Chinese cultural elements in huaren design are present yet subtle – Monica Tsang

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Monica Tsang is an award-winning designer from Hong Kong who specializes in ceramic product design. Following study, work, and travel in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mainland China, Tsang set up a studio in her home city in 2013. She produces her own collections, which typically incorporate dark humour with various cultural influences, and also works on commissions for private and industrial clients. Her designs are sold and exhibited worldwide.

Time spent outside of Hong Kong has provided Tsang with an enviable understanding of both huaren and Western cultures, design practices, and aesthetics. “When we see designs and objects by themselves, it’s hard to see any differences, but if we put the design works side-by-side, it’s easy to see why and how they’re distinctive from one another.” However, she notes, she does not necessarily see a difference in design from the East or the West. Instead, the differences are evident in designs from different countries.

These differences can even be seen across the different huaren populations in Asia, such as those in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. “China is huge, and has a large population. It’s quickly shifting from a manufacturing nation to one that’s creating its own brands and designs,” she notes. Hong Kong, Tsang continues, is an international city, with an intense mix of nationalities and cultures in a small place: “Hong Kong is unique because of its East-meets-West culture.” Design in Taiwan is influenced by what’s happening in Japan, she observes, and the design often features nature and local elements. Singapore and Malaysia are very multicultural, and there is aspects of Muslim and Indian culture, as well as Chinese culture, in the design.

The influence of Hong Kong’s multicultural environment, as well as her own overseas travel, is clear in Tsang’s design work, although this mixture of inspirations is expressed in very subtle ways. For example, Tsang’s X-treme Chinese Tableware–designed in collaboration with Chef Alvin Leung and Tim Ho for the opening of a new restaurant in London–combines an ancient Chinese drinking vessel with a stainless steel holder, creating a design aesthetic that could not have come from the West.

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“The creative process of this project was an interactive one among the three of us. The concept revolved around the dishes created by Alvin, which re-interpret traditional Chinese icons for a contemporary fine dining setting. We took Chinese elements as a base, and incorporated them into a modern style suitable for life today,” she says. “We focused on the essence of huaren philosophy and executed it in a subtle way. We wanted people to relate to and understand the design even if they aren’t Chinese.”

Another example of Tsang’s work that considers both the international and huaren markets simultaneously is her decorated ceramic dinnerware range, SM Meets Cutie. At first glance, the illustrations of animals, which are simultaneously inspired by Beatrix Potter and Helmut Newton, seem simply cute. However, upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes the scenes are injected with some very adult humor. “For Western markets, people easily accept and understand designs related to the topic of sex. For the Chinese-speaking markets, you need to take tradition into consideration. There are still many taboos in Chinese culture, such as those related to sex and death.”

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In The Victory, a sculpture series created to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Horse, Tsang combines concepts of life and death as explored in Chinese Zen philosophy and Confucianism with impressions from a visit to a centuries-old taxidermy workshop in France. Of all the animals she saw in the shop that day, she was most struck by the curious expression on a preserved horse. “Was it anticipating the dawn of death and the end of suffering? Or was it reluctant to face the darkness behind the veil? That was the day I saw death, and from then on, I was compelled to think about the living present. ‘Whilst you do not know life, you do not know death,’ said Confucius,” she recalls of the encounter.

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Though Tsang is undoubtably and proudly a huaren designer, the outcome of her design work is often so modern and Western in style that it challenges how society traditionally views Chinese design. Nevertheless, huaren design aesthetic and style is something that comes naturally to her. “I’m Chinese, so it’s obvious that I’ll apply Oriental arts and cultural elements into my designs. I don’t do it intentionally; I get inspiration from daily life and the people I meet,” she says. For Tsang, ultimately design is about solving problems, and huaren design, or design created for or within Chinese-speaking communities, has the ability to “meet the particular needs and touch the hearts of Chinese people.”

About Monica Tsang

Monica Tsang is a Product and Industrial Design graduate of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. During her time at Germany’s Kunsthochshule Berlin-Weissensee she was part of an important project for Siemens VDO. After earning her Master’s degree in Ceramic Design from Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, she established her own studio in Hong Kong in 2013. Tsang has taken home numerous awards for her work including the 2014 “The Best SME’s Youth Entrepreneurship Award” organized by The Hong Kong General Chamber of small and Medium Business, a 2006 Red Dot Design Concept Award, and a Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award. Other career highlights include a placement at the prestigious British ceramics brand Wedgwood, and being selected by Perspective (magazine) as a young design talent in its “40 under 40” programme. In 2015, she was named a Rising Talent Asia by Maison & Objet.

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