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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: April 22, 2011 NO. 17 APRIL 28, 2011
Dreamers in a Strange Land
China offers promising prospects for foreigners' self-realization

PROMISING BUSINESS: Dominic Johnson-Hill shows a Plastered 8 T-shirt in his store in Beijing (LUO XIAOGUANG)

On March 18, Dominic Johnson-Hill returned to Beijing from London, bringing with him the youngest member of his family, a girl he adopted in Hubei Province.

In 1993, when he first arrived in Beijing, the British man never imagined he would stay here for 18 years, run a business and start a family.

Staying to create

In 2006, Johnson-Hill set up his own T-shirt brand in Beijing and named it Plastered 8. He adorns T-shirts with symbols and images, such as dragons, enamel mugs and food coupons—reminders of Beijing's lifestyle and history.

"Plastered 8 is a celebration of my love for Beijing and China, of how I perceive this country," Johnson-Hill said. "For many Chinese, these symbols are too familiar to be fun, but as an expat, I find them fascinating."

In early March, Plastered 8 released its latest design, the Lei Feng series, saluting Lei Feng, an ordinary army soldier and one of China's great altruists.

"Since it came out, the series has been well received both in the store and online," Johnson-Hill said.

His shop is in Nanluoguxiang, a centuries-old alley in Dongcheng District, frequented by tourists and foreigners for its cafes, bars and crafts shops.

"When I moved into Nanluoguxiang in 2003, it was a quiet alley with no stores. As the very first store of its type, Plastered 8 ushered in similar stores," Johnson-Hill said, "and the brands gradually established themselves."

Johnson-Hill has expanded by means of e-commerce, wholesale and opening franchised stores. One has been set up in Shanghai, and another is scheduled to open in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Johnson-Hill is cautious about franchisee's locations and has been seeking counterparts of Nanluoguxiang in cities that are homes to other brands such as Tianzifang in Shanghai and Kuanxiangzi in Chengdu.

"Plastered 8 is not just any boring store. It has soul, character. Its designs are closely related to local culture, so it is part of the city. It has to be interesting. Shopping malls aren't acceptable," said Johnson-Hill.

Johnson-Hill was at first the only Plastered 8 designer. Through expansion, he is creating work for local artists. He said he hopes Chinese artists will become the backbone of the brand.

It's not just his career keeping Johnson-Hill in Beijing.

"It is mostly about the people," he said. "All my friends are here. Beijing is a perfect place to me, so I am willing to stay for the rest of my life."

However, he was not on good terms with Beijing at the very beginning. Back in 1993, life in the city was not easy for a foreigner.

"I could only live in places like diplomatic apartments. I could only pay with foreign exchange certificates. I didn't speak Chinese and I didn't know much about Chinese law," said Johnson-Hill.

"Beijing is not a city people fall in love with the first time. It takes time to know and love it. But once people are in love with Beijing, the relationship will abide," he said.

Having lived in Beijing for 18 years, Johnson-Hill feels like a native already but he says he feels he always remains a guest, an outsider in the eyes of the Chinese.

"Things will change, though. Beijing will become more and more international and inclusive."

Johnson-Hill plans to shoot a film this year, a comedy about a couple who cannot afford a house in Beijing being forced to rob a bank and also contemplating a motorcycle road trip from Beijing to London next year.

Staying for fun

While Johnson-Hill enjoys thoughts about lifelong employment as a "creative dictator," Julien Gaudfroy is having second thoughts about remaining as an emcee in China.

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