Government’s words supporting cultural and creative industry in vain

Joanne Kuai
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The Vice Chairman of Macau Designers Association, Dirco Fong, is also the director of Macau Design Centre. He told Business Daily that they have built up the operation as an incubation centre for Macau designers and the industry by offering lower rental studios, establishing a network with Alibaba’s Tmall e-commerce market, and holding events, seminars and workshops. But they don’t know how to survive this June, since the government’s Cultural and Creative Industrial Fund hasn’t handed them the subsidy it promised
How do designers make money in Macau?
There are two common ways for designers to make money. The first one is that you work in a design firm or like what I’ve been doing: I have my own design firm that designs for clients, which is the main source of income.
The other way is like some of the designers here at the Design Centre are doing. They have their own brands and products, such as clothing, gifts, stationery, etc.
The ideal way of doing business for designers is probably having your own brand, as well as providing design service for clients, such as interior design or advertising.
How is the current design scene in Macau?
There are around 300 designers in Macau as far as I know. The Macau Designers Association has more than 100 registered members. And there are other designers that I know who are not our members yet, of course. They’re spread in different fields, such as hotels, design houses, advertising firms, etc. Many of them work in casinos as in-house designers, as well.
With regard to the market, I would say that in recent years the competition has become fiercer; at the same time, quality has improved.
The traditional design industry in Macau was mainly graphic design, such as designing posters. Nowadays, multimedia has becoming the main battlefield. Graphic designers may have a relatively narrow road, whereas multimedia designers have more choices. That’s why I encourage young people to dive into multimedia design, which will allow them more choices.
What about products and fashion design, etc.?
Honestly, there’s not a lot of that kind of design in Macau due to the relatively small market. Manufacturing will be difficult for a small quantity of orders. And even if there were products, that low amount wouldn’t make much profit for you to survive because the initial investment would be huge.
You’ve been in the industry for decades. What are the major changes you’ve witnessed?
The biggest change lies in the market. Design in the old days used to be for local clients to the local residents’ taste. Since the gaming industry has taken root in Macau, the market has changed completely. Their targeted clients are different. Many are from Mainland China and some are from overseas as well. The gaming industry brings along internationalisation. There are many international brands. It’s a huge impact on the design scene in Macau. We’re dealing with the clients now as well as the final products we need to present.
Secondly, the technology has changed. The popularisation of computers has made design more accessible, in the sense that many young people can give it a try and have more or less a concept of design.
Is design education keeping pace with the changes?
Design education remains the old way. The most comprehensive curriculum you can get is at the Polytechnic Institute. It has more than a decade of history. In the beginning, they invited people in the industry from Hong Kong to give courses. Nowadays, the professors or teachers are graduates from the institute, which create a problem in that the students won’t have an awareness of what’s really going on in the industry, which results in the academic scene becoming more and more out of touch with the industry.
There are cases where companies operating in Macau prefer designs produced from outside, such as Hong Kong, and they commission people from outside rather than Macau talent for the jobs. Is it really like this?
Absolutely! Not to mention the commercial organisations, the Macau Government is like that! For example, the Macau Government Tourist Office’s overseas advertising is not designed by Macau people. Do you remember their tourism ambassadors? The ones that look like cucumbers? They were designed by a Hong Kong firm. And many of the gifts that the government offers are sometimes stuff from Taobao [a Chinese online shopping website] with their logos overprinted, and that’s it.
Many clients in Macau have this perception that Macau’s designs are not good. Honestly, I don’t blame them. As I said, Macau’s market used to be very small and we can’t suddenly just handle a big client or a big project.
Have you also experienced that?
Yes. In 2005, Macau hosted the East Asian Games. Back then I was working for a design firm here in Macau. The company received the job but we really didn’t know what we should do or how we could promote a sports event so we had to invite designers from outside as consultants. That’s why if the clients don’t know about Macau designers, it’s natural for them to trust firms from outside more.
