Well suited for success no matter what the era
As a tailor for more than 30 years in Hong Kong, Fong Leung-fai needed to speak English, since most of the customers who came to his shop for suits were westerners. But in recent years, he has had to learn Putonghua to serve big-spending mainlanders.
'Not that many mainland clients come to my shop for tailor-made suits. But those who come are usually big spenders who are willing to pay for high-quality fabrics,' says Fong, standing in his shop, Chiu Ah Tailor, in Queen's Road East.
Fong, a 60-year-old father of two daughters, learned the trade from his father. The younger Fong set up his own shop in 1980. It was a time he describes as the trade's heyday. Chiu Ah is one of thousands of small tailor shops in the city, most run by the owner. Measurements are taken at the shop for shirts, suits and tuxedos. The cloth is often imported from Europe.
'In the 1980s, Hong Kong was still a British colony and the Westerners, as well as white collar workers in Central, required formal dress,' Fong recalls. 'This was the golden time for tailors. People wore suits to work, to job interviews or to visit clients, and when they attended wedding receptions or visited their relatives at Lunar New Year.''
At the peak of the profession, he says, there were more than 10,000 tailor shops around the city. Some set up shop in high-end hotels or in Central, targeting tourists who could get suits made within 24 hours. Others, like Fong's, were on street corners close to office buildings to target male white-collar workers.
'Our suits are about HK$3,500 a set, which is cheaper than many big brands,'' he says. 'We do not have any budget for advertising but we do not need one. As long as you open the door, the customers come in. If they like your suits, they will be loyal customers to you for decades.'
The few years leading up to the handover was the best time, he says, since the city's economy was robust, with Westerners and local Chinese ordering new suits or tuxedos. His shop was so busy that he had to outsource some work to freelance tailors. But orders fell away for a few years after 1997.
'That was not related to the handover but more a result of the Asia financial crisis,' Fong says. 'The Sars epidemic in 2003 marked the worst time of all as Western tourists stopped coming.'
Business rebounded after 2003, when China allowed mainland tourists to come to Hong Kong on their own. 'Overall, mainland customers prefer to buy ready-to-wear suits from the big brands,' he says. But the few mainlanders who come are big spenders. And because they do not come to Hong Kong often, they may order more than 10 suits at once.'
Fong says business has returned to the level of the pre-handover era. He has to work seven days a week from 10am to 10pm.
He does not think the change of governments over the past 15 years has had any impact on his shop.
'I do not think the British or the current SAR government have done anything to help small- and medium-sized enterprises like my shop,' he says. 'My customers come because they see a suit in my window display. They order from me because it is value for money. This has nothing to do with the government.''
Fong says if the new government would like to help him, he would like to see some subsidies or policies to control rents.
When he first set up his shop in 1980 it cost only HK$1,000 a month, but now rent is HK$50,000.
'Rental payments represent 25 per cent of the cost of my shop. If the government can do something to help with the rental payment, it would make our life better,' he says.
The price, in HK dollars, of a suit at Fong Leung-fai's Chiu Ah shop when it opened in 1980. Today one costs HK$3,500