Umbrella men face a hard, dry season

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 12:00am

In today's throw-away society, it often costs more to repair something than to replace it.

Take umbrellas. A run-of-the-mill version costs between $10 and $200 - so if it's 'borrowed' by your workmates or fellow pub patrons, or you leave it on a bus, or it gets blown inside out, it won't cause you much pain.

But it's a different story if you've forked out a substantial sum for your umbrella.

This is where Ho Hung-hee - possibly Hong Kong's last umbrella repairer - enters

the picture.

The 80-year-old operates out of a small stall in Peel Street, Central, and has been an umbrella repairman for 50 years - first making them, but now mostly mending them. From Monday to Saturday, he travels from his Shamshuipo home to his stall, arriving at 11am and working until 4pm, fixing about 20 umbrellas a day.

'No one is interested in the business these days because it's not a profitable one,' says Ho.

Along with all the necessary tools for his trade, a snapshot of Ho's life is plastered on his stall's walls in the form of newspaper cuttings and photographs - and a framed Guinness World Record certificate for having made two umbrellas with stainless steel frames and ox hide covers in 1994 which sold for #167 (then about $2,374) each.

Ho remains proud of his occupation. 'It helped me raise my big family - nine sons - without financial help,' he says.

These days he treats his job like a hobby - but still the customers come. May Wong's umbrella, a little pink one with red dots, might not come with the price tag of some of Ho's more famous work, but still she thinks it's worth fixing.

'My umbrella is a bit expensive at $160,' says Wong, who lives in Central. 'One of the bones broke after I had used it only a couple of times. I heard Mr Ho had a very good reputation for fixing umbrellas. I'm satisfied with the job,' she says.

Perhaps Hong Kong's most famous umbrella company was Leung So Kee, which hand-made its products and offered life-long guarantees. As depicted in The Umbrella Story (1995) - the Clifton Ko Chi-sum-directed film starring Alice Lau Ar-lai and Law Koon-lan, the company lasted for more than a century before closing in the 1980s.

Ho remembers Leung So Kee, having worked for the company on several occasions. But he preferred working for himself and caring for his family. 'Fixing umbrellas is my hobby,' he says, 'and I plan to work until I'm 90'.

But for most people, it's easier to dump a damaged umbrella than have it repaired. 'Umbrellas are so cheap now, just a few dollars. Besides I don't know of any shops fixing umbrellas,' says 18-year-old student Cherry Kan.

Kan is one of many young Hong Kong women with one eye on the weather and the other on fashion. It's these people that Hong Kong's 100 or so umbrella makers are targeting. Most firms have their offices in Hong Kong, factories on the mainland and markets overseas. According to industry sources, there has been an increase in the number of umbrella makers based in Hong Kong in the past couple of years, resulting in a slump in prices.

'With the market over-supplied and products getting cheaper, we are making less profit,' says Hsu Weilung, the Hong Kong branch director of Raindeer Enterprises.

Raindeer, a Taiwanese-backed venture, produces almost a million umbrellas a month in its Shenzhen factories which are manned by 2,000 workers. The umbrellas are sold mainly in the US, Taiwan and Japan, with small sales in Hong Kong.

Hsu says the cloth used to cover umbrellas and the aluminium, iron and wood used in struts were increasing in price, while workers were asking for higher wages as the mainland economy grows.

Hsu's nostalgia for the high profits of a decade ago is shared by counterpart Sunny Zhang, sales manager of NEO Umbrella Manufacturer in Hong Kong. 'The margins are so bad and the market so chaotic, it's almost out of control,' says Zhang.

Rather than fight it out at the lower end of the market, NEO is aiming for the top, selling into Europe and America. Zhang says the fierce competition at the lower end of the market means that poor quality umbrellas were being made, something that would eventually kill off many companies.

Hsu, meanwhile, has a different reason for selling offshore. He says although Hong Kong gets a lot of rain, it's not a good umbrella-buying city because there's too much footpath cover and too many shops where people can find shelter. Plus, the MTR keeps most people out of the weather.

And, after all, it's the weather that is first and foremost on an umbrella maker's mind. 'Everyone in this business loves it when it rains,' says Hsu. 'We always look forward to rain, and it's better when there are storms.'