Business in between

Walking into this room in Nanluoguxiang, one of the quaintest districts in Beijing, it seems like a gallery of avant-garde arts. In one picture a blonde lady stands in front of the Great Wall, wearing red sexy bikini. In another picture a Chairman Mao style slogan “Serve the Queen” is under the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Then still another picture shows a character in Beijing Opera wears a Red Army hat with Native American headdress. Almost every picture here juxtaposes east and west, past and modern.

It is a store, in fact.

Here every picture is printed on a T-shirt. When the storeowner opened the store 6 years ago in 2006, he intended to create his idea of “cool Beijing T-shirts”. Interestingly, he is a foreigner.

Dominic Johnson-Hill, from Guildford, England, came to China in 1993 to visit his brother. But he stayed and has been living here ever since. On a sunny afternoon of June, I interviewed him in a café. He wore the latest design of his brand called Plastered 8 and a pair of sunglasses on the head, friendly and relaxed.

In May, Beijing police launched a 100-day campaign to “clean out” non-Chinese living or working illegally in the city. Until the end of August, all foreigners are expected to always keep with them a valid passport, visa and residency permit, or they would face repercussions, ranging from fines to deportation.

The campaign left a bitter taste in the mouths of many foreigners, who thought it kind of xenophobia. But Dominic thought in a different way.

“I think the campaign is a necessary thing. As foreigners in China, we always received a lot of respect.” Dominic said. “But now really unnecessary people are coming to China. Some of them are uncultured type, narrow minded, immature, and reckless.”

With affection towards this city, Dominic understood well the city, including its policies. “Everyone knows I am a good guy. Everyone likes me in this community. I am not affected,” he said with ease. After 20 years, the sense of belonging to the community has deeply rooted in his heart.

Before Beijing, Dominic traveled a lot around the world. Starting at the age of 16, he went to Africa, South America and India. The free and courageous idea of leaving homeland and seeing the world came when he was inspired by a friend.

Not excellent, but beloved

Having problems with concentration, Dominic did poorly at school. For seven consecutive years, he had never ranked better then 25th in his class. Still Dominic had happy childhood memories. He recalled the huge garden around their house. “I could play all day long in the garden,” he said. More importantly, his family was supportive to him. Being the youngest child of four, Dominic received great love from his mother, who just wished him to be happy and gave him the freedom to do what he wanted.

When he was 16, Dominic met the person who influenced him most in his life —- a Jewish classmate. The friend introduced to him enlightening books like 1984 and told him the reality of society. Later, on their trip to South Africa, the friend asked Dominic a question that almost changed his life. He asked, “Do you want to be free and lead your own life or the life someone else is telling you?” It was the first time Dominic began to consider his own life. “Suddenly, I realized that like anybody else, I am going to die. I want to lead my own life,” Dominic recalled.

Back from the trip, Dominic decided to quit school and began to travel around. In the trips, he worked intermittently as translator or English teacher to support himself. In 1993, Dominic came to China to visit his brother, who worked in Qingdao. Then Dominic moved to Beijing.

A Manly City

He didn’t fell in love with this city at the first sight.

“I couldn’t speak in Chinese. Because I was a foreigner, people looked at me with a lot of suspicion in 1993,”Dominic made a face while remembering those early days in China. Because of his poor Chinese, Dominic found himself unable to do whatever he wanted to do. Also at that time, when China was still at the early stage of reforming and opening, foreigners were just so rare that they encountered different treatment, like a higher price for everything. “I thought it was unfair,” Dominic said. He didn’t intend to stay long in China.

But his attitude towards China changed when he got to know Chinese people. He moved to live with a Chinese friends’ family, and his Chinese was improved quickly. Gradually, he found himself in love with this city.

“It’s a very simple city,” Dominic said. He pointed to the straight roads, oily food and easy-going people in Beijing. All these elements, Dominic thought, made Beijing a manly city —- easy and bold. Dominic was fascinated with the traditional beauty of this city. Later Dominic married his wife, a Canadian he met in Beijing and they lived in a siheyuan, a compound with traditional Chinese houses of grey bricks and tiles built around a courtyard, Dominic enjoyed hanging around in those hutongs, traditional lanes in Beijing. “The beauty of that area is that it is full of vigorous daily lives,” Dominic said.

