Handmade goods survive in Hong Kong ... for now

Handmade goods survive in Hong Kong ... for now

Craftsmen meticulously produce shoes and umbrellas by hand in Hong Kong's streets, but for how long?
Tam Kwok-kwong Leader Shoes
Sheung Wan shoemaker Tam Kwok-kong has been doing repairs and custom making kung fu shoes since 1956.

Strolling along the streets on Hong Kong Island, pedestrians hardly notice that in the quiet corners are the tiny workplaces of two distinguished craftsmen, striving for a living in the fast-changing city. 

Crammed into a tiny 50-square-foot green booths on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan, a middle-aged woman is carefully stitching and hammering a leather shoe with her skilful hands.

Tam Kwok-kwong Leader ShoesMrs. Tam, the woman behind the green booth.“We have customers coming here from all over the world, even tourists and celebrities like Dr. Patrick Ho, the retired Home Affairs Secretary,” says Mrs. Tam, 52, wife of the famous Sheung Wan shoemaker Tam Kwok-kong who has been doing repairs and custom making kung fu shoes since 1956. 

The slipper-like kung fu shoes neatly displayed in the combined workplace and showroom are of a traditional Chinese design, updated with non-slip rubber soles which are light and comfortable to wear.

Hooked on kung fu shoes

“Not only do kung fu practitioners love to wear them, but also many office cleaning ladies. Once they are used to the custom-made shoes, many people are hooked,” says Tam enthusiastically. “We’ve had people coming to our shop for 20 years. When people come back to visit Hong Kong, they come here to get a new pair.”

It was only about four years ago that Tam began to run the small business for her husband, who had suffered a stroke which made it difficult for him to move. On her tiny bench, she carefully traces the outline of her customers’ foot on the paper, measuring the circumference of the sketch shape, cutting the leather into the right portions with a pair of giant old scissors, gluing and stitching up the bits and pieces by hands. Soon, a new pair of kung fu shoes, good for a thousand kicks, is ready for her customer.

“It takes me about seven hours to make a pair of shoes,” she said. With prices ranging from HK$100 to HK$400, the business is not as lucrative as in the old days before mass production of cheap footwear came to dominate the market and brought a change in people’s consumption habits. “Nowadays, people won’t waste money on repairing old things. They will get shoes repaired only if they are expensive ones that cost more than a thousand,” she says.

Umbrella craftsmanship

Only a few streets away from the shoemaker, on Peel Street, Central, is the tiny umbrella workshop of Ho Hung-hei. Every morning Ho, 81, travels to the workshop from his home in Kowloon.

Ho Hung-HeeHo Hung-Hei, 80, is fixing an umbrella with his skilful hands.“Repairing umbrellas is my greatest interest in life,” says Ho, who has been operating the shop since 1974, earning a living to bring up his nine sons and daughters.

The craftsman has designed, stitched and fixed more umbrellas than he could ever count. “This old shop is where my precious memories are stored,” Ho says as he recalls the most unforgettable experience in his life -- breaking the Guinness World Record in 1994 by making the world’s most expensive umbrella and selling it to an Englishman for £167 (HK2,088).

“The Englishman could find no one to work out his design and he finally sent me a box of ox skin from England for making the umbrella,” he says proudly.

Ho Hung-HeeHo Hung-Hei's future is not assured, in the face of redevelopment plans.Despite his old age, Ho is determined to continue his unique craftsmanship. “If I don’t go on, people will just throw away their broken umbrellas without a second thought,” he said. “When an old umbrella is fixed, it’s still very durable.”

However, charging HK$10 for repairing and an extra $20 for replacing the broken ribs of an umbrella, Ho is not making a fortune on his business. One can easily buy a brand new umbrella for only HK$10 today.

The future of Ho’s umbrella-repairing workshop has become more uncertain with the imminent redevelopment plan of Peel Street and Graham Street announced by the Urban Renewal Authority two years ago. Under the plan, 37 blocks of old buildings in the area will be affected and replaced by four massive towers, including two high-rise residential blocks, a hotel and an office tower.

“I wish my life were like an umbrella, which shades people from violent storms in their journey of life,” Ho says. His business prospects are poor and his future uncertain.

Challenge to survive

Ho Hung-HeeHo Hung-Hei still holds the record for making the world’s most expensive umbrella.In the face of a dwindling market, the ongoing urban renewal project as well as rising production costs, the survival of these traditional workshops is in question.

“Running a business is not that easy today. The rent has gone up so high, even though we’re just occupying a corner of the staircase,” says Tam. She says the price of leather, the major ingredient for making shoes, has increased by HK$100 a yard since last year, while a license fee of HK$10,000 is charged by the government annually. “It’s too heavy a burden for us,” she says.

When asked about the future of her business, she says, “I really can’t tell. We only have a daughter studying in primary school. She seldom helps with the work here, but we won’t force her. We don’t want to close our shop.”

Tam describes the workshop as a place loaded with the family’s most cherished memories. “My husband started it from scratch more than 50 years ago. We have never moved, and we’ve seen all the changes and developments on Hollywood Road. That’s why we must go on,” she says.

Tam Kwok-kwong Leader Shoes, 190 Hollywood Road (on staircase along Pound Street), Central, Hong Kong; tel. +852 2547 1368. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.

Ho Hei Kee, 74 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong; tel. +852 2778 4306. Open Monday - Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Sundays.

About the author: Jennifer Lo is a student journalist with a voracious appetite to learn about Hong Kong, the place she was born and raised, especially more about the shrinking art and culture. That’s why she loves to be a pedestrian who wanders around in cities, talks to interesting folks and records people's stories via words, photos and videos. She has written for South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Magazine, Ming Pao and Square Foot Magazine.

Visit her blog at thesnackers.wordpress.com.

Jennifer submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.