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Making the Monkey Style dream come true

By 5 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Liang Shi

No more aping Western brands: Designer Li Qiu Qiu at Monkey headquarters in Beijing | Photo by Liang Shi

Once upon a time, four friends drinking together at a bar in Beijing discovered that three beer cans placed together resembled a monkey. Today, four years later, their company, Monkey Style, is growing into a brand that caters not only to the city’s burgeoning population of skateboarders but ordinary young Chinese who find confirmation of the city’s new urban cool in the trucker hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts and even shoes that bear the monkey logo.

Even though the four partners still work outside jobs to finance their entrepreneurial passion, they are convinced that the search for new means of personal and material expression in China’s new economy will pave Monkey Style’s path to success. Co-founder Zhang Nan Nan shouts, “We have a dream!”

And for now at least, that dream appears to be on track. When the four partners, Li Qiu Qiu, Zhang Nan Nan, Yu Jiong and Yiu Qing, decided to abandon their ordinary lives and begin a business together, they noticed that China lacked a homemade skater brand to which ordinary consumers could relate and call their own. Since they were all involved in the skateboarding scene, they decided to supply skaters with the necessary attire with that is a blend of contemporary expression and traditional Chinese culture.

The monkey symbol helped them achieve their goal. “We have a legendary monkey called Sun Wukong,” said Li Qiu Qiu. “Which made us feel even… closer to monkeys.” The company’s use of the home-inspired monkey symbol helps separates its brand from foreign ones in the competitive Chinese market.

The monkey is a symbol steeped in Chinese folklore. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a famous character from the novel Journey to the West, who possesses many superpowers such as super strength, shape-shifting and speed. Even the former leader Mao Zedong is said to have often referred to the monkey’s characteristics as admirable.

“I spent three years in an animation company drawing cartoons,” said Li. “I quit because it was too much work. I got tired.” All of the group members felt that their creative drive needed greater freedom to express itself, even if it meant doing most of the labor themselves and picking up part-time jobs elsewhere.

The local brand is part of a movement in China in which young people are becoming entrepreneurs and finding opportunities in a domestic market. Entrepreneurship has a recently revived opportunity in China. After the Communist party and Mao Zedong took power in 1949, the state took control of all privately-owned businesses. Today’s model of entrepreneurship did not re-emerge until after a change of policy in 1987. Then-General Secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, who had been tapped for leadership by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, proposed an end to the governmental control over private enterprises and invited foreign investment to aid development in China.

“Young people want their own original brand,” said manager Jing Bo Shi of today’s evolution of China’s economic liberalization. “This [Monkey] brand is special and people are attracted to that.”

Lately, Jing has seen an increase in foreign customers buying the Monkey brand. Danish travelers Lorie Panum and Tanja Lyby were lured into one of the company’s five Beijing stores on a recent day by the monkey face logo and decided to buy T-shirts for their children. “The prices are cheap,” said Lyby. “We are from Europe, and [these products] are totally affordable’ – plus she believed the attire fit the style of her three sons.

The four friends are currently planning to expand the number of their outlets and provide more equipment necessary for skateboarding. With the full support from their families, their dreams compel them to continue.

“Even my father wears our clothing,” said Li, as he sat in the company’s dim basement studio, which is filled with desks overflowing with paper, empty beer bottles and computers covered in monkey stickers. “Ultimately, we want the people of the world to know the new Beijing culture,” he said, without lifting his pen from his latest sketch under a lamp that illuminates his work.

According to Li, that’s how dreams are born, monkey style.

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