Dominic Johnson-Hill is our star attraction in today’s "Beckoned to Beijing” series. The British creative clothing designer, entrepreneur, and TV host talks about making his dreams come true in the capital. He also dishes about the challenges and joys of raising a huge family (comprised of wife Laura Hutchison, Prudence (age 15), Winnie, Rosie (9) and Betsy(5) in such a dynamic city.
I came to Beijing in 1993 as a backpacker. There were loads of opportunities then, as there were so few foreigners looking for work, so I settled down. After about three years of doing odd jobs, I started my first business and I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since. I met my wife in Beijing, and we now have four daughters who are at Harrow. We live in Hepingli.
Having done terribly at school, I couldn’t even get a job at a petrol station back in the UK! So Beijing has been like an insane playground, where all my dreams came true. I have my own creative clothing brand, I work in the hutongs, I met the most beautiful woman on earth, and she agreed to marry me. Additionally, I present my own TV show, have won a business award, and I’ve had Jimmy Page and Boris Johnson in my store, just to name a few.
I have a beautiful cottage in the mountains, at the foot of the Great Wall, that’s insanely cheap. It sounds like I’m showing off, and I guess I am, but being in the right place at the right time is so important, and Beijing has given me all of this.
Our biggest challenges are with education and health care, something we would have for free in our home countries. We both work very hard to keep our large family afloat, and the cost of that is huge. We’ve had our kids at bilingual and local schools, and the French school. As we became more financially stable we moved them all to Harrow, which is truly a brilliant international school. But education is not cheap here. The international hospitals are very pricey, so unless it’s something serious we go to local hospitals.
For preschool, my kids went to Fen Si Ting just off Beiluoguxiang – a beautiful school made up of a few courtyard houses. Our eldest went to Sanlitun You Er Yuan. Both those preschools are government schools, and the standards are quite high. The homework starts to pile up at age five.
We chose those schools because we had a couple of bad experiences with private "bilingual" preschools. The government ones are well run, but can be tough to get into, so give yourself two years.
For an air purifier, we went for Health Pro IQAir. Having read about it online, we felt they were a good brand. I also designed for their face mask brand, Vogmask, and felt they were a very solid company.
I went to a great talk by a world class creative the other day. His first slide read: “Your brand = the sum of your life experiences." I found that really inspiring. Our kids have seen the most incredible things growing up here. They speak two languages, understand two very different cultures, have traveled to the most insane places, and eaten the most amazing food. As a result of this they have very creative minds, wonderful empathy, and are very worldly.
If I could bring one aspect of Beijing with me, if and when I leave, it would be our friends. But to be honest the list of things is endless. Our kids are all born here, so this is their home. The friends we have made here are truly like family.
Living so far from family in our home countries can be tough. We can only afford to go home once a year, as we are a big family, but the friends we’ve made here over the last 20 years make our life here beautiful. Without them, life wouldn’t be the same.
If I were to advise my fellow Brits, I’d say get a good ayi. She can help with all the settling issues, sourcing good food, and cooking. They can also be a great friend, and give you some freedom to go out on date nights.
Photos: Dominic Johnson-Hill