A Portrait of The Artist As A Businessman: Dongguan’s Booming Blend of Talent and Enterprise

artistsDongguan is a city that is known more for business than art. However, in recent years some artists have been able to successfully combine the two. HERE! spoke with some of these entrepreneurs about their art, their business, and how they balance the two.

The Wandering Artist 

Avocado sits in his workshop in Batou village and blows the smoke from his cigarette thoughtfully. In the afternoon sun the smoke drifts past rumbling machinery, homemade tools and sheets of metal.

Laid out on the table is some of his work; rings waiting for jewels to be embedded, a tea pot made from one piece of copper, a tray made from one piece of silver depicting Qing Niao, the messenger bird from Chinese legend.

The most striking work is a portrait engraved on a long sheet of bronze that sits against the wall. It shows a naked woman in bed lying on her side. The work is named Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, after a Bob Dylan song.

Avocado has come a long way from the village in Hebei where he grew up. He came from a family with a strong military tradition; his father was an army captain and his grandfather was a guerrilla commander.

As a result, Avocado was patriotic when he was growing up, “We were taught about how Japan had invaded our country, how America was our enemy.” He was all set to follow in his family’s footsteps when he joined a military school in Shandong province.

While at the military school Avocado began to think for himself, “I realized that the war was over. My country did not need me.” So after he finished military school Avocado did not join the army.

artist-avocadoLooking at Avocado in his workshop, you would never believe he was once in a military school. He has a ponytail, a goatee beard, and wears a loose shirt and baggy jeans. When asked where he travelled after he left military school he smiles playfully, “Any place you can imagine.”

The first thing Avocado wanted to do was to see the sea, which brought him to Xiamen. There he joined a heavy metal band called Chai, in which he played bass guitar. The band’s name was taken from the character that the government writes on buildings that are to be demolished. Chai achieved a degree of success and went on a nationwide tour. However, due to the lead singer’s health problems the band split up.

Without the band Avocado had to find a way to get by. He found a job in the workshop of a Frenchman who embedded metal. As Avocado cleaned up and ran errands he slowly learned how to embed metal from the Frenchman and eventually he was able to do it himself.

Over the years Avocado has travelled around China to learn new crafts from renowned artists; in Tibet he learnt about embossing, in Xinjiang he learnt about handcrafting, and in Yunnan he learnt about joining.

When Avocado first arrived in Dongguan he never expected to be here for long but this year is his third, “They say Dongguan has no culture; I disagree. I know many people here who have good taste and it’s easy to find the materials I need.”

Despite all the places he has been and all that he has leared, Avocado is still a young man and he has no intentions to stop travelling yet. Next summer he will go to the U.S. to learn from Native Americans. Avocado becomes excited when he talks about the future, “I want to continue to improve until I reach a summit.”

Despite all the travelling that Avocado has done and the different mentors he has learned from, his passion for craftwork can be traced back to the time he spent with his father in his village in Hebei.

Avocado talks at length about his father’s skill and ingenuity; how he was able to recycle rifle shells from when he hunted, how he used to fix the machines in his factory himself, and how all the other factory owners would call him when their machines broke. Avocado remembers a toy that his father made for him when he was a child, “He made me a slingshot of the finest metal and rubber. It was so powerful.”

Avocado inherited his father’s interest in craftwork and his father taught him when he had time. When Avocado was a child there were no toys to play with; they either made their own or played in the dirt. Avocado learnt from his father how to make better toys than the other children. The toy he was most proud of was a model airplane.

While Avocado travels all over the world learning new crafts he is still continuing one of his family’s traditions. It may not be the military tradition that was expected of him, but the tradition of craftwork is perhaps the true tradition of his family.

The Skaterboarding Entrepreneur

artist-DanielDaniel Spencer Montane sits down for his interview in an Italian restaurant. He has come from his office where he develops shoes and skateboards for some of the largest action sports brands in the world. Now in his early thirties, he has come a long way from the teenager who used to spend all day skateboarding around the streets of La Serena in Northern Chile. However, his story of success is far from straightforward.

Daniel spent most of his time as a teenager skateboarding. Not only was he passionate about skateboarding but he was also very good. However, like many skaters, unless you are amongst the very best, you have to find a job.

Daniel worked in action sports managing shoe collections. Although he found the work interesting there was one problem. “I didn’t like having a boss,” laughs Daniel.

More than this, Daniel had ideas to design his own shoes and ambitions to create his own brand. With investment from a friend, Daniel set up his business.

