Behind the cool demeanour of figurine designer and trendsetter Michael Lau lies a yearning to touch hearts. "I enjoy talking to my fans and taking pictures with them, and am happy that they have become friends with one another over the years," Lau says. "Many people who play with toys and figurines feel lonely."
Varying from several inches to a few floors in height, Lau's handmade, limited-edition figurines are known for their hip-hop style, elaborate details and distinctive personality. Lau was recognised by Forbes magazine in 2008 as the pioneer of urban vinyl figures, a type of designer toy featuring action figures made of vinyl. He has been collaborating with leading brands - such as Nike, for which he designs sneakers and toys - while working with celebrities including entertainer Jan Lam and LMF, a local rap group.
Lau is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his first figurine series, "Gardener", at a large-scale exhibition at Times Square in Causeway Bay. Hong Kong is the last stop of the world tour exhibition, ending this Sunday.
Why did you go into figurine design? I have always loved art. I grew up in Sheung Shui and my parents were chicken farmers. When I was a kid I didn't have any toys, so I made them myself, using whatever material I had or discovered. I loved making models of robot. After completing Form Five, I studied at the First Institute of Art and Design [in Causeway Bay] in the evening while working during the day. I had had several jobs, such as repairing and touching up paintings, working as a window display designer, and drawing illustrations and storyboards at a Japanese advertising company.
I lost my job in the advertising firm in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis and had to think about my next step. I had been collecting figurines - I admire them for their design and packaging - and it dawned on me that I could combine toy design with street culture. [The latter] was becoming popular around the globe at the time and I found it fascinating. [Based on a comic strip that I created for East Touch magazine], I designed the Gardener series of 99 action figures and staged an exhibition that became an instant hit.
What happened next? I signed a three-year agreement with Sony [Corporation] that enabled me to exhibit the Gardener series in Japan. I also set up my own company, designing figurines and working with brands. My figurines are available for sale a few times a year at my gallery and at exhibitions.
What has been the biggest challenge? There is never enough time, and I have to do everything myself. However, I don't have plans to hire an assistant - I am not sure if I will find the right person. Young people don't seem to be ready for tasks that require a lot of patience.
Everything stopped during Sars, but picked up after a few months. The recent financial crisis had little impact on me, since it is often during a crisis when people need something to cling onto emotionally, and toys are a good option given that they are relatively cheap compared with, say, buying a car or a flat. Has anyone said they wanted to work for you? Yes, a number of people wanted to learn the craft but few had samples of work to show. You just cannot convince others of your passion that way. You have to show that you devote yourself wholeheartedly to your work. On my part, I feel that it is difficult to show people how to create something, from coming up with a concept, and the use of colours and sculpting techniques, to putting on a good exhibition and conveying your message. This is best left to schools.
Is Hong Kong a hospitable environment for artists? Artists want their works to be seen and collected. As such, there are no more limitations in the age of the internet. The flip side is that you can be forgotten very quickly. People nowadays seem to cherish less of everything.
What are your secrets to success? I am quite efficient and very disciplined. In fact, I am a workaholic.