Around 15 minutes southeast of Causeway Bay – one of Hong Kong’s most saturated retail & tourism hotspots – city explorers will find the serene little neighbourhood of Tai Hang. A fishing village and slum for much of the 20th century, the area underwent a period of intense urban renewal during the 1990s. Now home to an eclectic assortment of wine stores, cafes and historic sights, like Lin Fa Temple, it’s a much more compelling microcosm of modern Hong Kong than any conflagration of nearby office towers and shopping malls: a place where tradition and modernity coexist with thrilling results. Fittingly, it’s also the rendezvous for our latest discussion with Arby Li – the 27-year-old Vice President of Strategy at HYPEBEAST.
Having spent his childhood years growing up and studying in Britain, Li returned to Hong Kong in his early twenties to join the then-rising sneaker blog as an intern. As of 2020, he oversees a team of some 45 editors producing English-language content from three global offices, covering interests that range from sneakers to fashion and, increasingly, watches. Inside the intricately restored, heritage-listed rooms of The Shophouse, we sat down for an extended chitchat – complete with two of Li’s own personal timepieces.
Li's Aquanaut Travel Time that goes everywhere with him.
Let’s start with a small detail – a personal anecdote, if you will. You were born in and have worked most of your professional life in Hong Kong, but actually grew up in the West Country. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s spot on. In Cheltenham.
What do you recall about those early years?
So when I explain to people that I grew up in a place like Cheltenham I don’t think the name registers very much – it’s a small town on the edge of the Cotswolds, mainly known for its schools and mineral springs. A large number of people in Hong Kong are themselves transplants from other international cities, so they probably have only vague notions about where I’m from. And Cheltenham is that place [laughs]. Back in the day, the whole town had one high street and one cinema – I haven’t been back in about 8 years.
Without wanting to get too ahead of ourselves: was the pace of life there simply too tranquil? Did that directly influence your desire to return to Hong Kong?
So before all this, I actually lived in London for a bit when I was studying my LL.B. [at the University of Westminster]. That was a pretty formative experience in terms of culture and professional opportunity. In retrospect, it’s kinda funny how adamant I was about moving to the “big city”, because the reality is that I had a tonne of really fond memories living in the countryside. Something to consider for retirement I guess.
Li looking out over Tai Hang.
Let’s jump forward in time a little bit then – to the early days of HYPEBEAST. My understanding is that you originally got your foot in the door doing social media strategy?
I joined as an intern, straight out of university. The social media role came later – after a few months spent working on the editorial side. That was around 2016.
Nowadays we think of analytics as a fairly obvious part of any digital writer’s toolkit but even four years ago the landscape looked vastly different. Back then, did you already have a sense of how important audience data was going to be in tailoring editorial content?
To be honest, not really. Kevin [Ma], our CEO and founder, had this hunch that audience data and a coherent social media strategy would play an important role in the grand scheme of things. I myself wasn’t actually too keen. But I’d only recently joined the company, so was up to try anything – as long as I was learning.
After that, it was all about figuring things out. Nowadays, most half-decent publishers have a really structured approach to building their audiences and driving engagement, but back then there wasn’t anything which so much as resembled a rulebook. If growth was the goal, that’s something you just had to puzzle out manually – attempting to do something 1,000 different ways in order to discover what worked best. Now, everything’s much more homogenous. People actually do online courses for everything: from brand management to content monetisation...
Li with his two watch collection.
One imagines there’s some sort of certificate, given at the end of a tutorial [laughs].
Yeah. I think that’s because everybody now thinks they’re a social media expert – the playing field has levelled in a way. But back when we started, it wasn’t as widely understood.
Speaking indelicately, do you think that this need to boil down all editorial content to a set of performance indicators – page clicks, followers, Google rankings – has hampered the quality of reporting that’s being put out by digital titles?
I think everything has its own particular purpose. If we look at the circumstances objectively, there are times when a very short form piece of content can have as much impact as a 2,000 word feature. It really depends...
Certain people might even argue that (in the case of digital) it’s almost always better to keep things short and sharp.
As I say, it’s more a case of identifying what the best format is for something. But everything we do at HYPEBEAST, editorially speaking, is grounded in the notion of “purpose”: whether a particular piece of content is interesting to us; and therefore, interesting to our readers as well. It isn’t ever exclusively about clicks or page views.
Li pausing while walking us around The Showroom.
In other words: when a story is pitched, you’ll factor in all those quantitative considerations, but the idea itself has to serve a bigger purpose?
I just think that everything we’re producing needs to serve our readers. If a small piece of information – something which can be conveyed in a single sentence – is beneficial to people, we’ll publish it but we’re not going to draw that out or do it in a way that’s counterintuitive.
