Atypical at Heart: Uniquely Crafting Dongguan

Why atypical? Well, there aren’t many of them. Artisans that is, crafting their way through our community with their artistic and ingenious minds and hearts.

There are very few expats that have brought their exquisite projects, ambitions and talents to Dongguan in the artistic sense, but those who have, marked the inception of something innovative and beautiful, skillfully injecting a piece of themselves into our dynamic city.

Dongguan is renowned for its vast shoe industry, numerous education institutions and diverse food and beverage businesses, but what also marks its modern innovation is its distinctive pioneers that once-upon-a-time built something upon these very foundations. It’s easy to do things the typical way, taking that job because it provides a decent salary or because you know someone in the right position to endorse you; but what is rare and fundamentally the essence of our true selves, is following the path that is right for us as individuals. For example, many expats come to Dongguan to make a successful living through teaching. A great opportunity. In my opinion however, this is even better if teaching is your long-term goal, or you are gaining experience to lead onto further related opportunities. For some, it’s just a “limbo stage,” until they realize the reality of their desires and that’s okay, it’s normal. However, at the end of the day, we all have had ambitions and dreams at least at some point in our life, and we are all capable of making them happen. Let me ask you a question. What did you used to do when you were very young and had free time? Think back to before there were problems or pressure, before you had real life to deal with. When you had the freedom to choose what to do with your time, what did you choose? It’s funny because I used to write, a lot. And here I am.

They exclusively built their own domains for the community to become a part of, something which is 100 percent inspiring.

Aligning with this notion, our artisans found a way to craft their art into our beloved city. Expressing their creativity through imaginative and technical skill, these one percenters exclusively built their own domains for the community to become a part of, something which is 100 percent inspiring.

Before we go on to explore glass blowing to fashion design and painting, something resonated regarding our creators. From my observations, it seems that a common denominator involved maintaining or rekindling childhood hobbies or passions, just like what I mentioned earlier. I believe there is a great personal story behind the trail of each artist. Also, the view of strong intentions to make parents or role models proud. Perhaps this is why great risks are taken. I believe in the correlation between art and strong emotion and I found the seemingly paradoxical amalgamation of confidence and humility quite charming.

Fabiano Zanchi
Blowing glass is a fine art, and one that is extremely challenging, dexterous and spectacular in terms of its process and its results. I sat down with Italian glassmaker Fabiano Zanchi and was enlightened by his words. Fabiano is experienced in lighting specifically and impressively became known as the youngest glassmaker in lighting on Murano—a small island by Venice renowned for artistic glassmaking. He now manages a workshop in Dongguan and admitted that the biggest challenge for him was adapting to the management side of things. This makes sense for someone who is naturally an artist, rather than a manager.

I had to learn quickly from my mistakes, as glass is not very forgiving. You have to work fast and have confidence in exactly what you are doing.

“It’s difficult for me to make something other than lighting, since lighting is what I have worked with all my life. However, I enjoy a challenge and I am more than happy to spend time learning new skills. I always try to give an idea to the customer as to what their product can look like with photos of previous and other projects, however they always want to customize something to their own liking. I encourage this because I much prefer to craft bespoke pieces, even if it’s just the detailing that sets it apart from others,” Fabiano explained.

Having worked on multiple high-end, contemporary pieces for five-star hotels, Fabiano told me that this was not his favorite style of work, however he is grateful to have had the opportunity. He showed me some photos of his most prized artwork—a breathtaking chandelier he made in Venice. It was obvious that he takes pride in his work yet remains modest. A striking collection of handmade goblets also took me by surprise, demonstrating the intricacy of his crafting.

“I had to learn quickly from my mistakes, as glass is not very forgiving. You have to work fast and have confidence in exactly what you are doing,” Fabiano said.

“To become a glassmaker, you have to make sacrifices throughout your life. To be able to pick up the glass from the oven, you have to spend a minimum of two years just to understand the process of balancing and handling the hot liquid glass. It is essential to learn how to move your hands and before you can start to invent, you must spend years perfecting the basic techniques,” Fabiano explained. He continued, “When I was five or six I began to work with glass and my father was a Murano glass master with three teams. One day he stopped producing glass to spend time teaching me how to become a master. It was definitely a challenge. I would spend more than eight hours a day learning and practicing, it was definitely frustrating at times.”

From my outside perspective, my guess is that Fabiano’s father perhaps wished to pass down his knowledge and skills, and with it, create a true artisan that could be even better than he was himself; perfecting his own craftsmanship vicariously through his son, if you like. And what was clear, is Fabiano’s dedication and passion for his work.

