Treasure hunters head off the beaten path
Shop owners travel afar on buying missions, sometimes under difficult conditions, to satisfy the tastes of Hongkongers, writes Michael Taylor
EVERYONE IN Hong Kong has a different definition of fun. For some people it is an afternoon at the mall. For others it is a massage run to Shenzhen. For Andrew Robbins, co-founder and co-owner of furniture shop Shambala in Ap Lei Chau's Horizon Plaza, it is rummaging through your grandmother's attic.
'I am a treasure hunter,' Mr Robbins said. 'I just got back from India, where even the Indians were complaining about the heat. I was traipsing around under corrugated tin roofs and the temperature was in the 50s.'
Mr Robbins spends half of his time at his air-conditioned office in Horizon Plaza. He spends the rest of his time rummaging through truckloads of junk in the open-air markets and stuffy warehouses of Myanmar, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand - sometimes further afield.
'I get as far away as I can from the beaten path,' he said. 'I stay away from the popular tourist destinations. Otherwise I would end up with the same stuff you find everywhere else. Think of me as the Lonely Planet Guide to furniture.'
Mr Robbins believes that there is a sort of inverse relationship between the first and third worlds. As formerly impoverished countries modernise, they want things that are modern and new. So they throw things away that - if they were fixed up - could command respectable prices in a sophisticated city like Hong Kong.
'They are doing the opposite to what we are doing,' he said. 'They are knocking things down and replacing them with things that are shiny. You find this stuff in enormous yards. You might have to go through 1,000 pieces before you find a piece worth buying. If you have the time to sort through this stuff you can find some genuine gems.'
Sourcing products for a home furnishings shop like Shambala, which is the original Tibetan name for Shangri-La, is not exactly a piece of cake. It means staying in hotels you would not necessarily want to stay in, travelling through airports where planes rarely take off on time, riding on buses without shock absorbers and dealing with people who are both gracious and friendly but sometimes clueless when it comes to what you want to buy.
'It can be difficult to spend a couple of days getting somewhere, look through a pile of junk and then having to say to someone, 'Thanks a lot, but I am going to have to think about this'.'
Surely there are easier ways to make a living.
'For me this is not just a business,' he said. 'I'm in it for the adventure. I love beautiful things and I enjoy the unexpected. I'd lose interest if I couldn't find things that I had never seen before.'
Shelly Deng, managing director of the Good Laque Gifts Gallery, whose headquarters are also in Horizon Plaza, started out selling lacquer ware at another location in 1999.
She has since moved into products made of silk and other materials. She makes eight to nine buying trips a year to the mainland, Thailand and Vietnam, staying anywhere from one week to one month in each place. She never misses the trade fairs that are held twice a year in Bangkok.
'We started out buying what they had,' Ms Deng said. 'Now we are more and more modifying the designs we find or specifying that they are made in other colours. We are also designing more of our products from scratch.'
One of the problems with having things custom made is that manufacturers sometimes take the designs and sell them to other buyers.
'We have found that some of the things that we ordered on previous trips were on sale in local shops on subsequent trips,' she said. 'To get around this we have started having different parts of the same thing produced in more than one place and then assembling them in Hong Kong. We also sometimes have the packaging done by another supplier.'
Vincent Sum is owner of the Vincent Sum Collection. While not limiting himself to Thailand and Indonesia, he does tend to source most of his products in these two countries because he has found that they offer high levels of craftsmanship and creativity. Another attraction is their willingness to deal in small quantities - unlike the mainland, where manufacturers prefer to think in terms of tens of thousands rather than a few hundred.
'I don't listen to what other people say,' said Mr Sum, who has been in business at various locations for more than 30 years. 'Eighty per cent of what I buy I like. I don't do market research. My buying decisions are made on instinct.'
Rhonda Gretton, managing director of Love That Lifestyle, said country of origin could play a major role in a customer's decision to buy.
'Our criterion is Australian manufactured,' she said.
'People just love Australia. They associate it with products that have been tested in a harsh environment. If I show someone something that has been made in China - even if it is to the same standards and specifications - they won't buy it.'
Carrying products that nobody else carries can also be key, especially when dealing with niche markets such as outdoor furnishings.