Let’s talk watches for a minute, albeit from an editorial perspective. At HYPEBEAST, your bread & butter still tends to be sneaker-focused. Are watches – particularly fine Swiss mechanicals – a category that’s visibly growing?
I definitely think so: I like to think that as we’ve grown so have our readers. The whole time I’ve been at HYPEBEAST, the publication has been evolving. We’ve morphed from a sneaker blog & fashion magazine into a platform which embraces art, automotives and design. So watches are definitely a part of that – not least of all because the product is so interesting. When a lot of our writers join the team, initially they’re into sneakers or couture et cetera, but then as they settle into their roles there’s a natural tendency to be curious and start moving through other categories.
"Nowadays, most half-decent publishers have a really structured approach to building their audiences and driving engagement, but back then there wasn’t anything which so much as resembled a rulebook..."
Do you think that general broadening of interest can be explained by the longstanding clout certain watch brands have in pop culture? Particularly in music – another of HYPEBEAST’s big content areas – it seems that rappers have played a pivotal role in elevating luxury watchmaking’s desirability.
I have to admit that anything prevalent in the pop culture landscape nowadays (whether that be watches or some equivalent luxury good) stands a chance of getting wider traction – but that’s only part of the whole story. I’ve seen this with a lot of the other categories we cover but there comes a point when your curiosity can only be satisfied by broadening awareness in other topics. The same curiosity which informs an interest in clothing, shoes and cool art objects naturally extends to watchmaking – it’s all about heritage, or the story of how something becomes “iconic”.
A focal point of Li's watch passion.
Just continuing in that vein: which watch brands tend to drive the most excitement (among both editors and the general public) at the company? Beyond the obvious. A certain Coronet-sporting brand comes to mind...
Well, of course there’s Rolex. I mean, even if you’re the sort of person who’s not into watches, you recognise the weight that name carries.
Less of a “watch brand”, more of a cultural lodestone [laughs].
Right! So, that’s the big one obviously. But surprisingly, even independents like Moser or Journe have really begun to capture our audience’s attention. I think our own community has helped a lot with this: we have such an active comments section where so many people are constantly engaging with one another. Also, internally, many of our colleagues are deeply interested in a range of watchmakers – beyond the most aspirational players like Patek or AP.
Do you encourage that plurality of taste as a standard part of editorial policy?
Oh yeah, very much so. I like to think that if we can’t inform ourselves internally about something, then we’re never going to be capable of identifying what’s new and interesting for our audience. So it’s a constant pursuit of information. I myself was actually introduced to watchmaking through a colleague: somebody who taught me why certain pieces are important; why others are so sought after; why certain brands fetch such high premiums in the secondary market, and so on.
Li matching his rose gold Aquanaut perfectly with the distressed overshirt.
On that subject, we’re only three quarters of the way through 2020 but have there been any releases so far that have proven pleasantly surprising?
Recently, the frosted gold flying tourbillon from AP’s Concept line. I’ve always liked the Royal Oak Concepts but they tend to be massive, and with my smaller-than-average wrists none of them have worked on me. Of all the Concept releases so far...
It’s the one that wears truest to its proportions.
Yeah, as of now that’s the only Concept piece that would fit my wrist. The 38.5mm case wears quite high (due to the way the mid-case converges with the bezel) but the complexity of what’s within justifies it. Having said that, my own preference is for functional watches, so I tend to favour practical complications like the GMT – that’s my favourite.
We’ll get onto travel watches in a moment. But first, let’s explore what you’re doing at HYPEBEAST in a bit more detail. Knowing the company’s scale (your teams are producing up to 100 posts per day, in three separate regions) what sorts of strategies do you employ to keep everybody on track and make sure that projects are syncing up properly?
It’s taken years for us to get to the place where we currently are but the crux of it is learning not to over-communicate all of the time. We accept that our colleagues will occasionally make mistakes but we trust that everybody is able to learn from those and be independent enough to understand the whole organisation’s workflow.
Another cornerstone strategy is how we try to have everyone learn everything, from the ground up. There’s no task that’s “too small” for anybody: you could join the company as senior management, but we expect you to learn how to run point on events and be across certain fundamental activities (e.g. social media and content production) that affect everybody.
A couple of typewriters from The Shophouse, a gallery space where they look to combine tradition and modernity.
As somebody who’s at a crossroads between all these various kinds of luxury goods – fashion, design, streetwear – do you think the watch industry at large is doing enough to engage younger consumers?
Unfortunately, the short answer is: probably not. Much of the time, even somebody like me – who is immersed in the product constantly – finds it intimidating to go into a watch retailer and learn. To be sure, that also depends on the kind of store you’re going into (say, an AD versus a digital platform like this one). But the whole process of introducing yourself, offering your business card, explaining what you do for work – that’s all very intimidating for a younger person who’s just starting out.
