Hong Kong is best known as a centre for big business, but scattered among its gleaming corporate towers it is possible to find small, independent companies that specialise in traditional trades.

These companies are closely linked to Hong Kong's history, and are woven into the city's cultural fabric. They're part of what gives Hong Kong its unique aesthetic and atmosphere.

Times are changing, though. Many of these businesses have no succession plans and anticipate closure. As these elements of its heritage disappear, Hong Kong edges ever closer to becoming another generic global city.

Post Magazine visited and spoke to a number of tradespeople, the last bastions of some of Hong Kong's home-grown industries. With the end in sight for many, we set out to capture their stories and learn about their ways of life, before they are lost for ever.

In most cases, these are family companies, in which the skills and knowledge have been handed down - usually from father to son - over multiple generations. They're now under pressure from a range of forces that are, in most cases, squeezing them out of business.

As the cost of running factories in Hong Kong has skyrocketed, the production of many products has moved to the mainland. In other instances, traditional items are becoming redundant as they are superseded by new technology.

Furthermore, many businesses are endangered by the introduction of stricter rules and expensive licences. Last year, the government published a list of 480 things that it classifies as Hong Kong's "intangible cultural heritage", but despite this notional support, some traditional trades are being lost because they cannot adhere to modern regulatory practices.

Our interviews reveal complex situations and mixed feelings. All the contributors take enormous pride in their work, and their expertise. But while they mourn the inevitable loss of their traditions, no one is trying to persuade their children to continue the family business. Resignation blends with pragmatism and acceptance. Most of our contributors grew up with limited career options. Their children have more choices and the chance to combine greater financial security with an easier working life.

 

Bamboo steamers

Lam Ying-hung runs the Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company. Bamboo steamer makers were once commonplace in Hong Kong but, in the 1980s, almost all production moved to the mainland. Lam's company, located in Sheung Wan, is the last one left in Hong Kong.

"My great-great-grandfather started the enterprise during the late Qing dynasty. In the early days he sold his wares in villages and markets, but later moved to Guangzhou because he wanted to grow the business.

"It takes at least three years to learn to make a steamer from a single piece of bamboo. I learned from my father and grandfather. In China, nowadays, they work in production lines, so each person performs only one part of the process. I might be the last person who knows how to make a steamer from start to finish.

"In one day I can make eight large steamers or 50 small ones. The entire process is done by hand. Our customers choose our steamers, rather than the mass-produced ones from China, because they are better quality and more durable. The factory-produced steamers might deteriorate after one or two months, while ours can last for up to a year. The durability depends on the skill of the steamer maker, and how they work the raw materials - rolling, pressing and cutting the hard and soft parts of the bamboo.

"In the past, Chinese restaurants used small, medium and large-size bamboo steamers. They cooked the dim sum in the steamers and carried them directly to the table - often on a rope around the waiter's neck. At the end of the meal they counted the number of steamers on the table, and noted their sizes, to calculate the bill.

"Nowadays, restaurants use trolleys and keep track of what you've eaten with a computer system. They still use the large steamers for cooking the dim sum, but prefer small ones for serving.

"We don't sell directly to clients because turnover of Chinese restaurants is so high. If a restaurant goes bankrupt they pay the government first, then the employees and the suppliers come last. To minimise risk we deal with distributors - who are mostly located in Mong Kok - and they sell to the restaurants.

"I don't put any pressure on my children to become bamboo steamer makers. When I was young, the best way to earn money was to work in the family business. My children have more choices. I've got no thoughts of retiring - I intend to work here for the rest of my life."

 

Hakka snacks

Hui Sai-ling makes Hakka snacks at her home in Sai Kung town and sells them in her front yard. These rice cakes - filled with beans, nuts and herbs - traditionally provided sustenance for travellers on long journeys. They're made from natural ingredients and there are seven types to choose from, including black (sesame), white (almond), orange (pumpkin) and purple (sweet potato).

"My parents migrated from Guangdong province and settled in Sai Kung in the 50s. I was born and raised here, with my six brothers and sisters, and we all speak Hakka as well as Cantonese.

"My father was a good cook. He made Hakka snacks for me and my siblings. When I got older I looked for similar products in the shops but couldn't find them, so I decided to make my own. I have a good memory and a talent for cooking, so I was able to remember and copy what my father did. I practised and practised until the snacks tasted the same.

"At first I shared the rice cakes with friends and colleagues. In Chinese culture you always give a 'return gift' if someone invites you to dinner. I would make two rice cakes - a sweet pumpkin one and a salty radish one - and arrange them nicely in a sushi box. One day a colleague commented that the snacks looked so attractive, and tasted so delicious, that I should try selling them.

