Published: Monday October 8, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday June 2, 2013 MYT 3:43:02 PM

China’s six creative cities

China is riding high on a wave of creativity that is set to take the country to a new level on the international platform.

CHINA has six cities listed in Unesco’s Creative Cities Network. No other country boasts as many internationally-acclaimed creative cities.

The cities are Shenzhen, Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Harbin. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are “Cities of Design” while Chengdu is “City of Gastronomy” and Hangzhou, “City of Crafts and Folk Art.” The northern city of Harbin is recognised for its musical creations and promotion of the music industry.

The rise in popularity and influence of China’s creative industry has gradually elevated the nation’s status as a powerhouse of creativity, shrugging off its old school label of “Made In China” or “world’s factory”.

The first city in China to join the league of creative cities in 2008, Shenzhen is at the forefront of the creativity wave, as many veteran industry players would readily tell you.

“Shenzhen has a group of professional designers, including myself, who have put our hearts together to do something for this city,” says Imagram Graphic Design Co Ltd owner and consultant Bi Xuefeng.

“We have come a long way since we first started organising the Graphic Design in China Biennial Exhibition in 1992.”

After graduating from China Academy of Art, the Hebei province-born designer moved to Shenzhen in the early 1990s. It was a time when the southern city was undergoing sweeping changes following a decade of unprecedented economic reforms and opening up policy in China.

The creative ideas of Bi and his contemporaries gave industrial products a brand new image and pushed them up the value chain.

“The graphic designers from Shenzhen are the best in China,” exclaimed Bi proudly, adding that Shenzhen designers grabbed most of the awards at international graphic design competitions.

“Perhaps what makes our designers unique is that we are away from the control of art associations and councils. We are more open than other cities because of our exposure to Hong Kong and the West.

“By operating in an edge city like this, we must create an environment for ourselves and this has spurred our creativity,” he said.

Besides graphic design, Shenzhen is the leader in interior, packaging and industrial designs. It also leads in fashion and architectural designs. Shenzhen has more than 6,000 design firms which provide jobs for 100,000 people.

Kathy Li, who is deputy secretary-general of the 400-strong Shenzhen Industrial Design Profession Association, said most firms in the industrial design sector focused on providing manufacturers with a competitive edge and helping them with industrial transformation.

“We are not trying to promote our industrial design ability to the world. Frankly speaking, the standard of Shenzhen cannot be compared with Stockholm and Helsinki. But we hope that through our designs, we will be able to tell the world that Shenzhen has the ability to produce things and it also has its own brands which incorporate our designs,” she said.

Li said it was difficult to tell how much the industrial design sector contributed to the city’s GDP as many manufacturers had their own departments to design goods and this was unaccounted for.

“If you talk about independent design firms, the output is around two to three billion yuan. But if you include the output from manufacturers, that will be very high,” she added.

Winwin Consultant Holding Co Ltd chief executive officer Xie Wei said designers should not stop at designing products; instead, they should transform ordinary stuff into high-end products, like what her company was doing to traditional Chinese tea.

“Chinese tea has been in existence for centuries. If we want to make it more popular, we have to upgrade it through creative designs and packaging,” she said.

Shenzhen Artop Design Co Ltd planning director Gao Jie said the trend now was for design firms to make cellular phones smarter and more high-tech with waterproof, dustproof and shockproof features

“When one of our phones with these features came out, we received orders worth over 100,000 yuan (RM48,000). We may think that such phones are thick and wrapped in rubber material, but we have turned it into something trendy and popular,” says Gao.

The Shenzhen city government has given these creative design industries and the cultural industry – which includes cartoon and animation, gaming, multimedia, video and music production, broadcasting, advertising, publication and cultural tourism – top priority in its future developments.

The city’s proportion of the added value of production volume from the cultural and creative design industries against its overall GDP increased from 4.6% in 2004 to 7.6% in 2010.

By 2015, the city aims to achieve a ratio of more than 14.5% with an ambitious value-added production output of 220 billion yuan (RM105.6bil), making the cultural and creative industries the fourth pillar industry after the high-tech, finance and logistic industries.

Shenzhen Creative Culture Centre presidential office director Wang Xiaoming said what the city needed to do now was to make creativity and designs a part of life for its residents.

“Every December, we hold a Design Week to inculcate the love for creativity among our citizens and guide them to appreciate quality designs and cultural products. With their increasing income, hopefully they will spend on such products. Sometimes cultural consumption cannot be measured in monetary terms and tangible products. Our citizens love books and play the piano and they get spiritual fulfilment from their spending,” she said.

To further develop the creative industry, Bi said the government should provide more financial assistance to credible design associations which were facing problems in running their activities.

“We can set up a committee to monitor the money allocated by the government for creative industry development. Say the government gave 400,000 yuan (RM192,000) to an association; the organiser of activities would still have to fork out one million yuan (RM480,000). Responsible organisers would try to do a good job but some recipients may just take the money and do a half-hearted job as the government does not follow up to see if the funds are well spent,” he said.

According to Li, the problem of intelligent property (IP) protection has hampered the city’s effort to achieve its “Created in Shenzhen” reputation.

“It is hard for our association to safeguard members’ IP rights. Most industrial design firms provide service for manufacturers and after a product design is done, the patent belongs to their client. That’s why most of our members do not get to apply for patent rights,” she added.

Related Story: Chengdu hoping its unique spicy cuisine will attract global attention

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