It was a gathering of editors from design magazines around Asia — Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore — but while the other editors spoke about their country’s respective design scene in Chinese, I was only comfortable to do mine in English and had to depend on a translator.
This odd situation at the Kaohsiung Design Festival’s Editor — Chief Editor’s Forum left me wondering if Singapore Design is “Asian” or “Western”?
Historically, design came to Singapore from the West. The earliest design studios were started by expatriates from UK, Australia and New Zealand and later, Singaporeans schooled in Western design schools. The choice of English as the country’s working language has also made Western design more relevant to us as opposed to that from Asia, which comes in a variety of languages.
Moreover, the concept of Asian in Singapore has also been associated with ‘tradition’. One reason we are taught an Asian mother tongue is so that we do not lose our cultural bearings. But other than that, the development of this country has always been oriented towards the West, which is seen as both economically powerful and culturally influential. In these conditions, “Asian” in Singapore is seen as historical and backward, which creates a further distance between young Singaporean designers and Asia.
However, the rise in China in recent years and the near future may change this. The editors from Taiwan and Hong Kong lamented how many of their best designers have flocked there to practice their design because that’s where the business is. It’ll be interesting to see how Singapore designers react to this, especially since the Singapore government has been very supportive of businesses here to chase the Chinese market.
When asked at the forum about what I thought of design in Asia, my view (in English) was that Singapore designers did not look towards Asia, with the exception of Japan and maybe, Hong Kong. But then again, it’s because these two territories, especially Japan, have received a kind of ‘international’ recognition. I cited language as a major barrier to our understanding of Asian design. Though Singaporeans are bilingual, our primary language is English. More importantly, I didn’t think Singapore designers bothered about this question of their design being “Asian”, “Western” or even “Singaporean” — nationalism or regionalism was irrelevant in a Singapore that wants to be a “global city”. What mattered to design studios today is that they had their own voice in their work.
Surprisingly, the speaker from Taiwan’s Shopping Design, Chan Wei-Hsiung, echoed similar sentiments. Here was a veteran creative director, double most our ages, exhorting Taiwanese designers to globalise so as to bring their conversations outside of Taiwan. He also felt that the future of design was all about individual choices and styles.
The trip up to Taiwan has opened my mind and eyes to designers in Asia and I’m curious if they do have something to offer to the global stage. For one, I realised Taiwan is a good place to learn about Japanese design because while I don’t understand Japanese, I can get access to their writings and works translated to Chinese. For now, I’ve cobbled together a few links related to Asian design below. Let me know if you have more!
- Where You Going? A duo trying to find design in Southeast Asia
- art4D A design magazine based in Thailand
- Cutout Magazine A Malaysian design magazine
- Malaysian Design Archive A repository of old Malaysian design
- PPaper A Taiwan design magazine created to introduce design to the masses. Sold in 7-11s!
- Shopping Design Another Taiwanese magazine that looks at design in everyday life
- Aaron Nieh Contemporary Taiwanese designer
- 號外 (Hao Wai) A Hong Kong cultural and lifestyle magazine that has been around since 1976
- Kohei Sugiura A veteran Japanese designer who has been thinking about Asian design
- Sulki & Min A contemporary Korean design duo