"We started off selling about 70 boxes a day, but the snacks proved so popular that we had to expand. We now sell over 800 boxes a day at HK$13 for a box of two.

"I use a blend of sticky rice and regular rice flour. The sticky rice flour makes the cakes soft, chewy and delicious. The regular rice flour gives them structure and stops them being too gummy. I blend the flours in a machine and then massage the mixture by hand to get the right consistency. Then I wrap the rice flour around the filling, seal it and steam the cakes for exactly 18 minutes.

"I have a team of 10, most of whom are family members. I work as a public affairs officer for the government, so we only operate on weekends and public holidays.

"It's extremely hard work but I love it. I find it very rewarding when I see people enjoying our Hakka snacks. One customer said she'd been dreaming about our rice cakes and couldn't wait to come back for more. It brings me real happiness. It's not about the money.

"I don't think anyone will inherit our tradition. I have one daughter and she helps with sales but doesn't know how to cook the snacks. She thinks it's too much hard work and that it's not worth it. And the government doesn't support small businesses like ours - the licences are very expensive. That's why street food and traditional snacks are declining all over Hong Kong."

 

Hand-painted ceramics

Tso Chi-hung is the manager of Yuet Tung China Works, the last company in Hong Kong to produce hand-painted porcelain. Fifty per cent of its output is tailor-made. It supplies Hong Kong's major hotels with bespoke ranges, and British nobility and Vatican bishops with dinner services emblazoned with coats of arms and family crests. The factory, in Kowloon Bay, is a trove of ceramic treasures, with vases, ginger jars, dishes, cups and plant pots piled from floor to ceiling.

"My grandfather started the business in 1928, so I'm the third generation to be running it. I was born in 1949 and grew up in the factory. I've been here my whole life.

"As a child I helped my father with the colour mixing, firing and packing - everything except the painting. At that time, we had a very large factory. It was more like a small village, with over 80 people - both family and employees - living and working together.

"My grandfather first worked for Hong Kong's Customs Department. He spoke good English, which was unusual at that time. He observed that porcelain was extremely popular with Europeans and Americans and, despite knowing nothing about the craft, decided to set up a factory. He asked people from Canton to come and work for him - Canton-style porcelain has a long history, dating back to the Qing dynasty, and is considered very attractive.

"At that time, the master painters had exclusive rights to their designs and colour mixes, which they kept secret. The business was very successful but, because the masters had all the knowledge, they were in control and we were totally reliant on them.

"In 1965, when my father took the helm, he decided to change some working practices. He introduced rubber chops which we use to stamp the outline of the designs onto the porcelain, and standardised the colour mixes. Now, any worker with the skill to fill in the outline can do the colour painting. He also modernised the kiln, replacing the charcoal-fired oven, which needed several workers to operate, with an electric-powered model that can be controlled by one person.

"After that, production increased and the business was controlled by the boss, not the artists.

"Our company is much smaller now. We have only 11 staff. The four remaining painters are all over 70 years old. They've worked for our company for over 40 years and we're like family. We eat lunch together every day.

"I have two children. The fourth generation are lucky - they have good jobs and don't need to work in the factory. There's a lot of interest in these traditional skills and many young people come here to learn the art of painting, but they're doing it as a hobby, not as a profession. I don't think my company will keep going once all the old painters retire."

 

Letterpress printing

Yam Wai-sang runs the Kwong Wah Printing Company, in Sheung Wan. The company specialises in letterpress printing - a traditional technique of relief printing. The letterpress uses small lead rods, each with a raised letter or character on the end. These are arranged in a frame by hand, locked in place, daubed with ink and pressed onto paper. The technology is now obsolete because the last Hong Kong company to make the letters closed in 1993.

"My father worked in the printing industry and I've been doing this job all my life.

"It's a slow process because you have to figure out how to space the letters and words, and how to line the words up with each other. Arranging the letterpresses for a business card takes about an hour. My letterpresses are old and many have been eroded with years of use. I have to add scraps of paper underneath to ensure they're all the same height - so now it takes even longer!

"Letterpress printing has a glorious history in Hong Kong. Between the 70s and 90s there were over 200 letterpress companies around Sheung Wan and Central. They served the local trading companies, printing their office stationery and contracts.

"All those [letterpress] companies have now closed or replaced their letterpresses with automatic machines. I'm the only one still operating. The new machines are quicker and cheaper, and allow you to print different colours on the same document. But I love the traditional letterpress print. You can feel the raised ink with your fingers, so it's full of vitality.