The business turned out to be a roller-coaster ride. Their first order from China was rejected because of poor quality, which almost led to bankruptcy, until they received an order from one of the biggest stores in Chile, which in turn led to his brand being advertised on the high street. However, the financial crises of 2008 left the company bankrupt.

Daniel returned to La Serena to consider his options. While home, he went on a ride on his motorbike in the desert. It was during this ride that he realized what it was that he must do. “I had to go to China,” Daniel states as a matter of fact.

After the revelation in the desert there was no turning back for Daniel. He found work through an agent to develop action sports shoes. He had no money so he sold everything he owned, including his beloved motorbike.

When he told everyone about his plans, half of them laughed and the other half thought he was crazy. However, one person believed in him, “One night my father said to me, ‘Daniel, go. You will make it.’”

Just six weeks after the bike ride in the desert, Daniel was on a plane to China. When he arrived his first challenge was to find the machinery from his old company that had disappeared from their factory.

He was shocked to find that the machinery had been stolen and was being held for ransom. With no other choice but to pay he arranged for trucks to collect the machinery. Daniel was led to a farm outside of Dongguan and after he handed over a briefcase full of money he was given back the machinery. “It was like a scene out of gangster movie!” says Daniel. The order with the agent was a success and they soon received more orders.

These days, Daniel has expanded their range from action sports shoes to include skateboards and longboards. His list of clients has grown large and he has developed his own brand.

To promote their brand they put on skateboarding demonstrations around Guangdong and go on tours around Chile. On Twitter they have a loyal following of fans that support the brand as though it was a rock band.

A recent campaign underlines both Daniel’s design ability and marketing sensibilities. Daniel changed wrapper paper in the box to rolling paper and the labels to filter paper. Photos can be found on Twitter of people putting the rolling and filter paper to good use.

Daniel considers himself lucky to have found a staff that is both capable and trustworthy. During the interview he says, “Success is not only one person.”

As well as stressing the importance of the team, Daniel also gives special attention to his smaller clients. These independent businesses and entrepreneurs remind him of himself when he was younger. He explains this to his staff plainly, “Don’t mess up their dream. It’s everything for them.”

When Daniel is asked whether he still skates he looks out the window and nods his head, “You know what? Dongguan is a dream to skate. There are some fantastic places to grind and no one ever tries to stop you.”

Daniel is still more of a skater than a businessman. He is happiest when he is designing longboards or customising shoes. However, it is because Daniel is a skater that he is successful as a businessman. He knows what skaters want because he is one.

The Untamable Cat

As Kenny sits down for his interview he brushes back his fringe. He is dressed in black and wears skinny jeans and a leather jacket. He looks more like a rock star than the founder of his own company, but then again, this is no ordinary company.​

Kenny is the creator of Zhuai Mao, a toy that is similar to Hello Kitty. However, while Hello Kitty represents a cute version of a cat, Zhuai Mao represents what cats are really like. Kenny laughs when he talks about it, “People think that cats are gentle and cute but they are the opposite. Cats don’t think people are their masters, they think people are their toys.”

artist-KennyThis version of a cat might not be as cute as Hello Kitty but Kenny thinks that people could learn a lot about how to live their lives from cats, “Cats have their own ideas, character and life. They are tough and independent; no matter what, they are always themselves.”

Kenny grew up in Guangdong. As a child he had a pet cat. He remembers how it used to scratch the sofa and sleep on his bed. While his mother chased the cat around the house, Kenny drew his favourite cartoons such as Superman and Mickey Mouse. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a comic book artist.

Sure of what he wanted to do and eager to start, Kenny skipped college and headed to Shenzhen in 2000 where he joined a company that produced a variety of comics, cartoons and computer games. In 2007, he was relocated by the company to Dongguan, where he decided to realize his idea of Zhuai Mao.

It is one thing to have an idea. It is an entirely different thing to realize it. Kenny had no qualifications or experience in sales or business and he admits the change was a shock, “Before I had a ponytail and casual clothes but I had to cut my hair and wear suits.”

In order to run both the design and business side of his company, Kenny had to develop an alter ego, like the superheroes he used to draw as a child. “I was a salesman during the day and a designer during the night,” he explains.

Thanks to shrewd online marketing it was not long before Zhuai Mao became popular. These days Kenny employs a large staff and the original cat has grown into a range of over a hundred that includes the likes of Garfield, Batman, and Santa Claus.

