first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 12:00am

So Sung-man, 44, has been making and selling lampshades for more than 25 years. His clientele includes former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Hong Kong-born Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Lampshades make a big difference to how a home feels. What's the first thing you do when you walk into a house? You switch on the light and you see the lampshade. It has to be right because it's something you see every day and night. Having the right lights and shades can also help to make a home feel warm and welcoming.

When I first learned the craft, I found it difficult to make the frames, which are the foundations. If the frame isn't right, you have to start all over again. You have to be very careful with the customers' fabrics, that you don't ruin them in any way. Sometimes, the materials they bring are very special. They're not necessarily expensive fabrics but maybe they were bought from overseas or are irreplaceable, like a piece of old clothing once worn by a grandmother.

I have four old craftsmen working upstairs. No, you can't go and see them because they don't like to be disturbed - they just want to do their jobs. They have at least 20 years' experience, and are in their 50s and 60s. None of them wears glasses. The work must be good for their eyes. They have to have good eyes to thread needles.

My elder brother once had a shop selling antiques including vases, and people used to ask for the vases to be made into lamps. So I started to learn how to make lampshades. I was 18 years old.

Machines can make lampshades much quicker, cheaper and in greater volumes. But each handmade shade is unique and made with effort and care. They are much more durable than those churned out by machines. Ones you buy from, say, Ikea, would last about a year, but ours would last for more than 20 years at least.

The younger generations don't want things that last, they would rather go for something new every year or so. They are into computers and having things done as quickly and conveniently as possible.

It's probably a dying trade. There aren't many of us around anymore. I have a son and a daughter, and I don't want them to learn my trade. It's quite hard work. They won't have the patience - they can barely sit still. They're more into computer games. As long as they are happy, that's all that matters.

The most important thing about my business is to give customers exactly what they want, so they are happy, and then I am happy.

I used to watch my old uncles locking away their antiques and paintings because they didn't want to risk breaking them. But it's such a waste to put them in places where people can't see them ... pretty things should be seen by as many people as possible.

When I turn an antique vase into a lamp, I try to leave it intact. It is important to preserve antiques, and by making it into a lamp, it will be in the light and be seen by more people. The light also makes the antique prettier. So it's like killing two birds with one stone. No, I don't have many antiques at home - I don't have the money.

Before 1997 most of my clients were government officials and those who worked in embassies. Now it's mainly professional expatriates who have decided to stay in Hong Kong. I would say more than 80 per cent of my customers are westerners.

Government ministers used to sit and chat when they came to place their orders. Now they don't anymore. They still have money, but now they're not in the mood to sit and chat anymore because they can't be seen doing nothing.

Mrs Chan used to come, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark came last time she visited Hong Kong. Now, sometimes the wives of government officials come along.

The Chinese like to have their lights hanging from the ceiling, westerners prefer table lamps. I don't know why. People just have different tastes, I guess.