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Behind the Work: How a Simple Conversation Led to the Creation of a Museum of Chinese-Australian Stories


Ben Miles, Sam McGuinness, and Jonathon Lim talk to LBB about the Museum of Chinese in Australia, and the eye-catching campaign in the face of xenophobia

Behind the Work: How a Simple Conversation Led to the Creation of a Museum of Chinese-Australian Stories

The Museum of Chinese in Australia (MOCA) is a new museum taking over an old library in George St in the heart of Sydney’s Haymarket, adjacent to Chinatown. MOCA describes itself as a space for the stories and contributions of Chinese Australians and will open to the public in 2023.

Alongside the team at MOCA, R/GA went on a journey to reimagine the future. Their ambition was simple: ‘to promote the ingenuity, contribution, and resilience of Chinese Australians past, present, and future.’

Ben Miles, vice-president and executive creative director at R/GA APAC, was deeply passionate about the MOCA campaign, and along with R/GA associate creative director Sam McGuiness, he set out to create a campaign to create Chinese-Australian role models.To learn more about the striking campaign and how it came together, LBB spoke to Ben and Sam from R/GA and PUSH Media creative director Jonathon Lim.

LBB> When did the conversation about MOCA first come about, and what were the creators keen to express in this ad?

Ben> MOCA is a very personal project for me. We were at the peak of the pandemic, and during this time, we witnessed a rise in race hate where the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated xenophobia and bigotry toward Asian Australians. Chinatown institutions everywhere began feeling the pressure before eventually being forced to shut down.

My family in Australia are both Vietnamese and Chinese Australian. My wife's family came to Australia as refugees in the '80s, and my brother-in-law's family are from Hong Kong and arrived in the '70s. Growing up in Western Sydney and Maroubra, respectively, they faced their fair share of hard times, from microaggressions like ‘Where are you from?’ to even being spat on, forming part of their narrative growing up in Australia. Despite all this, they’ve grown up to be highly successful individuals and are as Australian as anyone I know. I truly believe we’re living in a brilliant multicultural country, but we still have a way to go. Most recently, my own children were labelled by a well-intentioned individual as ‘exotic’. It reinforces the need for people from all walks of life to check their biases. 

A conversation on the above prompted my brother-in-law Jon Wong and I to sit down and look at ways we could help shift the narrative. We discussed how he would have loved a space to walk into and feel inspired to be Chinese Australian as a kid. This led us to reach out to MOCA, and this is where the next chapter begins. 

LBB> What were some of the early ideas floating around, and how were you hoping to represent Chinese-Australians?

Ben> Playing a part in the creation of a brand is always a challenge, but our work with MOCA added a whole new layer. Because this wasn’t just a brand refresh and ‘pens down’ kind of job, this was about redefining the role of a museum to better connect with the community moving forward.

Once we had aligned on our ambition, we needed a simple way to bring the past, present and future together under one roof to create a home for all. Our core focus in the short term was to empower the community by reframing and owning the narrative of home. While for our long-term approach, we needed to redefine and challenge the stereotypical idea of what a museum should be. 

A museum can no longer be a static or passive experience. A relic of the past, in order to engage and inspire future visitors, needs to be alive and restless, brought to life via engaging and interactive exhibitions that respect the past but are designed for the present ever-evolving world. We want MOCA to be a place where you can wander and wonder, leaving visitors of all generations inspired about the future. From here, working with MOCA’s executive director Tony Stephens, we helped grow a digital and physical exhibition that told the stories of prominent local creatives, such as Incu founders Brian and Vincent Wu, producer and artist Rainbow Chan, and artist Louise Zhang.

Lining the old library bays and shelves are their deeply personal and nostalgic stories about growing up in two intersecting cultures, as well as knick-knacks and photos that remind them of home. However, they choose to interpret that concept. This pop-up exhibition is to help the community understand the transition of this building. The building is very much rooted in the community because it was one of the only places people could access periodicals in Chinese or other languages. 

LBB> How did harmful rhetoric, xenophobia, and racism towards Chinese Australians inform the development of this campaign?

Ben> Research by the Lowy Institute showed that in 2020, nearly 1 in 5 Chinese Australians were either threatened or attacked. Whether on the basis of historical immigration policies that barred Chinese entry to Australia, assumptions that link the origin of COVID-19 to China, or misleading media coverage. More than that, nothing has been left untouched in a world living through the challenges of a pandemic. This rings particularly true when it comes to Sydney’s Chinatown.