Have you had that experience widely in a number of different international markets? We see that sort of ritualistic “relationship building” a lot in Asia...
I think it’s very visible with Asian retailer networks, but I have also seen it in some of the other markets as well. The commonality is the feeling of a “job interview” when you’re trying to buy something. In the most extreme cases, it feels a little like begging someone to take your money [laughs].
That’s a frustration that I’ve definitely heard shared by many budding collectors. Especially when you’re interested in whatever the chic sports watch of the moment is, you often have to pitch your worthiness (as a customer) to retailers.
Exactly! More often than not, you never even know if they can be bothered to call you back – and that’s when you’re interested in buying. Imagine the sort of indifference certain boutiques show when all you want to do is learn about a particular piece or explore the brand’s heritage.
So, yes: there’s definitely room to improve the way in which the watch industry connects and engages with a younger audience. At the end of the day, the vast majority of people don’t commit to purchasing a watch just by reading about it on the internet. The instinct is to look at it in person, feel it in the metal and learn more about it in the most direct way possible.
You can be left feeling like you're on the outside looking in with a lot of the luxury world, according to Li.
Give us an example of one very obvious blind spot then, that the industry needs to address if it wants to remain buoyant over the coming decades.
This is just my own thinking, but the root of it comes back to encouraging a younger audience to be invested. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume most watch brands want repeat customers: they desire a relationship with collectors that stretches into middle age and beyond. But how can those connections be forged under the current system? One of the biggest challenges to getting a new generation of watch collectors invested right now is the way stock is allocated – for a lot of brands, there needs to be a better system in place that’s more equitable and realistic in terms of timeframe.
Okay, now that the hard bit’s done: how did you, personally, get into watch collecting?
As I alluded to earlier, working at HYPEBEAST, you definitely get the opportunity to explore different categories – and in my time with the company I’ve tried to learn as much as possible. I started on sneakers and clothing (the sheer amount of content in just those two areas is staggering) and gradually, as work went along, I began getting all the newsletters and press kits about watchmakers and my curiosity grew from there. To be honest, when you’re submerged in any content 24 hours a day, you’re naturally going to want to learn more about it.
Exposure therapy [laughs]?
Yeah – definitely exposure therapy. And as I said, a lot of people in editorial were really interested in watches: the working environment was conducive to sharing information. So naturally, just by absorbing the discussions around me I slowly became more attuned to what was happening in the industry.
The movement of Li's Elegante.
Now that you’ve been collecting for a few years, is the social aspect still as important to you? Or do you acquire pieces purely out of personal preference?
For me, the motivations have certainly changed. Knowing the pieces I’ve brought along today, this might sound a little ridiculous but nowadays I often buy purely on [pauses] functionality? Like, I want to see whether a Patek or Rolex sports watch can actually function as advertised. The thing with this watch [holds up Aquanaut Travel Time] is the GMT function – it’s probably the best I’ve ever come across. I’ve got a Rolex GMT-Master II as well, but the way you set the timezone with this is just so much easier than anything else.
With the 5164, we’re guessing it has something to do with the pushers right?
Yeah, they’re a big part of what makes interfacing with the watch so convenient. When you’re in a different time zone, the dial is just so much easier to read too. I know a lot of people would find it ill-advised but I’ve done a variety of outdoor activities with this on – Patek advertises it as a sports watch after all.
Right – pretty much the opposite of the “office diver” set. You have a lot less trepidation about putting your watches through the ringer?
Yeah. As I say, I want to push the pieces I own to the edge of whatever their stated purpose says they’re capable of doing – and see if they actually live up to the hype. That’s more interesting to me than simply owning a desirable “brand”.
And how about so far? Does the whole concept of the Aquanaut live up to your expectations?
I’d say so. The build quality makes this the most comfortable watch I’ve ever owned. And for keeping track of different time zones – this has been unrivalled so far.
Li's go-anywhere Aquanaut.
Pulling back to the macro aspect again for a moment: do you think a lot of your audience at HYPEBEAST end up gravitating towards independent watchmaking because it’s off the beaten track?
Well, an obvious advantage is that it’s easier to learn about and connect with the independents. For me, whenever I’ve gone into an independent brand boutique, just by virtue of being present, the staff there are actually excited to show pieces and educate you a little. Whereas when you go into a big multi-brand retailer, there’s this underlying suspicion of “oh, you’re just here angling for a Nautilus/Jumbo” and so on.
We’ve already briefly touched on your Aquanaut, but you actually brought two watches for us to look at today. Both are, to my mind, very different expressions of ultrafine watchmaking – mind telling us more about them?