"I still take commissions from a few of my old clients but I don't accept new orders now. There's a risk I wouldn't have all the necessary Chinese characters, and most of my English letters have gone. Also I don't want my remaining stock to wear out. Instead, I run workshops for students, family groups and people who register via my Facebook page. Many young people are interested in the art form. There's growing interest in preserving old buildings and traditional crafts, even as they're disappearing.

"My business isn't economically viable and my children aren't interested in inheriting it. I'm 57 years old now so I'll work for maybe another 10 years.

"I have 100,000 letterpresses. When I retire I'll try to find an organisation or NGO to donate them to. If no one wants them, I might have to throw them away."

 

Little box of tea

Up until the 70s, "drink a little box of tea" was a common saying in Hong Kong. Yuen Yee-lum manages Yuen Kut Lam, the family company that produces Kam Wo tea, a medicinal herbal blend that has been made to the same recipe for nearly 200 years. Cold and flu sufferers are advised to drink two little boxes of tea a day, at a very hot temperature, until they recover. It can also be drunk in smaller quantities to boost digestion and maintain good health.

"My great-great-grandfather founded the company in Guangzhou, in 1835, during the Daoguang period of the Qing dynasty. His family had become rich running a paints and chemicals business. In Chinese culture, wealthy people are expected to give back by doing something to benefit society. One of his sons was interested in Chinese medicine, and he invented the tea.

"At that time, low-income people frequently died from their illnesses because they couldn't afford to visit a doctor. My ancestors sold the tea at a cheap price so even poor people could buy it. When there was an outbreak of flu, or other diseases, they distributed it in local towns and villages.

"In 1906 they moved to Hong Kong and opened our store in Sheung Wan.

"We blend 28 herbs to make the tea. The recipe and the production techniques have been passed down the generations. We cook the herbs to extract the juice and then dry them in the sun. We repeat the process nine times, so it takes at least nine days. This is what gives the tea its special qualities and we keep certain aspects of the process secret.

"We're the last company making tea this way in Hong Kong, and I think in China, too. But we have many problems. The government has introduced new regulations. They say the sun-drying technique is unhygienic, but the final step is to roast the tea over hot charcoal, so I'm confident that it's perfectly clean.

"We are considering purchasing a drying machine but they are expensive, so this would be difficult for a small company like ours. Also the machine operates at a very high temperature and destroys some of the therapeutic ingredients in the tea, so it's less potent. I think it's vital to maintain the original process. Other family members think we ought to modernise.

"I'm leaving it to the next generation to decide what to do."

 

Neon signs

Leung Lap-kei runs the China Neonlight Advertising Company, in Mong Kok. Neon signs were once synonymous with Hong Kong streetscapes. Blending art with industry, they helped to create a dazzling city. As the number of businesses making neon signs dwindles, they are gradually fading from view.

"Making neon lights by hand requires skill. You have to understand the physics and chemistry of the technology, and you have to be quick with your hands. Glass tubes are heated with an extremely hot flame and then bent into the desired shape at great speed, before the glass cools. This task suits younger workers. I started in the industry when I was 40 years old, so I mostly concentrated on design and marketing.

"In the 80s and 90s, the industry thrived and we made a lot of money. We made signs for shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and individual shops. The malls and hotels provided their own designs, but restaurants and shops would brief us on the colour scheme and general look and ask us to create the design for them.

"The business went into a steep decline around 2008 and is now about 10 per cent of the size it used to be. There are many reasons for this. At the start of my career, the internet didn't exist and many people couldn't afford a television, so they would look at neon signs on the street to find out what different shops were selling. Nowadays, it's very different because people use all sorts of media for advertising.

"Also, lots of production has moved to the mainland, where costs are lower. The Hong Kong government doesn't support small businesses like ours. They've changed the licensing system and we now have to apply for a licence for each new design. It takes two months to get approval and costs HK$10,000 to HK$20,000. This greatly increases the price.

"But the biggest factor in the decline of neon has been the introduction of LED lights. The government promotes them with subsidies, and businesses prefer them because they're cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly.

"My son works with me and he has started making LED lights. Our business couldn't survive otherwise. I much prefer neon though. Compared to LED you can see it from further away and it has greater clarity - LED tends to blur but neon is always sharp. But most people prefer LED lights, so we have no choice."

This article was written with the assistance of iDiscover City Walks (i-discoverasia.com). The social enterprise is organising family treasure hunts that focus on traditional trades in Sheung Wan and Central, on August 23 and 30, from 2pm to 5pm.

 

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