Yuk Jie's back, bless her cotton socks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am


Stocking retailer Au Yuk-ho has returned to hawking her wares from a barrow after sky-rocketing rents forced her out of the tiny shop she was renting in Causeway Bay.

Known by her customers as Sister Yuk, or Yuk Jie, the uncomplaining 72-year-old is now selling her socks and stockings in front of the 250 square foot store in Lee Garden Road she had rented for 12 years.

She quit the store, she says, when the landlord more than doubled the rent from HK$70,000 a month to HK$150,000.

So now she is back to where it all began 66 years ago, hawking her wares from a barrow. But the remarkable Sister Yuk, who has raised a family of five children on her stocking trade, bears no grudges and dismisses the idea that a merciless landlord kicked her out of her store.

'I won't go hiding at home, sobbing and complaining about cruel reality,' she said while arranging her colourful stockings on her barrow. 'I have cast away my dignity, but I won't give up.'

Rents on ground floors in Causeway Bay have soared 50 per cent since the beginning of 2010, according to a Hong Kong Quarterly Index compiled by Colliers International, and the property consultancy forecasts a further 12 per cent rise this year despite the slowdown in economic growth and tourism.

That increase will be in line with the city's overall increase this year, and Colliers' retail services director, Helen Mak Hoi-lun, said small storekeepers such as Yuk Jie were being forced out. A few months ago, she noted, a cafe was forced out of business after operating for 13 years from a humble 200 sq ft store in Hysan Avenue in Causeway Bay - victim of a 50 per cent rise in rent.

'It is a shame to see smaller retailers vanish as the market consolidates,' Mak said. 'They are part of Hong Kong's heritage, but now we are facing the prospect of having more identical shops.'

Yuk Jie, meanwhile, hangs on to tradition and is supported by a regular clientele who return for more despite her blunt manner.

Notorious for keeping customers' fingers off her stockings and even stopping them from entering her tiny store, Yuk Jie said she needed to keep a sharp eye on shoppers because of her poor memory.

'I was nasty, some said, but they should know I was the owner and sales lady all in one. Anyway, despite this, they still return.'

A couple of blocks away in Matheson Street, Leighton Bakery, known for its egg tarts and fried egg with ham buns, is due to close at the end of this month after operating there for 40 years.

But in stark contrast to Yuk Jie's fate, the owner, Lam Shek-yam, is quitting after he rode the booming commercial property market and sold the 400 sq ft shop for HK$140 million, compared with the HK$13 million he paid in 1996.

'My wife, my daughters, my 10 staff and I need a good rest starting from next month,' said Lam, who brewed milk tea 362 days a year. 'The only thing I will miss is my customers, some of whom regularly buy up to a dozen egg tarts in an afternoon.'

Lam, who began baking when just 12, said neither of his two daughters, who are in their 30s, wanted to take on the torch, which was 'too hot to handle'.

He could understand this since the business was not as lucrative as it was three years ago as a result of the soaring costs of ingredients and utilities. In the last year the price of a 50kg bag of sugar had doubled to HK$250, and the price of flour and lard had also doubled.