convention as those of us touring the National Portrait Gallery, eating fast food or laughing into our cups on a drunken beach holiday, his also propagates that image – and even markets it. In addition to trendy gallery walls, his grinning faces also adorn Ruinart’s champagne bottles. Minjun’s acceptance of commercial reality aptly reflects a speedy hegemony in the minds of China’s nouveau riche. The fact remains that while the dominant precepts of the Western world seem to be crumbling before our eyes, the Far East has fallen firmly under their spell. You can probably buy that message on a baseball cap from any good shopping mall in Causeway Bay, Sanlitun, Nanjing Lu…