Background in the Mainland; Migration to Hong Kong Kan Tai Keung was born in San Shan Village in Panyu. He lived with his grandparents, wife of father’s brother, mother and younger brother while his father worked in a tailor shop in Guangzhou. Kan’s grandfather was a craftsman specializing in lime plaster craftsmanship. He made embossment-type or stereo statues, and did some garden design and mural creations. In his retirement, he sold foreign groceries for a living. As pastimes, he did painting, seal craving and so on. Kan found that influenced by his grandfather, he loved arts since childhood. Kan often imitated the pictures from one of his grandfather’s collections, the “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden”, and fell in love with drawing. Kan grew up with his younger brother. They studied and practised painting together at San Shan Primary School. Yet, Kan regarded himself academically less capable than his brother.
Kan was born in 1942. During his childhood, he was educated under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Government. In 1949, the new China was founded. He saw the changes brought about by the change in political rule and witnessed the political revolutions in the country. When he was 11, Kan went to Guangzhou to go to senior primary school and junior high school. His younger brother also went to study in Guangzhou for school the next year. Shortly, Kan’s mother migrated to Hong Kong through legal channel for the reason of reunification with Kan’s father, who was then working in Hong Kong. After Kan and his brother finished Secondary 2, they came to Hong Kong also through legal channel for the reason of paying visit to family relatives. They became new immigrants in Hong Kong that year.
Worked as a tailor after arriving in Hong Kong; no more exposure to art When Kan made the move from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, his father considered his academic capability (especially English proficiency) was up to the standard of other students, and therefore sent Kan to learn tailoring as an apprentice. Kan’s younger brother entered the Chinese University of Hong Kong after joining tuition classes. And then they set foot on two different paths of development. Kan learned to suit blazers during his 3 years apprenticeship. After the apprenticeship, he had worked as a tailor in Yee On Tai Tailor shop for seven years. Kan had dreamt to be a painter, as his love for arts had been influenced by his grandfather since his childhood and he did quite well in Fine Arts at school. But due to the heavy workload in the tailor shop, he had to stay at work all day and no time to pursue his interest. Fortunately, as he became more senior in the shop, he was relieved from doing chores in the shop. He could spare time for learning English but he had no time for cultural and artistic activities. Besides, Hong Kong did not have a good aura of art at that time and so it was hard to rely on artistic work for a living. As a result, Kan remained a tailor for a living.
Admiring brother's achievement in art; decided to pursue his own dream in art Kan loved listening to classical music for leisure and he learned musical theories and the art of appreciation for music by reading books himself. He would think about the vision of life when reading the biographies of some musicians. He also enjoyed movies and literary magazine such as the “Chinese Student Weekly”. Upon his pen pal’s introduction, he became interested in reading some avant-garde literary magazines of that time, such as New Ideology and The Cape of Good Hope published by the Modern Literature and Fine Arts Association. Through these readings, he gained much knowledge about stream-of-consciousness novels, existentialism and so on, which inspired him of thinking deeply about the value of life. Because of health problem, he saw the importance of life.
In contrast, Kan’s brother worked well at school, and graduated from university a few years later. Kan’s brother was recommended by his school to learn fine arts under the supervision of some master painters and calligraphers during the university years, and so he was able to build a solid foundation on fine arts. Later, Kan’s brother entered an open competition in arts held by Ng Yuen Gallery, and won the championship of watercolour painting. Kan envied his brother’s success in fine arts, and reckoned that he should be able to make similar achievement as what his brother did, as they had similar upbringing when they were young. In pursuit of a meaningful life, he felt he should not give up the dream that he had made since childhood, so he was determined to become an artist.
Took design courses; found interest in commercial art Kan’s uncle Kan May Tin was a renowned watercolour painter. He offered a watercolour painting class every weekend, and admitted Kan free of charge. Kan started with the basics at the beginning - drawings, pastels, watercolours, etc. Two years later, Kan thought that he should not be confined to one teacher, and felt that the greatest figures such as Beethoven not only inherited from past masters but also had innovative styles. While exploring the new artistic genres, Kan pondered over the great Picasso and then decided that he would learn more from a wider horizon of artists. When the Modern Literature and Fine Arts Association established the Circle Art Group, which advocated the separation of literature and arts, Kan had participated in several modern arts exhibitions and international painting salons. He was particularly fond of the works by Cheung Yee, Hon Chi Fun, Wucius Wong, Van Lau, etc. After knowing that Wucius Wong was teaching courses offered by the Department of Extramural Studies of the Chinese University, Kan enrolled in the courses including basic design and colour science. Kan knew nothing about design at that time. He was devoted to learning the aesthetic theories and the foundational knowledge of arts. And when he studied the history of modern design, Bauhaus and its theory afterward, he stopped looking down on commercial arts but grew stronger interest in it.
