Ensconced in the creative conference circuit bubble, one city can become very much like another: depart boutique hotel, arrive at venue in cool part of town, drink at hip bar. (I know, poor me.)
At first sight, Creative Social Shanghai appeared to be more of the same but its intelligent line-up of speakers provided ample opportunity to break out of the bubble. Founded by Mark Chalmers (now of Perfect Fools) and Profero’s Daniele Fiandaca, Creative Social is an informal conference which, a couple of times a year and thanks to some support from Microsoft, gives creative directors from digital agencies a chance to get together in a different city, show each other what they’ve been up to and generally talk shop. But the added dimension is that each event has a line-up of local speakers from cultural industries who provide some insight into what is happening in their city. So it’s a bit more interesting than just talking about advertising all day.
Our venue was the 1933 building, a pseudo industrial structure in the Hongkou area north of the Bund which will soon house Profero’s Shanghai office. Shanghai doesn’t apparently have an equivalent to a Shoreditch or a Soho yet but the area around here looks like it might become it. Omnicom is already here, while a converted 30s abattoir across the road is home to both an American Apparel and an Apple store on its ground floor, with a restaurant above. On the ground floor of 1933 will be Factory, a space for Shanghainese creative types to gather, eat, drink, show work and make use of a recording studio and Mac suite.
According to our first speaker, academic Stella Dong who has written a history of the city, Shanghai is regaining some of the freewheeling cultural life that made it such a vibrant place in the 30s. The dynamism and opportunity there are not merely the stuff of cliché: they were enough to attract design studio Jellymon to set up in the city two years ago. Sam Jacobs and Lin Lin met at college at Chelsea and now work mainly for western streetwear brands looking for a way into China. They also work with local companies, one of which is the Shanghai Watch Company. A state-owned enterprise (Mao wore one) the company now just makes for foreign brands. Jellymon persuaded them to re-release a 1970s model with graphics from local designers.
There seems to be quite a bit of nostalgia among twenty-somethings for the Chinese brands of their youth – presumably in reaction to the assaults of Nike, adidas et al on their country. Fashion designer Dodo also talked about the phenomenon, citing as an example Shumeng Ye’s Book Of Warriors, in which the Finnish-Chinese designer took photos of people wearing Hui Li brand trainers for a book which she packaged with a pair of the shoes. It’s now available from hip stores such as Colette. Other revivals are on their way.
We met and heard from quite a few students and young creatives, all of whom seemed incredibly precocious (in a good way, eg Heiward Mak who has just directed her first feature film aged 23) and driven to grasp opportunities that their parents could only have dreamed of. Just how much things have changed was brought home by writer Lijia Zhang whose memoir, Socialism Is Great, describes her miserable early life working in a missile factory where every aspect of personal life was controlled – trouser width was closely monitored for bourgeois flariness, she was denied promotion due to a suspected perm and every month the Period Police would insist that female workers prove they were not pregnant in order to be given tampons.
Listening to a trio of baseball-capped classical musicians jamming along to a hip hop dj in 1933’s concrete-floored coolness all that seemed as though it had happened in a different country which, in a way, it did. These young people can look forward to lives that would have been unimaginable to Lijia’s generation (as can the estimated 1.5 million currently studying design in China). But elements of the old realities remain. Lijia’s book, while not banned, is officially disapproved of. Reviews of it have been censored. China is still a long way from being a democracy. In the ex-pat dominated, creative scene bubble, it’s easy to forget that.