Interview with Douglas Young: 'I like to shock'

Interview with Douglas Young: 'I like to shock'

First it was bum cakes and naughty words printed on T-shirts, now its dirty toilet installations. What else has G.O.D.'s creator got up his sleeves?
Douglas Young
Douglas Young does his best thinking on the can.

douglas youngBYOBuilding BlockLove him or hate him, everyone knows Douglas Young. The founder of lifestyle brand and boutique Goods of Desire (G.O.D.)., Young has successfully repackaged visuals from Hong Kong heritage into kitsch furniture, fashion bags, and notebooks and he's won his share of both fans and critics.

A self-proclaimed "indigenous Hong Kong person", Young is often seen around town with a farmer's hat and straw bag, but that doesn't mean he's low-profile.

His designs are purposefully provocative, such as mooncakes shaped like bums, and he garnered local street cred with his tongue-in-cheek-profanity slogan "Delay No More" splashed on T-shirts. In 2007, he irked the police by printing another set of T-shirts with a local triad gang name -- so much so he was arrested.

Young recently unveiled two art installations at DETOUR on the theme of the Kowloon Walled City: Room 414 is a square block inside a darkened square room, the only way around the square block is to squeeze through a foot-wide space between it and the wall; West Kowloon Walled City is the same block structure placed outside with one facade replaced by an installation of a public toilet.

We caught up with Young to chat about his new art and creating Hong Kong's cultural identity, while squatting on the toilets, kinda like the Romans did.

CNNGo: Tell us about your obsession with Kowloon Walled City.

In Hong Kong, we often question, do we have culture? Do we have anything local? I think it's very dangerous. — Douglas Young, designer

Douglas Young:
I was born in Kowloon Tong when the walled city was still around. It's been almost 20 years since it's been demolished, but to me it remains a very potent symbol of some kind of cultural integrity.

For me, it's about a community's resistance against the outside world. The Kowloon Walled City was the last place in Hong Kong where there was no police, no colonialists, and no Communists. Nobody had any influence over this community. I just wanted to remind Hong Kong people that we should develop some kind of resistance against all that's outside.

As much as we become modern, I think Hong Kong's at risk of losing our local culture, which is very dangerous. I think sometimes we confuse modernism with progress. There should be a balance of East and West to make Hong Kong unique, we're too susceptible to just welcoming everything that's foreign and thinking that it's better than local. That's not healthy.

CNNGo: So should we build a wall?

What I mean is, the walled city started 400 years ago as just a typical walled village and organically grew to be what it was and it was like a microcosm of Hong Kong. What's also interesting to me also is that a lot of these books and records of the walled city were done by outsiders.

Why is it that we don't even recognize this ourselves? Are we so ashamed of our roots and our past? By doing this piece, I'm also trying to right that wrong because I feel myself as an indigenous Hong Kong person.

CNNGo: Room 414 and West Kowloon Walled City are essentially the same structure, but in different settings?

My work is about putting stuff out of context. The context and the subject can have great interaction. If [Room 414] was about claustrophobia, [West Kowloon Walled City] is about agoraphobia. It's interesting how the same object can create these two opposite extremes. The thing about Room 414 is that the original walled city was a hive, like a labryrinth, there was no planning. You had to know your way around. If you were an outsider, you couldn't find your way around the city. We purposely reduced the number of signs at DETOUR so you had to find it by word of mouth. There's a sense of adventure. I wanted it to seem slightly threatening, but also quite intriguing.

CNNGo: How do you incorporate aspects of Hong Kong heritage into all your works?

I find a lot of inspiration in Hong Kong buildings especially the ones that are not designed, the ones that are organically grown. I like to find inspiration from things people often overlook, I like to take everyday things out of context to create some sort of irony and humor. Like this public lavatory for example. I wanted to create a surprise, so we sort of asked ourselves what would be the most surprising thing to see here? We also wanted to contrast the background of the Hong Kong skyline ... the juxtaposition is surreal. We have a lot of sham grandeur, and a lot of fake monumental-ism ... buildings with regal sounding names. This is [giving them the finger].

douglas youngNot afraid of being caught pants down.CNNGo: Is your approach different when designing installations as opposed to designing for G.O.D.?

Not really. It sounds strange but it's the same approach. I like to shock, I like to create reactions, it could be laughter, shock, pleasure ... I like to provoke, so you see that in G.O.D. products.

CNNGo: Sometimes it's too successful though, like when you were arrested in 2007 for the 14K T-shirts.

Yes, that was very successful wasn't it? It was unexpected, but we were quite frightened at the time. I think some people are offended at what I do, but I do make fun. I do tease. And some people can't take it, that's probably why I got arrested. I'm not a very political person. Someone hijacked my Delay No Mall thing and used it as Democracy Delay No More. We didn't try and sue or anything, but it wasn't really our idea.

CNNGo: How do you get inspired in our concrete jungle?

I walk around the city often, especially the old parts of Hong Kong. I see the way people dress, what people eat, the graphics, Chinese calligraphy, posters ... all these things I find very special, it's just that we don't recognize it, which is a big shame. If we can have a shared notion of what is Hong Kong culture, it would be very helpful in creative industries.

CNNGo: What's in the future for Douglas Young?

My overall aim is to make a concrete definition of what is Hong Kong culture. I think that is one thing that should occupy our minds as a city and a community.

You think of places like Paris, London, and New York -- the people there are very confident about who they are, to the effect that they feel pride. Whereas in Hong Kong, we often question do we have culture? Do we have anything local? I think it's very dangerous. It's not that we don't have culture in Hong Kong, it's just that we lack concrete definition. We lack ... maybe it's a book? A set of definitions? Something we can really grab hold of and say "now this is Hong Kong culture, this is us." For the moment, it's just a feeling.

Getting there

Room 414 is at DETOUR 2003 until December 9, see our Quick Guide to DETOUR.

BYOBuilding Block: West Kowloon Walled City exhibit at the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale until February 27, 2010, see our Quick Guide to the Biennale.

See our listing for Douglas Young's G.O.D.