Cracking Creativity in China

The time is right for the Creative Industry in China to enter the global stage.

The Financial Markets attempt to get to grip with the slowdown of the China Economy, most commentators point to the halt in capex projects, infrastructure, housing development etc. It is no surprise that after 30 years of exponential growth, some correction is inevitable.

China has struggled to establish a leading creative industry and perhaps now the industry will get a chance to develop further. Why not, when the chips were down the Arts Council in the UK did a great job of supporting the Arts and the UK had some very generous supporters of the Arts without whom I know many projects (construction and creative) that would just not have moved forward.

The incredible wealth in China is already leading to some philanthropic gifts and as the new money learns to appreciate more than just a label, then more investment will flow into the creative market.

Should Hollywood be afraid?

One of the big goals for China, is to produce a blockbuster movie, with global appeal, written and produced in China. The finance is there, the talent is there, but the story and creative licence has until now been supressed. Anton Ego (Ratatouille 2007) said in his famous speech “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” And I firmly believe that to be the case in China. There is talent all over China but it just needs the creative environment and support to help it flourish. Teamwork and creative thinking are not strong parts of the educational curriculum and this travels back a long way. While mathematics is encouraged, Art and creativity is not.

In 2008 I spent a period of time trying to cement a deal with a Chinese University, TV Company and a UK University, to send UK Graduates to China and to help teach with the long term goal of producing a movie. The talent and appetite to learn is obviously there, but unfortunately the ability to develop original creative work was one of the hardest obstacles I had ever come across in China. It would be easy to assemble a team and produce a replica of Toy Story, but to deliver original ideas takes a lot more than technology and a room full of unfocussed talent.

Old and new warriors protecting the Empire

Old and new warriors protecting the Empire

Which creative sectors will readily export from China?

Creative work can carry a lot of ‘invisible’ value as opposed to a large building or infrastructure project that has a physical presence and gives face to those that helped deliver the scheme.

Architecture: when I first arrived in Nanjing in 2000, the buildings and streetscapes were a mix of old and new, sadly some of the more interesting sites were lost to high rise. Inevitable, you could say the same about any City in the UK and it is a natural product of growth. China turned to overseas architects to help in the master planning of vast cities with statement buildings popping up everywhere. Some of it worked.

Property development flow is now turning and Vanke, Greenland, Wanda and many other Chinese developers are heading west. The knowledge base has grown and I would never suggest you can learn all there is to know about architecture in 30 years. There has been an impressive sponge like soaking up of design ideas and some bold developments that make a 3rd Runway at Heathrow look like a pantomime.

How to restore or repurpose a building is still a struggle. I remember trying to rescue a historic cinema downtown in Nanjing. Rents had pushed every building around it sky high leaving the cinema as the last 4 storey building in the street. The fear of getting it wrong (and losing face) overpowered the meetings and the suggestion ‘but what if restoring the building was the right thing to do’. (Top tip in China always deal with the number 1.)  The risk of doing something different, upsetting the current trends was just too much to allow a proper feasibility study to restore the building. That was no surprise but when that fear exists, creativity is stifled.

Branding; China does not share the Wests obsession with Helvetica. It has been said that Steve Jobs once studied Calligraphy and when he later looked back on his life, he realised this had inspired his belief that font was an important part of how things look on the screen. China corporations have spent little on corporate branding, it will grow as China Plc looks outside the domestic market.

There are already some success stories. DJI the famous manufacturer of drones (you can buy one in Maplin) is known locally as the Apple of China. The packaging, web site, technology is all there and the technology keeps advancing .Perfect and all created in China.


Wanda have developed a huge network of cinemas in China, US, UK and hopefully this will encourage home grown talent to develop stories and ideas for an international audience. Curzon Cinemas were founded on a diet of art house movies, mostly subtitled, so the appetite is there.

Others brands are on their way, so exciting times are ahead with opportunities flowing both ways so if you are fortunate enough to be invited to pitch for work in China or for Chinese companies and investors expanding in the UK consider this;

1) Reporting structures in China are very different. Understand the structure and sign off procedure to approve your brief, budgets and your final work.

2) Culture is firmly engrained in China, both in business and at home.  Fish with different hooks and different baits.

3) The fear of losing face can be overcome, but work hard to create the right environment and work harder to maintain that creative environment.

4) The creative market in China is still evolving. It is backed by centuries of fine art but very few ‘new movements’. While the financial markets sort themselves out, there is a chance the Creative world will benefit from a Creative flow to and from China. 



Guy Middleton

Manging Director


Guy Middleton established a CGI studio in China in 2000’transforming great designs into works of art.’ He retains a daily involvement with his studio in China and continues to act as a consultant in the UK on property and in particular buildings that house parts of the creative world.

Guy has worked with Curzon Cinemas, Ambassador Theatre Group, The Soho Theatre, The Donmar Theatre, The Globe, The Bush, The Royal Festival Hall and The Royal Court Theatre amongst many others advising and delivering property opportunities.