Chan Yuen, 76, started out producing 40 women's coats a day and went on to run four tailoring outlets before going bankrupt. These days he spends his time performing Chinese music for the elderly. He tells Virginia Maher how being poor as a child and the
I was born in Hong Kong, the third of five children. My father owned a barber shop in Yau Ma Tei, but he died when I was seven and my mother lost the shop, because no one wanted to work for a female boss. I went to the Tung Wah Hospital school in Yau Ma Tei. It provided free schooling and I was very lucky because we were very poor and it wasn't easy to get in. I did well and was allowed to jump classes. Unfortunately, I never finished. My schooling was cut short by the Japanese invasion. My mother took us to China once war broke out. We spent from late 1941 to 1943 in a village in Guangdong, but life was too difficult and we came back. When we got back, we found lots of people ate peanut husks to keep alive. We ate the skins of green beans. What rice we could get was used to maximum advantage. A good meal consisted of potato skins and chopped leaves all cooked together. Just a little rice thrown into the pot expanded to make a substantial meal. Whenever we could, the leftovers were shared with our neighbours, who did the same when they had food.
I remember seeing people picking through rubbish looking for food. Conditions were desperate, and I don't really know whether I should say this, but people ate human flesh. No one ever admitted doing it, but everyone knew someone who had done it.
After the Japanese left, the British troops came back and little by little they were able to save the situation. I started working at the age of 16 in a friend's store, selling tin goods. Later my younger brother started selling cloth in Li Yuen Street East in Central and I helped him. Like many people in those days, I went from one thing to another, making a few dollars here and a few dollars there until I got into the tailoring business in 1954. I didn't have an instructor. I learnt by watching and trying. I stayed in tailoring for more than 30 years.
I started on the streets, getting orders for the boss. I was able to get orders for women's overcoats. Each finished item was worth $100. I got $2 commission for each coat. In my own time, I hung around and watched the master tailors, and that's how I learnt to cut and sew. Friends who were in business liked the fact that I worked hard and were willing to give me a chance. So they said I could try my hand at making coats. I was paid $7 a coat, and it was up to me how many I made. Of that $7, I paid $4 to others to help make up the garments, so I actually made $3. The finished coats were sent to Taiwan.
Business always picked up in September and we were able to produce more than 40 coats a day. All in all, after overheads, I was able to make more than $1,000 a month. It was big money then. People worked in offices for a couple of hundred a month.
'I was married when I was 32. A relative introduced us. After I was married, I opened my own tailoring shop and business was quite good, so I opened one shop after another, until I had four in Mongkok. We sold our own finished products.
When I was young, I believed in my own ability and all I could think about was climbing higher. When you have know genuine hardship, all you think about is getting more and that's what I did. However well I did it never seemed to be enough and I pushed harder and harder.
In the 1960s, my business was at its peak, and I went to Japan to order material. I placed orders worth half a million dollars. When I got back, the 1967 riots were in full swing and Mongkok was among the worst hit areas. My biggest shop was in Nathan Road, in the area that was affected by bombs. People were afraid to walk the streets in the area, let alone go out to tailoring shops. I employed more than 80 people at the time and when I was unable to repay the bank loans I got to pay for the orders in Japan, I went bankrupt. I lost everything, and it took me more than 10 years to pay my debts.
With the help of some good customers, I was able to go to Taiwan and order cheap goods, which I sold from a cart in the street market in Apliu Street in Mongkok. This was from dawn to 8am, just two to three hours of business a day, because at 8am, the streets had to be cleared for traffic.
My wife and I had six children in the first seven years of our marriage. The girls all finished secondary school, but not the boys. Despite the difficulties, I enjoyed the tailoring business. I was always a women's tailor. When business was at its height, my profit margin was 30 per cent. Skirts were the best earners. I made everything. So long as the customer could produce a picture of what she wanted, I was able to reproduce it, even items I'd never made before. The one thing I didn't know how to make was cheongsams. Those were just too difficult.
Since my retirement 10 years ago, I while away time playing Chinese chess and entertaining others and myself with the erhu. My friends and I do volunteer work, putting on performances at homes for the aged. Some of us play instruments, others sing. We have formed a self-help organisation called Sing Fan and we go wherever we are asked. We tailor our performances for different homes, depending on the amount of time we are given. We go to homes throughout Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. We are always well received and in turn we enjoy watching the old folk enjoy our performances.
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