However, many years have passed. Regarding the corporates, you can’t complain much since they need to consider their operating costs, expenditure and results, etc. They have less social responsibility and aren’t obligated to support Macau talent.
The problem is that the government doesn’t give the locals much support, either. I admit it’s been improving in that the government gives more opportunities to Macau designers but the price they offer has a huge gap.
What is this price gap, and what is its impact?
The government would have an open bid. But when you hand in your proposal they ask you whether it could be cheaper. And at the lower price you still need to hand in what you proposed in the first place.
Now, our Association is planning to draft industry guidelines to tell the government that they can’t do this anymore because they’re killing the design industry of Macau.
Now, Macau’s design industry has improved a lot. We can handle some big-scale projects now. Even if we encounter challenges, we will manage by finding some consultants through different channels.
Macau designers have been actively improving themselves. We go outside to participate in forums, workshops. Here at the Macau Design Centre, we already host many seminars and workshops.
Can you specify these guidelines?
The industry guideline targets the government’s open bidding [system]. Usually, for some relatively big projects, the government would ask the design firms to hand in their bid, with the price and design.
We want to tell the government that first of all, they shouldn’t require the design to be made when you hand in the bid because that means the work has more or less already been done which requires lots of effort.
Secondly, we want the government to have a clear standard and a better explanation when granting the bid. The process is not transparent enough.
Nobody knows the reasons they grant the bid. Actually, we know – it’s the cheapest.
The ‘cheapest bid wins’ mechanism results in an unbalanced market. In order for a firm to survive, to win the bids, they will have to make cheap offers, and to take in many orders, but it can’t guarantee quality and designers will be squeezed. It’s completely unreasonable.
The government has been talking about supporting the cultural and creative industry. What do you think of this initiative and the scheme?
The government has been talking about it for nine if not ten years. I think the first time they mentioned it was back in the days when Edmund Ho Hau Wah was the Chief Executive and they gathered some people from the industry at Albergue.
Over the years, support has been insignificant as in no practical measures or substantial help. They would gather some designers to showcase their products outside, at fairs or expos. But the products that were on display need to be made with resources and the government didn’t support from the beginning. That’s our own product made by our own efforts. The government just pick the existing products and spend some money organising some trips outside and tell everybody ‘we’re promoting the cultural and creative industry’. This isn’t real support. At least it’s not full support.
It’s like you wanted your son to have great grades but you won’t pay for him to go to school.
And what about the Cultural and Creative Industry Fund?
The Fund’s aim is to provide financial support to the industry, designers or artists. But so far, they haven’t handed us a penny.
We have applied. They have authorised. I don’t have a clear picture of the laws and regulations. Anyway, it’s back and forth for a long time and we haven’t received the funds.
Frankly, the Macau Design Centre exists because the Cultural and Creative Industry Fund said it would support the business. The application was granted back in November last year. We’ve signed the contract with the government. It has been revised like six times by the government. And so far, we haven’t received a penny.
What’s the problem there?
We have no idea. They (the government) just said that their legal consultant said there is some problem.
And we are not the only case. I’ve heard that the Fund has taken a long time to process the payment that some companies that were promised the money [relied on]. They couldn’t survive and have already closed their doors. I believe it, since we’re facing the same problem, as well.
What’s Macau Design Centre up to?
We’ve always had the wish that there would be a place for Macau’s design industry; for designers to have exhibitions, seminars, and a place to sell their products, like the coffee shop area we have on the ground floor. Currently, in Macau, it’s really hard for designers to find a channel to sell their products.
Also, on the third and fourth floor here, we have studios to rent, or what we call lend, to local designers to help establish their companies, etc. There are 12 of them in total.
What’s the main source of income?
Our main source is from the products we sell. But it’s quite insignificant since we don’t have much money to launch a big campaign. We’re still waiting for the government’s funding. Secondly, we hope to host different kinds of events to attract more foot traffic in order to build up the network for designers to have their products to sell outside. We lease the space for events, also classrooms for people to rent as well.
