Yentle Tong Ying-tung surveys stall 289 at the Lunar New Year Fair and smiles. Recession might have dampened retail sales in neighbouring Causeway Bay, but the six-day annual fair in Victoria Park has always drawn crowds and the 25-year-old art administrator sees a business opportunity in her 3-metre by 1.5-metre space.
Over 40 years the fair has expanded from a market for festive flowers and trees to a seasonal splurge on feel-good, family bonding holiday items such as cuddly toys and inflatable plastic hammers. And with 300,000 people attending last year's Lunar New Year's Eve events, stallholders such as Tong have reason to hope Hong Kong families will put aside their economic uncertainties and usher in the Year of the Ox with a traditional walk and shop in the park.
Tong is especially hopeful as her space stands out among the flower stalls that surround it. Like many first-time stallholders, she hopes to draw visitors' attention by selling items with a difference. Just one of 298 stalls at this year's event, which opened on Tuesday, Tong's space is packed with artworks ranging from a Kwun Yum [Guanyin] statue made of adhesive tape to delicate handmade necklaces and paintings commemorating the Year of the Ox.
'We want to introduce art pieces to the general public,' says Tong of Art-At-All, an organisation based at the Shek Kip Mei Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre that promotes local talent. 'Art appreciation shouldn't be just confined to galleries in SoHo.'
She has also devised a competitive bidding system to lure passers-by. All her stall's displays are assigned a lot number and are 'auctioned' by an amateur actor, one at a time. And bargain hunters take note: lots are marked for bidding from HK$2 for miniature books by Lee Chun-fung to HK$12,000 for an oil painting by Victor Lai Ming-hoi.
'Bargaining has long been a tradition at the Lunar New Year Fair,' says Tong. 'It spices up the festive atmosphere.
'Many people have the impression that art collecting is a privilege of the rich. But ordinary folk can also buy art pieces at affordable prices,' she says.
Causeway Bay-based passer-by Roger Fung Kam-keung agrees. The engineer has already stopped at Tong's stall with his wife and son to buy a HK$30 fai chun (traditional good luck poster) written by the Frog King and decorated with the mixed-media artist's quirky 'froggy' logos.
'Most stalls sell cookie-cutter stuff,' Fung says. 'It's good to see original works by local artists. We should use this annual event to promote local talent because many tourists visit the fair too.'
Tong and her team of five friends only decided to join this year's fair last month, when they learned that stall rents for this year's fair had been reduced, thanks to lower demand in the recession.
When she secured a stall on December 23, after bidding HK$8,760, Tong invited artists to submit exhibits for her space. Within a week more than 200 art pieces flooded into her studio, including the traditional gong bi paintings of Lui Long-ting, which Tong will display on Sunday.
Lui's works have added a modern, humorous twist to the characters from the classic novel Journey to the West. With meticulous brushstrokes, the Chinese University fine arts graduate has turned the Bull King, Princess Iron Fan and Red Boy into typical neighbourhood characters ranging from a pamphlet delivery guy, and stockbroker to punk rock kid.
Lui hopes her works will give the fair's visitors a seasonal smile while Tong is curious to see how the works will sell at the fair.
'We might not be able to cash in big bucks, but what's more important is to inspire people to realise art can be part of their daily life,' Tong says.
The reduction in rent, reportedly by as much as half, has encouraged more students to set up shop at the fair. But young stallholders such as Leon Chan Pan-ho have realised their stock has to be unique or offer added value to impress visitors who may spend less in the slump.
The City University financial services student has teamed up with 30 friends to rent stall 38 for HK$10,800, which he says is only half of last year's rent, and then pooled HK$60,000 to produce their self-designed soft-furnishings.
Chan shows off a HK$78 cushion set that becomes a duvet when it is unzipped and highlights its potential multifunctional appeal to recession-hit students, housewives, drivers and office workers. 'People are more cautious [about] their spending given the bleak economic outlook,' the 22-year-old says. 'You have to show them every cent they spend is worth the value.'
And while many of the fair's stalls sell products that are meant to bring luck or wealth, Samuel Lui Cheuk-hin says he wants to spread a message of love and care with his 'acupressure T-shirt'.
Selling for HK$58 at stall 131, Lui's design features a traditional calligraphy and seal-style print of acupressure points on the back of the white T-shirt to guide the massage of its wearer.
Lui says he devised the garment's design after he treated his father's back pain. 'I thought it'd be great if I knew where the acupressure points were so I could relieve his ache,' says the 22-year-old software programming student. He has packaged a basic guide to massage with the garment.
Lui's business partner, Blanka Yip Ching-nun, hopes the T-shirt will encourage men to be more hands-on with their loved ones.
'Guys are more reticent' about massage, says the 26-year-old investment consultant. 'The T-shirt is a good excuse for them to show concern for their parents. Just a bit of human touch can make a difference.'
Liu and Yip say they have invited friends and relatives to whoop it up for the Year of the Ox at their stall. 'It's like throwing a party,' Liu says, adding that a vibrant atmosphere can stimulate shopping. 'People tend to buy more when they're in a joyful mood.'
Yet, having shelled out HK$36,000 on their venture, the young entrepreneurs mean business. 'It's a chance for us to get a taste of business and test if our strategy succeeds in just a few days,' says Lui, who before the fair joined his team on a business course organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups and Shell Hong Kong.
He says he has also researched the fair's shopping trends. 'Some previous stallholders told me that sales could slump in the first few days, but rebound on the last day,' Lui says. 'But you can't follow last year's business model because the economic situation has changed.'
While most stalls expect to have their big sales on the fair's last day, Chan's team adopts a different marketing strategy. They say they're planning to mark down prices in the first few days to boost sales and then double them on the last day. The partners have also mobilised three teams of 10 promoters to hawk their products in the park. 'Girls, particularly the pretty ones, are better [at] sales,' Chan grins.
Another fair highlight will be the traditional Lunar New Year Eve visit of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Stallholders are eager to sell their products to Tsang on Sunday. Yip is ready to give him a pair of inflatable boxing gloves to symbolise Hongkongers' fighting spirit in tough times.
'Your fate is on your hands,' he says. 'You can choose to fight for your goal, or give it up - releasing the air of the inflatable.'
Tong can't wait for Tsang's visit. 'We hope Tsang will buy a piece of art,' she says. 'We would recommend [to him] Danny Yung Ning-tsun's wooden case signifying the mystery of West Kowloon Cultural District.'
The Lunar New Year Fair runs until 6am, Mon, Jan 26. For more details, call the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department on 2895 1917