Specialist operators put cleaning on higher level
For centuries people have taken their dirty washing to be cleaned, making the laundry shop one of the oldest businesses in the world. Before the invention of machines, the work was done by hand, piece by piece. With the development of technology and a better knowledge of fabrics and cleaning methods, the process has become automated in order to handle hundreds of kilograms of laundry each day - or painstakingly detailed to clean a single item of clothing made of delicate fabric.
One company that handles this business on a large scale is New China Laundry (NCL), a subsidiary of the New World Group.
'We have one factory in Fanling, two smaller factories on Hong Kong Island and two factories in Shenzhen,' said operations manager Katherine Cheung Wai-han.
With its combined factory size of 280,000 sq ft, the company is one of a handful of major operators capable of handling dirty laundry in bulk for clients in the hospitality and entertainment industries. Although it has a few retail dry cleaning shops called Kleaners that handle itemised clothing, it is the company's commercial business that brings most of the revenue.
'Kleaners accounts for only 10 per cent of our annual revenue,' Ms Cheung said. 'We are not a major player in this market, and our primary business is our corporate clients. We have all the major hotels in Hong Kong and a lot of the big clubs, including the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Ladies' Recreation Club as well as one of Hong Kong's amusement parks.'
Using its high-end, industrial sized washing and drying machines, the company can handle 261,000kg or 150,000 pieces of laundry each day - a far cry from the output of a local family-run laundry. 'At the Fanling site, we have three tunnel washing machines, each one equivalent to 14 normal 60kg washing machines,' said Ms Cheung, who oversees all of the operational processes, many of which are automated.
In this hi-tech world of washing, long conveyor belts take bags of soiled laundry from one station to the next, tracked by a computer program until they emerge fresh, clean and tagged at the end.
Another cleaning company has found a niche in providing services that include repair, restoration and dry cleaning. Jeeves (HK) has a primary focus on the retail market, and is a local franchise of Jeeves of Belgravia based in London, which caters for high-end clientele.
The operator is confident about handling the most expensive, luxurious or delicate of garments, designer fashions, ball dresses and expensive shirts and suits. It uses carefully applied hi-tech solutions to ensure that garments are properly treated or restored to their original state.
'We spend a lot of time looking at the garment, trying to see if there is anything unusual, or anything that the client needs to know,' said Graham Murphy, general manager of Jeeves (HK).
The company's business profile has earned it a notable place in the melee of dry cleaners in the city. Though it only has four branches - the first opened in 1994 - its client base is strong and tends to comprise the wealthier echelons of society.
Chief executive Filomena Merszei said: 'They say we are the most expensive, but we really take care of the clothes, and we really take our time.'
'I have seen two high-end dry cleaning businesses start since we started, but they have already disappeared. If you don't have the passion or knowledge, or understand the product, it is hard to survive,' Ms Merszei said.
'We want a hydro-carbon machine - a cold clean for Indian sequins which would melt in the other machines,' said Ms Merszei, whose business approach is to invest in the best technology and give clients the best service.
'We would also like a better curtain machine, but currently we don't have enough ceiling height. The machines are more than 16 feet high.'
Jeeves and other operators not only have problems with space, but with other issues as well. Rents are usually high, warehouses often have a shortage of lifts, and shared parking can cause many inconveniences.
In addition, wet-wash outfits must comply with stringent government restrictions on the processing of waste water.
New legal requirements mean that by the end of this year, all dry cleaners must switch to fifth-generation machines which are sealed against the emission of toxic fumes.
Despite these challenges, and the increasing sophistication of domestic appliances, the dry cleaning and laundry business remains resilient. Undeterred by seasonal highs and lows, changes in the weather, or fashion, there are always clients in need of freshly laundered clothes.