We also charge management fees for the 12 studios. But it’s so much cheaper than the market price. We only charge HK$7 per square foot per month, which means a space of around 400 square feet would be less than HK$3,000 every month.
We’ve listed these initiatives when applying for funding. Our income is really symbolic. We wish to build an incubation centre for the design industry. The Foundation supports our idea, which is why they promised us the amount. But the problem is that so far we’ve been covering this expenditure out of our own pocket – the rent for this building is around MOP100,000; adding utilities, personal expenses, the total expenditure reaches around MOP200,000.
In this scenario, have you calculated how much longer you can survive?
We’ve already handed a letter to the government saying that if in the near term we can’t receive the money, we don’t know how we can cope after June.
Do you have plans to build up a network for local designers to really sell their products or services?
Yes, we do. We’ve been in talks with Beijing Tmall [online market place, owned by Alibaba Group] and signed an agreement to have Macau designers’ products to sell online.
We’re also planning to have a Macau Designers Week. There will be exhibitions and workshops. We will invite buyers and businesses to see what Macau designers have been doing in order to build up this platform.
We are in contact with some manufactures, as well, to have their latest material on display here so that Macau designers are aware.
The Macau Design Centre constantly hosts functions for local designers to reach the outside world. The problem is that we have financial difficulties in hosting large-scale events such as Macau Designers Week. We applied to Macau Foundation for MOP400,000. But they only authorised MOP50,000. I really don’t know how to deal with it. We may not take that subsidy, as it’s too little. Otherwise, we need to present results in accordance with our proposal, which with the money they authorised is impossible. This sponsorship is unreasonable.
How do you think the government should improve their support of the industry?
The first thing is to hasten the process. Secondly, they should grant the money in accordance with the proposal but not like 20 per cent or 10 per cent. Even 60 or 70 per cent is better [means] we can seek help from other places.
I think the biggest problem of the government is that they keep saying they support you, they fully support you, but when you do things according to their plan, they would say ‘sure, we support yoy, here’s 10 per cent [of what you asked for]’. I would rather they don’t say it in the first place so that we may figure other ways from the beginning.
In what ways other than financial support could the government support the design industry?
I think in Macau, probably venues. Venues for events in Macau are very expensive. The government has lots of venues resources. Sometimes, if we have major scale events here at the design centre, we can’t handle them. If the government can help with that, it would be of great help.
Is there any other way?
No more. I hope they don’t interfere.
How do you balance the need for government support with their lack of interferene?
The government’s role as a supporter should be objective.
Why I say this is if they aren’t going to ‘fully support’ us I wish they would tell us in the first place so we can figure out other ways. When we ask for the government’s subsidies for events, they would ask whether we are seeking other sources of sponsorship, and if we say [yes] the subsidies that the government would agree to grant would be even lower.
Another thing is that even though it’s not written on paper, the government tell us that try not to seek sponsorship from casinos. But who else in Macau can support us? Casinos may want to spend some resources on culture but if we can’t seek their help, it’s like making fools out of ourselves.
You think casinos can really help to promote the design industry?
The gaming industry has its needs for design services. It’s business. The problem is that in the recent decade, the city has been relying too much on gaming. But it can be a part of the diversification. The casinos need our help to promote a better image, as well, to dilute the concept of gambling. It’s a good opportunity to use some resources of the gaming industry to support other relatively small industries. But the government’s attitude is to reject it. I don’t understand.
The government talks about supporting an industry. But it doesn’t have the foresight to do so. All industries work in a chain.
The same applies to the MICE industry. The government has devoted large sums of money but have you seen any substantial result?
For us in the design industry, we hope to contribute positively. If we design well for our clients, our clients will have a better sale performance, and their employees or manufacturing parts will be better off, as well. And our suppliers, such as print shops and production houses, will have better business, too.