Your City, You’re Plastered

In 2006 Dominic opened Plastered 8, the first store selling self-designed products in Nanluoguxiang.

In 2006 Dominic was walking in Nanluoguxiang and saw a foreigner wearing a T-shirt. On the T-shirt was a line reading “I climbed the Great Wall”. “It was the kind of T-shirt I bought in 1993, but people were still wearing it,” said Dominic, “There are London T-shirts, Paris T-shirts and New York T-shirts, but no Beijing T-shirts, no cool T-shirts.” So he decided to quit the job as market researcher and started to design T-shirts with creative ideas. He was not good at drawing and painting, but he could hire other people with those skills to turn his ideas into products.

Dominic named his brand Plastered 8 because his idea was to plaster the traditional Chinese style elements he had grown to love in the old hutong on the T-shirts, and 8 is a lucky number for making fortune in Chinese culture. His brand has the slogan, “Your City, You’re Plastered.” “Everything seems to inspire me in the city. The people I meet in the bicycle lane in the mornings, my neighbors I meet around here, walls around the city, that’s all my inspiration.”

When his business was started, Dominic promoted his T-shirts with a fashion show in Nanluoguxiang. In 2007 he invited models to wear the T-shirts designed by him. That creative idea indeed attracted lots of attention, not only from the public, but also from the media. From 2007 on, Dominic has been interviewed by influential Chinese media like Beijing Review, China Daily and Luyu youyue, a Chinese equivalence to the Oprah Winfrey Show. Now he is a judge in a popular job-hunting reality show. Such a heavy media coverage brought Dominic lots of opportunities, of course. His brand was promoted, his shop was frequented. In 2008, Dominic pocketed the Entrepreneur of the Year in the British Business Awards.

At the same time, challenges came. His idea was copied. In the 786-meter long Nanluoguxiang alone, there are probably no less than five shops in his kind. But Dominic, the self-entitled Creative Dictator, was obviously not bothered by such followers. “It is competition that drives business,” Dominic said. On the negative side, he admitted that he didn’t run his business very strategically and practically. Now, he spends some time focusing on dealing with the business stuff every day. “But after that I would try to close the door. Back in my dream state,” Dominic said, meaning the world of creativity on his mind.

“He is a very kind person. In his eye, almost every human being is good. And he trusts his staff,” said Ms. Kang, who used to be his neighbor and has been work in Plastered 8 for five years.

Sense of Community

During the Beijing Olympic times, Dominic was volunteering in the community, teaching people there English. And to promote Nanluoguxiang, he organized the first Nanluoguxiang cultural festival in 2007 and encouraged people to open shops there, which now have become a main attraction of this site. “It’s about creating an environment for me and my family, and friends around me,” Dominic said.

As a father of four girls, Dominic appreciated the Chinese people’s emphasis on family. He thought it was the true sign of successful country and society. He tried to let his girls know the importance of family unity.

Now Dominic is a busy guy. He is in office; he is at home; he is on TV programs; he is on line; he is giving speeches. But he seems able to strike a balance between all these. After all, in his own words, he was the most immature person he knew. “On the T-shirt is sea scenery of Hawaii, but the Chinese characters beneath the scene mean ‘Beijing’. It’s very interesting,” said Dominic, explain to me the new design on the T-shirt he wore. For him, to be interesting instead of the best is the principle of designing.

Though he couldn’t get a Chinese citizenship, he sees himself as a member of the Nanluoguxiang community. For him, his staying in China was more than just making money and making a living. Having spent 17 years in Britain and 20 years in Beijing, Dominic now sees himself more a Beijinger than a British.

Compared with other multinational companies, Dominic runs quite a small store. He is definitely not one of the big potatoes in business, nor does he has the ambition to be one. But just like the T-shirts designed by him, Dominic shows a fine balance of east and west. In a time when understanding is essential between Chinese and non-Chinese, he probably embodies the way to it. He lives in China not as a foreigner, but as an individual in a big community. Such a sense might be more effective than the 100-day campaign in making the society a harmonious one.


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