FAMILY FOOTSTEPS I was born in Guangzhou in the 1920s. My uncle also made shoes. He was really famous for his craft, and had opened a lot of shops. From him, I learned how business operates, how to make shoes and how to deal with factories. It was very harsh growing up during the civil war and the war against Japan. There was a lot of sickness and death, and people dying of hunger. If you were nibbling on some bread in the street, [someone] would snatch it away. It was scary. If you survived, you really were very skilled, and clever.
Just before the liberation [of China], I came down to Hong Kong, in 1949, on my own. I was lucky. I worked as a shoemaker on Des Voeux Road Central. There were a lot of shoe shops there. But as an employee, your income is limited. You're worried that you won't be able to raise a family with it. So you have to work hard. If you have money, you can't fling it away. If I had HK$100, I would only spend, at most, HK$70 or HK$80. So with my savings, I started a small business.
MOVING TO SHOE STREET "Shoe street" [Wong Nai Chung Road] in Happy Valley started in the 1960s with two shops. They made custom-ordered shoes. In the 70s, this street became increasingly popular, and there were at least six or seven shoe shops. In 1975, I saw things were going well, so I opened up a shop there. I started by partnering with other people, but we failed the first few times. Finally, I teamed up with a few friends to open a store that was successful and eventually we had four or five shops. But after a while our opinions clashed, so we split, each of us taking a shop. Mine has been at this location for 40 years.
In 1984, I decided to expand and open up a small factory in Lai Chi Kok. We had about 20 employees at the factory. Around 1992, with 1997 nearing, there was an emigration wave, so we had a shortage of workers. After 1997, because of the lack of staff, I thought, "Why not move up to the mainland?" I kept on 10 or so shoemaking masters to teach the new employees there.
HEART AND SOLE Shoemaking is a craft. You have to put thought into it, study it. Why are some toe caps more rounded, some more pointed, others longer? Those are the basics. Then you have the vamp, which is decorative. You have to have the heart to study it. We had to cater to the shapes of local feet. We made shoes for Japanese, too; their feet are wider. You also had to look at the European market. You can't stop. And then there's knowledge of the raw materials. You have different kinds of leather, different thicknesses. It's very complex. A lot of my clients have a very good opinion of me. I have high-ranking officials and rich women as clients, lots of them. You have to be humble, courteous, willing to think, and also have enough experience.
WALKING AWAY There used to be 11 or 12 shops here on this street. It used to be all shoe shops - an entire row. Then the real estate agencies kept encroaching. A single one of their deals makes more money than we could dream of. One renovated shop could sell for HK$10 million, with a really high commission. With our service, how much money can you make?
Now that we're closing [in September], we have to clear out all our stock. Many of our old clients came flooding in; they'd heard the news. When the contract is over, the landlord will make us leave. So we have to push our stock as much as possible, and to do that we're selling it very cheaply. It's hard.
A lot of emigrants who have gone to the United States, Canada and Australia, still order shoes from us when they come home. Everyone has been begging me, "Don't stop making shoes." Because the shapes of their feet are special; even if they buy the most expensive shoes elsewhere, they're not right. They say, "Where are you going to? Without you, what will I wear?" But with the rents so high, how can you survive?
I do have plans to continue the business, but the location must be suitable. Salaries are high and, more importantly, rents are high. And then you have electricity and leather costs. You've really got to watch everything accurately. If you don't do all the calculations carefully, it's very hard to survive.