We spent time on the ground talking to Asian Australians across multiple generations. These conversations were extremely insightful, highlighting the immense pride and resilience they have for their heritage but also surfacing the negatives of growing up in a society that’s been designed to make you feel different through – perhaps unintentional – microaggressions, such as the sharp question, “Where are you from?” 

Diversity is a superpower at R/GA, and with the nature of the project, it wasn’t hard to assemble a team of experienced strategists, designers and writers that had both a deep understanding and, for some, first-hand experience of multi-generational Asian heritage and culture. From teams across R/GA Sydney, Singapore, Indonesia and New York to using third-party suppliers, research perspectives and talent with predominantly Chinese Australian heritage, this was a truly collaborative project with inclusivity and diversity at its core. Each team was tasked with exploring and developing a unique interpretation of the brand's ambition. We wanted to create something that would be simple to understand and demonstrate the role and intent of the museum.

We had two creative ideas that were incredibly powerful, but when the roof radical was presented, it captured our attention. Its brilliant simplicity and layered meaning reflected the brand perfectly. And the more we began exploring and building upon the idea, the more we realised the power of creating a shorthand symbol for home. It symbolises the protection and security a roof provides and, at the same time, acts as a dynamic frame that constantly adapts to house content. It can be understood across multiple languages and cultures to represent what MOCA is about – becoming an open space for everyone to expand the conversation. 

LBB> How important was the creative direction of the MOCA for the organisation?

Sam> When R/GA engaged MOCA proactively in 2021, it was off the back of a casual discussion over dinner. The question: ‘Where are the Chinese-Australian role models?’ For a people so embedded and formative of Australian culture to have such little presence in the nation’s narrative is a missed opportunity and an untold story. Their story has the power to inspire, spark a connection, and build community both within the Chinese-Australian community and across Australia. 

A brand was crafted that could act as a platform for Chinese Australian stories and ultimately position MOCA as the museum that celebrates the future of Chinese Australians just as much as their past.

To get the attention of those who didn’t know MOCA and convince those who did to see it through fresh eyes, we needed to disrupt the people’s perception of what a Museum focused on Chinese Australian stories should look and act like. So we pushed each design element we used to run counter to the expectation. We crafted a contemporary logo that uses the roof radical found in the Kangxi dictionary to position MOCA as a home for all past, present and future stories. We composed a colour palette featuring blues, pinks and greens as a modern take on the tones featured in traditional ceramics, running counter to the expected red-heavy palettes often associated with Chinese Culture.

In typography, we blended English and Chinese language to create a contemporary ‘universal language’ aesthetic. In photography, we projected neon characters and saturated the scene with gel-coloured lighting to paint our role models in a future-facing light. And in my experience, we looked for every opportunity to blur the lines between the physical and digital space, encouraging people to reconsider what a modern museum space can be.

LBB> Why was it important for this campaign to be constructed in the manner that it was?

Sam> The ‘Stories From Home’ campaign was the inaugural expression of MOCA’s new direction and needed to both introduce the new brand, as well as increase engagement, build community and encourage donations to reopen the museum doors between late 2023 and early 2024. To do this, we engaged a group of Chinese Australians, each prominent in their fields (ranging from the arts to fashion to tech start-ups), to feature across a brand-launch campaign spanning commercial, pop-up exhibition and a digital content series. We asked them a series of questions around the theme of ‘home’ to capture the nuance and individuality of what it means to be Chinese-Australian so that we could share those stories to inspire and engage a new audience. From writing the script of the video itself to the bespoke illustrations commissioned to the people and content featured in the video – all were provided by the Chinese-Australian community to give the content absolute authenticity. 

LBB> How long did it take to film this spot, and what was the process like for putting it all together?

Ben> We worked with PUSH – a Chinese-Australian production company with operations across the Asia Pacific. Founder and creative director Jonathon Lim put a call-to-arms of sorts out into the community - to family, friends and connections. He said at the time that he had never found it so easy to cast and get people to participate in a production. On set, we created our own unique community, working with family and friends and that energy and the vibe on set are exactly how we wanted MOCA to feel. I showed my Australian Chinese nephew and niece, who were seven and three at the time, the film that we’d made, and they were captivated. There was this beautiful connection, recognition and familiarity, and they said, “There’s nǎinai and māma” when they watched the film. 

Jonathon> This was a two-day shoot in Sydney. One morning in a studio, one morning in a house and two afternoons running around Haymarket.

LBB> Where did you shoot the campaign, what challenges did the shoot befall, and how were these overcome?

