Alan Yip has good reason to be proud of his design for wafer-thin calculators which can be rolled up to resemble a sushi roll.

He has sold one and half million of the neon-coloured machines worldwide, with his design featured at the prestigious Design Museum in London.

"Hong Kong design has a special cultural background of East meets West," said Yip explaining his design inspiration.

"At the bottom of our heart we are Chinese, but we live in a western city."

Shaken by a six-year economic downturn that has seen unemployment surge to record levels and consumer confidence shrivel, many academics and industrialists believe Hong Kong should leverage its East meets West sensibilities and evolve into a much more creative hub for Asia than it is now.

Japan and South Korea have been leading many pan-Asian design trends and fashions. Hong Kong's external image as a money-grubbing, no-nonsense culture has not helped its more experimental design community.

But its top designers say it is time for the city to thrive as a mini-Milan, where art and design fuse with industrial backing to create
a hub for product design and innovation.

"We are at a stage where Hong Kong society is more complex and what used to be Hong Kong's position as a manufacturing
centre is already gone. The service industry is left and we see our creative force as our remaining advantage," said Tony Sin
an academic who founded the Hong Kong Science Museum.

Sin believes Hong Kong has a five-year window of opportunity to develop design talent before China catches up with its international edge.

"Do we want Hong Kong to be the Milan of Asia? Yes, even though it's a little bit ambitious," said Sin.

Up the value chain

Matching Milan's sophistication could prove difficult. The bulk of Hong Kong designs are electronic gadgets such as plastic radios and futuristicdigital clocks.

Proponents of developing Hong Kong's creative side argue design needs to become a key part of the manufacturing process.

Hong Kong's hinterland around the Pearl River delta in south China is one of the World's fastest growing manufacturing bases.

"The Pearl River Delta represents a huge opportunity for design applications in raising the value of products and the brand profile of companies," said Professor David Heskett, author of a report on shaping the future of design in the territory.

Heskett, who is based at the Illinois Institute of Design in the United States, says Hong Kong needs to move up the value chain and away from low cost "cosmetic" design.

But while Hong Kong is home to over 1,500 design companies, creative industries as a whole, which include design, fashion,
advertising, publishing and software design, account for a slim 3.7 percent of the territory's employment and 2 percent of GDP,
according to Hong Kong Trade and Development Council
statistics.

Hong Kong attitudes and priorities also inhibit progress. In a bid to nourish creative ideas, the Hong Kong government and the Jockey Club, the territory's sole betting operator, contributed funds to open a Hong Kong Design Centre.

Opened last September in a colonial era building with fireplaces and a long winding staircase, the centre remains nearly empty except for overwhelmingly large ceiling lights, conference tables and a small exhibition case displaying radios, kettles and electronic products.

More art classes

Hong Kong's school curriculum is seen as one of the main blocks to raising design awareness, where emphasis on art and creativity falls to the bottom of the list on most school curriculums.  At university level, there is little linkage between design schools and active companies.

"Hong Kong is not like Germany where you have big industry supporting the design effort," said Sin.  "Those who are
successful at design effectively came up with the concepts in their home and then found their own way to manufacture and sell
their products."

But Hong Kong's young designers seem unfazed by their humbled status in a city which reveres fast money and stock market deals.

Displaying digital calendars alongside juicers and clocks at a large trade fair, designer Gary Fu says his designs will appeal to both eastern and western customers.

"We are trying hard to put Oriental elements into our design," said Fu. "In global markets it's still a trend."