For sure – let’s stay on the Patek for the time being. A few years ago I was looking for a “Root Beer” GMT and in the course of that search I learned of this 5164, and how the time zone complication worked. A huge benefit of handling the watch in person was that I realised how much easier it was to adjust than a Rolex GMT; and all of the assembled elements provided a colour scheme which was similar enough in feel to the Root Beer.
The “experience” of acquiring anything Patek-related is also very intriguing. There’s a whole mythology around the process of going into a retailer and (as I said earlier) “applying” for the privilege to buy one of the brand’s creations. I remember on day one going to dozens of different stores in Hong Kong inquiring about this piece – and getting stonewalled or just outright rejected at each and every one. Apparently, the trick is to settle on a single store; build a dialogue with the staff there over an extended period; give them your personal details; and just hope for the best.
It is fascinating how in the case of Patek Philippe – and a handful of other notable manufacturers – you’re not just buying the product, you’re buying into a whole culture as well...
The main fascination in my case was how the entire process is so utterly unlike the experience of buying almost everything else (perhaps, I’m assuming, with the exception of certain performance cars). But yeah, just the idea that this kind of lengthy acquisition still actually happens seemed very interesting.
Li helped to create the social media team at HYPEBEAST.
I see. And [points at the élégante on a nearby table] the Journe?
Ah, yes. So this is actually a piece that I got recently, a year or two ago when I was in Paris with my buddy Fed [Tan]. We kind of just wandered into the Journe boutique (on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré) and explained we were interested in a variety of different collections. Obviously, lines like the Resonance are becoming increasingly popular nowadays, but I happened to be reading about the history of the élégante beforehand and really thought that the technology was special.
Like the Aquanaut, the piece also fits my wrist exceedingly well. This is actually the ladies’ version, at a case size of 40mm (the men’s version is 48mm). The overarching design is very similar for both, but I actually wish I had thicker wrists so that I could wear the latter (with the exposed screws).
That electro-mechanical movement is quite something.
That’s definitely one of the coolest things about this piece. When you pick it up after an extended hiatus, the hour, minute and seconds hands adjust to the correct time – and it’s completely accurate. I’m extremely OCD about daily accuracy but apparently this movement is so precise that there’s no deviation in the seconds for something like 18 years of normal usage.
The use of an open caseback to showcase this sort of quartz-adjacent technology is also unusual...
Right – it looks incredibly cool, and that’s not something you can say of most mass-produced quartz movements. But obviously, Journe was committed to the idea of making this as beautiful (in a different kind of way) as his mechanical movements, which is why the bridges and plates are fashioned from red gold.
Li talks up through his Elegante.
As previously mentioned, let’s wrap things up with a quick word on the GMT. What attracts you so much to that particular complication?
This year notwithstanding, it’s just the feature I’ve gotten the most use out of. I remember there was one year when I did around 15 flights within a single fortnight. So it was really important to have a way of managing the switch-up between time zones and my incredibly hectic travel schedule.
"There’s a whole mythology around the process of going into a retailer and (as I said earlier) “applying” for the privilege to buy one of the brand’s creations..."
If you don’t mind my asking: what necessitated such a high volume of travel?
At the time, it was a combination of back-to-back meetings and industry speaking events. My itinerary was something like: Riyadh, Vancouver, LA, Tokyo, but every time I’d have to transit back through Hong Kong. As it turns out, the reason for that was because each leg of the trip had been booked separately…
Like the rest of us, Li has been grounded for the time being after back-to-back flights putting his Aquanaut Travel Time through its paces.
Oh no! Not a fantastic look for the travel agent in question...
Yeah, pretty much [laughs]. But having an easy-to-use GMT [points at the Aquanaut Travel Time] certainly helped. As always, functionality for me is probably the chief concern. I remember years ago my first watch was a Speedmaster, but I ended up parting with it simply because I rarely ever used the chronograph – I overwhelmingly prefer to wear something that makes sense for my day-to-day routine.
Do you see a potential future – perhaps when you’re happily retired in Cheltenham? – wherein you’ll be satisfied with just these two pieces?
Oh, for sure. It seems odd to say this (given what I do for work) but my end goal is definitely not to have loads of watches and other possessions. I’m more interested in the singularly excellent expression of a thing. Like, I’d say that the 5164 is pretty much the “one watch” I’ll own forever. It has everything: a date function; dual time zones; a technically and aesthetically impressive movement. Then there’s the toughness aspect: I’ve played 18 rounds of golf with it, jumped into the ocean with it...
A daily companion, ready for anything your way of life can throw at it?
That’s pretty much it.
Our thanks to Arby Li for taking the time to talk to us and give an insight into the world of HYPEBEAST. We would also like to thank Amanda Kho for capturing Li during our interview with her sharp photography.