Through the referral of his classmate at Wucius Wong, Kan joined Tamaya Department Store as a designer. He resigned from his tailor position, which he had done for 10 years. By then he was 25 years of age. Kan made this job transfer simply out of interest, rather than using job transfer as a way to improve career prospect. Kan signed up for a 2-year diploma course launched by Wucius Wong from the Department of Extramural Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. One of the admission requirements was that the student should have some job experience in design, which Kan did not meet. But as he was a student in Wong’s course and had good results, the department exceptionally admitted Kan and other students who had good performance in the extramural classes but marginally fit with the entrance requirements. Although these students were able to obtain satisfactory results, they were not issued any certificates at graduation because they did not meet the admission requirements in the first place. Kan still felt indignant about this. Fortunately, he got acquainted with several good teachers in the course, including Chung Pui Ching, who had studied in Germany. Kan was invited by Chung to join Graphic Atelier.
Kan Tai Keung recalled working at Tamaya Department Store. The boss let his designers enjoy much autonomy in artistic design. Despite the limited budgets, the four-man design team did all the work by themselves and so they could apply what they had learnt into the design projects. He was given much opportunity to try graphic design and dimensional design, through which he had greater interest in artistic design. At the same time, he always read design magazines and fashion magazines, and had paid particular attention to the trend of arts.
Joined "Graphic Atelier"; in charge of prominent design projects of the company Invited by his teacher Chung Pui Ching, Kan started to work at “Graphic Atelier”. Throughout 8 years, he had served as designer, art director and creative director. He was also creative director when “Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB in short)” was established. His career development was quite smooth. Kan was led by his interest at work, which was a special type of practitioner in the advertising industry, where people changed jobs to seek better income. Although he sometimes attended job interviews, he did that to promote his accomplishments to the people in the industry. During the years at “Graphic Atelier”, he had participated in quite a number of distinctive projects such as doing graphic design for the Hong Kong Pavilion in the World Expo 1969; designed the trademarks and packaging for the Mandarin Hotel and Joyce Boutique separately. When he studied design, Kan won the first prize in the sculpture design competition for the Hong Kong Pavilion in World Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan and also won the only first prize in the uniform design competition.
The design of the Hong Kong Pavilion in the World Expo 1970, Osaka As required at his job, Kan went abroad for the very first time to participate in the World Expo 1970 Osaka. To Kan, The 1970 Expo was the most splendid one, and the subsequent events held in Spain and West Germany were not comparable. After World War II, most governments had made every effort to promote the development of their countries on every aspect: socially, economically and culturally. The World Expo became as a good platform for them to showcase their achievements. For example, the American Pavilion displayed the masterpieces of some world-renowned installation artists. At the Expo, Kan was able to enjoy the most avant-garde architectural design and multimedia exhibitions ever.
The Hong Kong Government also took it serious as it was the first time for Hong Kong to take part in such an important international event. In Kan’s opinion, after the leftist riots in 1967, the Hong Kong Government had tried to improve the status of Hong Kong at the international level, boast its economic capability and strengthen people’s sense of belonging. It had intended to build Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan city. Hong Kong Pavilion was a modern minimalist architecture designed by the Department of Architecture of the Hong Kong University. The main hall and the subsidiary halls were designed into two groups of translucent orange sails, and every day there were ceremonies of canvas raising and lowering, which were very beautiful and were symbols of Hong Kong. The pavilion was also one of the only few selected pavilions as a landmark item and the outlook was published into postcards. Other landmark pavilions were Australian Pavilion - a wave-like suspension structure; the American Pavilion - a huge stadium which was translucent, white and in the shape of an arc; and the USSR Pavilion - a line of red-flag structures arranged from short to high. Although Hong Kong Pavilion was not as modern and advance as those of these western countries, it was unique in design.
In Hong Kong Pavilion, the exhibits were about Hong Kong’s industries, social life and local customs. The cultural section showcased the pieces by Hong Kong artists and the award-winning items of the sculpture competition. Although Kan was the champion in the sculpture competition, his work was not displayed in the Expo. It was too bulky which made transportation difficult; the construction cost was too high; and he was a young artist without much reputation. Eventually, the work of the famous sculptor Van Lau, the first runner-up, was displayed. Fortunately, Kan’s uniform design was accepted to be made into clothes and assigned as the uniform for the Hong Kong staff, which Kan very happy. The Zen painting of Hong Kong artist Lui Shou Kwan was selected for display in the International Art Museum, the only exhibits from Hong Kong in the Museum. The World Expo lasted for several months. Every day in Hong Kong Pavilion, there were performances of the lotus dance and other Chinese dances.