Adriana Dvorá
A fashion designer with a personal studio in Dongcheng, Adriana Dvorá is our second creator, having brought innovation and inspiration to our community. Stepping inside Dvorá Studio, I was greeted with a dazzling smile and a welcoming hug. That was of course, Adriana, the woman behind the magical fortress before me. Beautiful garments hung from rails and adorned mannequins and there was a great sense of open space within the studio.

Eventually the epiphany came to her–when she was a child she was obsessed with the clothes on her dolls.

I was guided to a table and seating area, which seemed like the crux of the space, whilst there were teas and snacks laid before me, the types you would relax with at home. That’s one thing I found most glorious about this place. Upon entering, it feels as if you have stepped inside a princess castle, with lavish materials, things sparkling in the corner of your vision and organized aesthetics laid out over two levels. However, once you spend time here, it becomes more like home. What ended up being a three-hour “interview” with the lady herself shows just how easy it is to spend time here. Adriana proceeded to inform me of her journey.

Before moving to China, Adriana dabbled in many of the arts back home in Brazil, including singing, acting, painting etc., however she was pushed to have a “real job.” Upon moving to China, she began to manage a trading company with her husband, sacrificing 16-20 hours a day. One day, her husband became very sick. Of all the wealth and success that they had acquired, all Adriana could think was how she just wished for her family to be well and together. She told me, “At that point, I just gave up. My husband went away for treatment, while I stayed here to work. I suddenly began to realize I had lost my path. During that difficult time, I realized that I had wasted precious hours working beyond reason, instead of using this time to bond with my family.” After this notion, Adriana understood that she had to do something she was passionate about, something that would make her happy. Eventually the epiphany came to her—when she was a child she was obsessed with the clothes on her dolls—and in the end fashion became her craft. The Dvorá brand comprises of handmade boutique designs, the supplier’s designs from the factory she works with, and clients’ designs. Most of her clientele are locals but she sees and does fittings for ladies from all across the globe. Dvorá also collaborates with a trade company based in Hong Kong, exporting clothing and other products, mostly to European countries.

Some of you will know about Adriana’s charity work, as she hosts an annual fashion show with models wearing her clothing line items, all for a good cause. It seems her motto is “It’s not about the money”, just like the Jessie J song. What’s more to this endeavor is how Adriana uses her studio as a way to bridge people together and encourage communication and empowerment amongst women, something that is a work of art in itself.

Fran Kilburn
Fran Kilburn, a fellow northerner from the UK, holds regular painting sessions within her home and has done for four years until now. Prior to this, it was something she also did back in Australia where she lived for 20 years. Attending one of Fran’s painting sessions was very pleasant. Not just a regular painting session, I noticed the careful thought that had gone into the event. There was a table filled with various snacks, wine was flowing, and more notably, Fran’s teaching style seemed effortless. Everyone was relaxed and chatting whilst releasing their inner creativity at the same time. Fran provided everyone with their own canvas and asked them all to choose their own color. She guided them on how to use their paintbrushes, water and how to use canvas tilting techniques to allow for original results. She encouraged everyone to put their own personal touch on their artwork, something which I thought was endearing.

Incredibly, Fran painted and auctioned 15 pieces to parents at a local school and made an impressive 2,000 RMB in one day for haven of hope.

One thing I won’t forget about Fran is her down-to-earth attitude. When I asked the question, “So why did you start these sessions?” she replied, “Because there was nothing else to do.” It sure did make me giggle. There was something so real and raw about her honesty. Despite this response, her love for what she does was obvious.

Different paint types are used within these sessions, from acrylic paint to free flow and spray paint, plus a whole load of techniques. “I like to let everyone do their own thing and something different rather than just standard painting with a brush, otherwise it would be boring,” Fran told me. Her passion for her personal hobby fueled these classes, as she began to unlock her love for art when she took her O Level in high school. “When I like the look of something, I will just change it a bit to put my own style on it. I’ll practice and try and reduce the time it takes to complete it,” she added. Looking around her home, many stunning pieces stood out to me, from Christmas card designs to paintings of animals, to the iconic face of the 60s, Twiggy. There were paintings that I could have admired for a much longer time, appreciating their fine detail and hours of artistic dedication that had certainly gone into them.

Incredibly, Fran offered her time, studio and materials to two classes of fourth-graders to paint canvases and 15 pieces were auctioned off to parents, making an impressive 2,000 RMB in one day. The proceeds went to Haven of Hope charity.

I had noticed that before the session, Fran had mentioned how she likes to travel. I asked if she thinks she will continue introducing art to other areas she visits in the future, to which she replied, “Yes. It’s certainly a nice thought.” Most of my questions were met with a fairly elusive response with Fran. She certainly made an impression with me. Something tells me, there’s more than meets the eye with this one.