In collaboration with Taobao they designed a range based on the Chinese legend Journey to the West, which sells at auction online at around RMB 2000. Kenny’s company has collaborated with a number of companies that have seen the Zhuai Mao appearing on t-shirts, iPhone cases, USB sticks, and even car seat covers.

The Zhuai Mao brand is growing. At the annual comic convention in Dongguan they have one of the biggest booths and a cartoon series based on the character that is currently in development.

Kenny is careful not to get carried away. Despite requests from some of the largest stores in the world, Zhuai Mao is only sold by a limited number of authorized resellers and only a few hundred toys are made of each design. Kenny recognizes that in an industry such as this, too much exposure in the short term can kill the business in the long term.

However, Kenny’s passion remains to be the comics. During the interview he becomes most excited when he talks about a comic he has been working on based on his hero, Bruce Lee.

When he speaks of his hopes to publish the comic in the future, it reminds you that he is still a young man, “Maybe in ten years I can publish my own comic. Not for other people, for myself.”

Despite the success of Zhuai Mao, Kenny still deals with the same conflict as many other artists; balancing what he loves with what pays the bills.

The Punk Rock Optician

Having been dropped off by a taxi on the outskirts of Dongguan I am waiting to meet MJ. Someone shouts my name and I turn around. MJ’s frizzy hair sticks out of the side of a baseball cap and he is dressed in a torn t-shirt and stained jeans. He looks like a painter who has just left his studio. When he sees me he holds out his arms, “Welcome to the Wild West!”

MJ grew up during the 1970s in Cincinnati; an industrial city similar to Dongguan. “The Ohio River was pretty dirty too,” he jokes. When he was eleven, his mother sent him to work in his uncle’s opticians after school. He did not realize it at the time, but he had just entered a career that he would still be in forty years later. By thirteen he was working in an optical lab and after high school he studied to be an optician at college.

artist-opticianMJ’s other passion at the time was punk rock. He grew up listening to bands like Black Flag and The Sex Pistols and played guitar in a garage band with his friends, who nicknamed him The Punk Rock Optician.

After becoming a licensed optician in 1983 he moved to Seattle. He lived there until 2005, during which time he ran his own business. Later he moved to San Francisco and in 2007 he went into business with a friend manufacturing high end frame glasses in China. It was during one of MJ’s trips to China that the financial crisis of 2008 struck.

MJ’s business collapsed and he was left with nothing. He had already started to settle in China and did not want to return to the US. “I did what any foreigner in my situation would do. I taught English,” he explains.

While he taught he opened a workshop so he could continue to make glasses. At first he made custom glasses for local customers but as his reputation grew he began to get orders from customers from the US, Australia and Norway.

Over time MJ was able to stop teaching and move from his workshop to a factory. He continued to make custom glasses but he also started to take large orders from international companies.

When we reach MJ’s factory he gives a tour. He stops by a polishing wheel, which came from his smaller workshop. MJ has brought all the tools and machines with him to remind him when he is frustrated how far he has already come.

As the tour continues he introduces his right and left hand men, Mr. Liang and Mr. Li. They are currently working on samples of some bull horn frame glasses for a British fashion label. The order would be MJ’s biggest to date and the latest in a series that has seen Dongguan become a major manufacturer of bull horn frame glasses in the world.

In MJ’s office he shows a pair of glasses that look like they had come out of science fiction movie. He explains they were designed with Stevie Boy, a long time collaborator of Lady Gaga.

Things get really interesting when MJ shows a selection of glasses which will be part of the range for his own brand, All Eyes, which launches next year. He shows a pair of glasses with a frame made of both metal and bullhorn called Endo-Exo and another pair with a frame made of bone. MJ will even be collaborating with Avocado on a range.

When MJ talks about All Eyes he sounds like a man just out of his teens rather than one approaching middle age. He has changed from an optician who dispensed prescription glasses to one who works with British fashion labels and Lady Gaga collaborators. If before he was similar to a doctor then now he is closer to a fashion designer. It is a change he recognizes in himself, “When I was young I used to wish I did something cool instead of being an optician, but now I realize that glasses can be cool. Glasses are fashion.”

MJ’s career is one that is both long in length and wide in scope. When he is asked about how he feels about being an optician now compared to when he first started, his eyes grow wide, “It’s getting more fun.”

MJ may have arrived in Dongguan in unfortunate circumstances and his time here may have had its ups and downs, but he has become a better optician with more control and independence than he ever would have had back home.