On that occasion, Kan was responsible for the backstage design of Hong Kong Pavilion, including food menus, slide shows, commemorative stamps and first day covers, souvenir packaging and graphic design of exhibits. These were low-tech productions: made of plastic materials, electrical and lighting parts. This was hardly comparable to the more advanced pavilions which used laser technology and 3-dimensional images for their exhibitions.
Left Graphic Atelier and started his own design company Kan had worked at Graphic Atelier for 8 years. His boss, who was also his teacher, left Hong Kong for family reasons. Kan felt that his confidant had gone, and therefore decided to quit the job and set up his own company. Kan entered the design industry in 1967, and only started his own company after 9 years. In 1976, he cofounded SS Design and Production with his former colleague and classmate. When the two of them worked at Graphic Atelier, they had led two different design teams separately. They became partners and founded the new company after leaving DDB. However, this partner left Hong Kong not long later, so Kan became a sole proprietor and renamed the company as Kan Tai Keung Design and Associates. Kan enjoyed working with others and so invited a young and promising designer Lau Siu Hong to be his associate. Lau became an internationally renowned designer a few years later, and so Kan renamed the company as Kan and Lau Design Consultants.
Background of the Festival of Hong Kong; young people were enthusiastic with pop culture The 1967 leftist riots caused Hong Kong great harm. Citizens wanted stability and did not support the leftists, so the riots had to stop in the end. Kan thought that the colonial government had reviewed the governance policy, changed its attitude towards the Chinese and intended to cultivate a sense of identity among Hong Kong people. The Hong Kong Products Exhibition adopted the slogan “Hong Kong People Use Hong Kong Goods” that year, and the Trade Development Council, which promoted foreign trade for Hong Kong, also put more emphasis on domestic trade. It had organised “Hong Kong Week” to promote Hong Kong products, and meanwhile held the event called “Ready to Wear” to promote Hong Kong garments.
Comments had it that the government intended to build up the identity of “Hong Konger” through the “Hong Kong Week”, but on the surface it placed much emphasis on the improved people's livelihood and economy. Later Hong Kong Week was renamed as The Festival of Hong Kong, paying more attention to the interests in everyday life and expanding the proportion of recreational activities. For example, the organizers held the open-air dancing party at the Blake Pier, to boost the atmosphere of festivity. At that time many young people in Hong Kong were enthusiastic about western pop music. A number of pop bands were formed, including Teddy Robin and the Checkmates. They had participated in the pop music contest “Battle of Sound” held in Hong Kong Stadium. This was the most large-scale musical event at that time, which attracted many young people like Kan Tai Keung. At the time TVB had just started its operation. It offered support to Sam Hui to form “The Lotus” in which Sam Hui was the chief vocalist. TVB then organized the “Battle of Sound” competition, where Teddy Robin won the first prize and the Checkmates won the second prize. When the Festival of Hong Kong was held, these pop bands and popular singers became the major performers playing pop music in these open-air parties. Kan supported the comment that the government intended to let young people dissipate their energy through these recreational activities.
The Festival of Hong Kong lasted for one or two weeks with many celebratory events, such as carnivals and float parades, held on the streets and in open-air grounds. To exacerbate the festive atmosphere, there were a lot of colourful lights and decorations in Central District and Tsim Sha Tsui District. Although Hong Kong already had both traditional Chinese and Western festivals, the government insisted to make the Festival of Hong Kong a unique festival, which helped to foster a sense of belonging among the people in Hong Kong. However, there were only three Festivals held. Kan thought that the general public of Hong Kong did not share the ideas and the cultural ethos promoted by the Festival and so the Festival failed to accomplish its goal.
On the symbol of the Festival of Hong Kong Talking about the Festival symbol, Kan Tai Keung likened it to a beach ball, which was neither associated with the nature of the Festival of Hong Kong nor Chinese culture. This design appeared to be western and modern, but it was old fashioned indeed. By the late 1960s, international modern design had developed for over 50 years since the rise of Bauhaus in 1919. Different genres of modern arts had emerged, such as pop art and minimal art which biased towards simplicity and functionalism. The Festival symbol did not represent any ideological outlook in the first place. One could only say that it made people feel happiness and festivity, but it had no connection with Western art.
Won second prize in window dressing design contest in 1967 Hong Kong Week When Kan was working as designer at Tamaya Department Store, the company entered the display window design competition held for the Hong Kong Week. Tamaya made two display windows designed by Kan and his colleague. For one of these 2 windows, Kan used carton boxes printed with Hong Kong Week symbol on the surface to construct into a 3-dimensional ornament. He remembered it was beautiful. For another window, Kan cut the posters of “ready to wear” programme into stripes and used them to dress up a model with a low-cut mini-skirt. Before Kan joined this company, it had joined the symbol competition for the Festival of Hong Kong. After that, the company didn’t take part in any of the Festival’s design competitions.