Jonathon> Certainly, filming my family was the most challenging part of the shoot. If you can imagine the normal stresses of a family event and then adding a film shoot to it. My Dad gets very hangry.

LBB> How did the campaign settle on its striking, neon visual style? How was this aesthetic achieved?

Sam> A simple yet eye-catching colour palette of blue and pink signals a departure from the typical red palettes of organisations linked to China and speaks to the multi-generational demographic that MOCA both hosts and reaches out to. Its bold appearance references the merging of the past, present and future, and of the traditional and the contemporary, that the museum embodies. This is a project that uses the power of design to help reframe a narrative and show its pivotal role in Australia’s cultural fabric. More than a brand refresh, we hope that MOCA becomes a place to influence, reimagine our collective stories, and shape what comes next. To do this, we needed a dynamic brand that seamlessly brings together multiple languages through a simple and bold design system, a brand that is open and accessible to everyone, a brand that is grounded in a celebration of diversity.

LBB> Did existing ads, films, or TV shows inspire the aesthetics of this campaign? Can you tell us about them?

Jonathon> Adidas Originals: This is Me by Paul Geusebroek. This one is almost ten years old now, but the colours and movement helped shape my style when living in Shanghai, which has stayed with me. There’s a little bit of Chungking Express in there too. In terms of scripting and approach to the voice-over, we looked at this Hispanic Heritage Month video by Fustic Studio, an amazing animation studio of Vietnamese animators working remotely around the world, and this New York FC film by Madeline Clayton.

LBB> What is the significance of the roof-radical character in the campaign?

Ben> The new identity features the roof radical 宀, which is one of 47,035 characters that make up the Kangxi dictionary. It’s used in the words for ‘home’, ‘safe’, ‘ancestor’ and ‘treasure’, among others. Here, it acts as a constantly changing roof, connecting to why MOCA exists – to create an ever-evolving home for Chinese Australian stories. It’s the basis of our logo and identity system, acting as a dynamic frame constantly adapting to house content, whether physically, in the form of our fabricated wood roof radical that frames the walls within our Pop-Up Exhibition space, or digitally, as a scalable frame on our refreshed website. 

We decided to keep the typeface incredibly simple across all languages. The message and construction of sentences was the most important factor for us, and we aimed to simplify this as much as possible. For that reason, we chose Helvetica as our key typeface and complemented this with Pingfang HK – a decision made in collaboration with Chinese American and Australian designers. This combination created a neutral approach to allow the content, language and message to do the talking. This minimal aesthetic also worked in harmony with the graphic nature of the logo and worked just as effectively in motion and in our creation of bespoke symbols.

LBB> MOCA uses physical and digital elements to create a space for cultural exchange. What were the considerations you had when capturing a space like this?

Ben> We’re accustomed to seeing museums as a representation of the past. But for MOCA, the stories of our past are only just the beginning. Our ambition was simple: to promote the ingenuity, contribution and resilience of Chinese Australians past, present and future. Centred around the idea of home, the refreshed brand combines the physical and digital to become a space for cultural exchange. This dynamic, bold, accessible brand identity leverages visual and verbal design to tell a story pivotal to Australia’s cultural fabric.

While the museum will officially open between late 2023 and early 2024, temporary exhibitions frequently run as a taste of things to come. Community is deeply embedded in MOCA’s DNA. Visitors can bring along photos from their homes and put them into one of the empty frames on display. As part of the ongoing project, members of the community are invited to go online and share their personal stories of home, which will eventually be displayed on an LED screen in the museum. As the contributions grow, MOCA will work with a range of creatives and digital producers to arrange those stories into a narrative.

LBB> Finally, what’s been the impact of the campaign so far?

Ben> The brand refresh was designed to inspire and fundraise – a museum from the community, for the community. Our interactive pop-up exhibition in the yet-to-be-transformed space invited the community to meet the reimagined MOCA. We saw the attendance of hundreds, with coverage from outlets like SBS, Time Out, Broadsheet, and the Australian Prime Minister’s visit being covered on various primetime news channels. Within two weeks of the launch, the number of unique visitors to the new website was at 36% of the 2021 total, and within a month of launch, MOCA received a government grant of $2.28m. Already, MOCA holds a bold presence in Chinatown, fostering a deeper understanding and becoming a symbol for collective celebration. Whoever walks through the doors, MOCA is their learning curve, their opportunity to share, celebrate and be part of shaping a society strengthened by its diversity.

And this is only the beginning.

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R/GA Australia, Wed, 24 May 2023 23:00:00 GMT