In search of Kam Tin’s brass factory
It was patronised by Prince Charles and the last colonial Governor Chris Patten, so that dates this. It’s rare in Hong Kong to go back and find that something from 25 years ago is still there, exactly as you remember it, but it was this with the Brass Factory in Kam Tin, in the New Territories. Its proper name is the Sum Ngai Brass Ware, and it bills itself as an “Arts & Home Décor Factory outlet.” It hasn’t moved from its spacious courtyard on the Kam Sheung Road, but it takes a bit of finding. Even though two of us had visited regularly before, the surrounding landscape has been transformed by an epidemic of small houses and a huge new roundabout. The brass factory is now just another building, shoe-horned in among all the others on a busy road.
This makes it highly impossible to find by car. Ironically it’s the newish railway station five minutes walk away at Kam Sheung Road that’s kept it on the map. They still sell bronze and brass items in every colour and texture, from ornamental animals, birds and statues, to lamps, cloisonné bowls, figurines, feng shui and Chinese horoscope items, garden and indoor lighting, lampshades, porcelain, painted and lacquered furniture and original and unusual Christmas decorations. It was always a treasure trove, a mixture of interesting pieces and pure kitsch, but all affordable. Every new British expatriate wife got taken there at some time in her first few months, by her seasoned sisters who had each been subjected to it themselves.
To this day you can walk into an ex-expatriate British military family home anywhere in the world and know they were posted to Hong Kong: the tell-tale brass water buffalo - a miniature replica of the one in Exchange Square by British sculptor Elisabeth Frink - or bronze lamp give the game away. In those days the British army camp was next door at Shek Kong and the other two NT camps: Casino and Gallipoli Lines not far away. Much of the Brass Factory’s business revolved around casting badges, ceremonial plaques and models for their military and police clientele.
Prince Charles was no expat wife, but he was probably brought here as a side shows en route to the army camp. He bought lamps, a family of signature ducks and two traditional blue and white porcelain barrel-shaped stools for the garden of his Gloucestershire home. These were duly shipped back to Highgrove House where they can still be seen in photos on HRH’s website, says Lisa Tong, who has presided over the shop for as long as I remember. She proudly shows off the photo on the wall. She also fondly recalls Chris Patten stopping by to stock up on lamps and ducks before setting off back to the motherland at the end of his Hong Kong stint.
Survival by internet
So how has Lisa’s business survived when the other army camp followers: the custom tailors and Nepalese curry houses, have long gone? I sell most through the website, www.sumngaibrass.com, says Lisa, demonstrating her magic bronze “dancing water” bowl. When you stroke the handles in a certain rhythm, water in the bowl literally dances, like a hundred tiny fountains. Over the decades, hundreds of these must have ended up as repositories for car keys and gloves on British hall tables, once the recipients had either mastered the art or tired of trying. They made a novel wedding present for any friend who had not yet visited you in Hong Kong, when, of course, they would probably have been taken on a Sunday afternoon trip to the Brass Factory themselves.
Looking back, we expats were a pretty unimaginative lot. But back then, once you’d taken visitors to Stanley Market, The Peak, the Star Ferry, yum cha at City Hall and designer label hunting in sweaty factory outlets, the Brass Factory was a welcome diversion. And it’s still a fun excuse to head out of town now. And you don’t even need a car anymore. But remember, brass ducks are cute, but heavy.