Far from luxurious boutique hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, soaring apartment buildings and world-class shopping malls, and far from the nightly sound and light show on Victoria Harbor, lies another Hong Kong.
In the labyrinthine alleys, tucked away in basement workshops and modestly appointed walk-in workshops, the town’s traditional craftsmanship and craft skills quietly survive and thrive. These artisans and their particularly specialized work – officially called “intangible cultural heritage” by the local government – are an integral part of Hong Kong’s DNA.
The mahjong sculptor craftsman
At Biu Kee Mahjong on Jordan Road, owner Cheung Shun-king plies his trade as one of three mahjong tile-carving craftsmen remaining in Hong Kong. The work is meticulous and specialized, requiring focus, dedication and skills passed down from previous generations.
Yes, Cheung knows that people can buy a machine-made set of mahjong for HK $ 700 (£ 65) at the nearby, tourist-friendly Temple Street Night Market. But each of the 144 tiles in his sets, which start from HK $ 5,000 (£ 460), are hand-finished, in an intense ten-minute burst of creativity, with a pattern that is both pleasant to use. the eye and sensual to the touch. .
“Machines can create a regular set of mahjong, but it is difficult and expensive to create other patterns, special logos, characters or words,” says Cheung using a thin metal spatula to engrave a dragon pattern. on a green and ivory background. tint tile. “I can create different types of custom requests. People come to me asking for tiles depicting the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, Chinese or English lucky phrases, and more. You can see many examples of my work on my Facebook page – my kids run it for me. ‘
While most of Cheung’s carving knives and spatulas can be purchased at any hardware store, he also makes some of his own tools for carving bamboo dots and costumes on tiles. It takes time to learn and perfect the craft of mahjong-making, he admits, and it’s still difficult to pass it on to the next generation.
“However, mahjong making has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. I have received invitations to organize workshops for schools, universities, businesses and non-profit organizations, ”he says. “It’s good to see people eager to learn more about the business and to give it a try.”
The effigy of the paper
At Bo Wah Effigies, on Fuk Wing Street in Sham Shui Po, Au-yeung Ping-chi has a new order. A client wants him to make a paper effigy to honor his late father, who was often strapped to his cell phone. In the corners of the small workshop and hanging overhead are finished and painted controls in brighter colors – papier-mâché renderings of a full-size scooter, an upholstered massage chair, and a toy plush toy for kids – alongside work in progress bamboo skeletons.
Paper effigies, known locally as Zhizha, are an integral part of Taoist funeral ceremonies, common in Hong Kong. Family members often burn paper sculptures that recognize real-life objects, to accompany the deceased to the afterlife. “It is the living who show their love and remembrance for those who have passed away,” says Au-yeung. “The living hope that the deceased will be able to enjoy what he loved even after his departure.”
Work since burned to ashes includes snorkel gear (fins, mask) and a scaled-down but playable pool table “complete with pocket holes and all”. Au-yeung likes to describe his work as helping people “make the unfinished dreams of the dead come true”.
For generations Zhizha’s effigies have taken the form of houses and cars. Then Au-yeung took over the family business and things started to change. “After my first designs – an arcade game skateboard and dance mat, which I displayed in our storefront – caught the media attention, people started making all of us. kinds of requests. I have creatively elevated this traditional craft and made it more relevant to modern life. The machine no longer stagnates but evolves over time. ‘
Bo Wah Effigies’ work has also been the subject of several exhibitions and is recognized as a true art form; recently Au-yeung, who studied at Hong Kong’s premier art and design institute, made a series of lanterns for a festival in the city’s Victoria Park and showed a spectacular mantis effigy to The Breeder, a contemporary art gallery in Athens.
In 2022, he will stage his own exhibition in Hong Kong, showcasing his latest works – a Nintendo games console, a drinks machine, a bicycle, and more. “People were afraid of traditional effigies. Now, these are works of paper art to be admired and enjoyed.
The craftsman of the embroidered slipper
Founded in 1958, Sindart manufactures and sells traditional Chinese hand embroidered slippers. Delicately detailed, they provide a softer counterpoint to mass-produced sneakers and logo moccasins on sale at designer malls across Hong Kong.
The small Sindart workshop and boutique – the oldest store of its kind in the city – is owned by Miru Wong, granddaughter of the company’s founder. Under his leadership, Sindart branched out into casual embroidered slippers for the home, wedding shoes, and slippers for newborns.
Using her skills as an illustrator, Wong transferred designs to fabrics, creating new models of modern shoes. She embroiders thread, pearls, sequins and ribbons, working not only silk but also satin, brocade, denim, linen and velvet. American interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel is a client.
“Probably the only embroidered shoe maker left in Hong Kong, I always stress the importance of craftsmanship,” Wong says. “I think handcrafted embroidered shoes are a harmonious combination and demonstration of traditional embroidery skills and shoe-making techniques. This craftsmanship must be preserved, especially as the quality and cultural value are incomparable. ‘
In order to advance the spirit of Hong Kong craftsmanship, Wong has organized workshops and exhibitions where people can experience the joy of embroidery and shoe making, and at the same time understand the history and the development of embroidered shoes. “Some of the participants are even interested and engaged enough to join my apprenticeship training program, which brings new life to the industry. “
The shoe-making process, Wong admits, is complicated. Cutting, gluing, sewing and molding. Stretching, sewing and embroidery. “I learned the skills from my grandparents and will continue to create this uniquely ‘Hong Kong’ wearable art for the rest of my life. “
The designer Qipao
“People who come to my shop know my passion and skills for making good qipao,” says Kan Hon-wing of Mei Wah Fashion. “They understand and appreciate my know-how, accumulated over the past 50 years.
Kan began her career as a teenager and has since perfected the construction of traditional, body-hugging, high-necked silk qipao dresses of Manchu origin. “My passion for aesthetics kept me going,” he says. “You know, when you see a perfect qipao, it hugs the shape, flows naturally, and exudes elegance. There is no miracle recipe for creating a good one, it is about being attentive and accentuating the unique silhouette of each client. ‘
Kan admits that it is increasingly difficult to pass on his particular craft. “It’s more time consuming than profitable,” he says, explaining that over 80% of a qipao is sewn by hand and only a few finishes are done using a machine. “The work requires a lot of passion and patience. There are probably less than ten qipao tailors in the city now; many have retired and others have died.
Yet, as fashions change and Hong Kong continues its trajectory as a global city, he is determined to continue this unique Chinese style of design and tailoring. “There will always be someone who wants to wear a qipao – it will never go out of style, because it transcends trends and generations. Women simply look better in a qipao – the fitted figure enhances their grace and beauty. ‘
There is no hidden secret behind the enduring success of Mei Wah Fashion, no specialized machinery or mysterious technique. “Our tools are nothing fancy,” Kan says with a smile. “Just needles, thread and a tape measure. And a lot of experience. §