The first design Simon Ma ever sold was to Compaq Computers’ Shanghai division. It sold 3million units. At that time, he was just 24 years old. When others worked for five hours on a task, Ma worked for 10. When others spent eight hours in the office, Ma spent 15. For his workaholic attitude and startlingly few hours spent sleeping, his friends have dubbed him “Shanghai’s No.1 mad man”.
Editor: Cecilia Chan
When I met Simon Ma in his Shanghai studio, he was listening to classical music and working on a drawing of a horse. Seeing me at the door, he put down his pen and gestured for me to sit opposite him. “Do you mind if I draw while we chat?” he asked, and I eagerly nod. His brush rises and falls with poetic rhythm, eyebrows knotted with concentration above black-rimmed glasses. Ma’s signature spiky hair moves from side to side with his brush-strokes. Finally, he lifts his head and says “Come, let’s talk!” With that, Ma starts to tell me his story.
To understand his story, we have to go back to 1981, the year the stock market crashed in Hong Kong. Simon Ma was just seven years old at the time, and had just started to study traditional painting under the tutelage of Master Fan Tzu Teng, one of the top 50 art maestros in China. Unable to afford lessons, initially, the young Ma would stand by the edges of the classroom and watch other students being taught. Gradually, the teacher started to notice the talented boy in the corner, took him in as a student, and in time Ma became his favourite student. In 1987, at just 13 years of age, Ma packed two suitcases and went to a prestigious English school for his education. Standing in Heathrow Airport for the first time, surrounded by English, he felt lost and overwhelmed. In school, Ma was bullied by the privileged British boys for his poor English.
Thinking back on his early tutelage under Fan Zi Deng, Ma is overcome with gratitude: “What I learned from Master Fan were a lot of things that conform to social norms, but my teacher was himself an open-minded person who encouraged new ideas and attitudes. My school in the UK was like something out of Harry Potter, it was very different to China, yet they put a lot of importance on the passing down of tradition.” In 1997, after graduating from Bartlett College in London, Ma chose to return to China as his point of creative origin. He came to Shanghai and established M.House.
Ma says that only when a person is full of experiences will their soul be fulfilled. In his view, traditional Chinese art is an elegant art-form, and cultivates one’s character. “When I get tired of other things, I will paint, and when I get tired of painting, I will play an instrument.” He discusses his recent forays into music, and happily relays how much fun he had at his latest concert. “Music and art are inseparable, and I’m trying hard to merge the two together… which explains why the held a concert.” In fact, there are not many subjects that Ma dare not touch; painting, architecture, furniture design, music, collecting… it makes it difficult to pigeon-hole Ma’s profession as he has handled each with a natural ease. There are essentially no idle moments in Ma’s life – everyday is a work day – to the point that some people have labelled him “Shanghai’s No.1 mad man”. Rather than being offended, Ma was happy to hear about his nickname. Afterall, his brand is called MAD (taking the first letters of his big passions: Music, Art, Design). “England is very gentlemanly, but in Shanghai you have to be ‘mad’,” he muses, “because if you’re not mad it’s hard to survive here… you see all the people who come here from Hong Kong and then cry and whine all the way back? That’s because it’s not easy to survive in this city.”
This year, Simon Ma turns 41. Aside from creating art, his CV has a long list of accolades and honorary positions. He is a Professor at Dong Hua University in Shanghai, an appointed member of CPPCC of Hangzhou, Hong Kong Jockey Club Cultural Ambassador, and more. As if that wasn’t enough to do, Ma also dedicates himself to charity work. “I wish now to be able to truly help other people. How much money you earn is just a number… you cannot buy passion.” As such, Ma has spent time in rural China teaching children how to draw, sharing what he knows to contribute to charity. In Ma’s view, everything he does is interlinked: “Art is something you don’t have to think about, only when you follow your heart can you draw.”