Hong Kong’s dying trades defy high rents to hang by a thread

The tourism industry is trying to keep the old arts alive by introducing visitors to skills like threading and stencil-making

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 10:35am

In Hong Kong, the phrase "local industries" is all too often accompanied by the terms "sunset" or "dying" as soaring rents force out small enterprises.

Along with the ancient crafts go the images of a nice, if a bit chatty, grandma or grandpa sitting in a faded, time-worn room, constantly tinkering, sewing or simply putting things together.

But some local industries are defying higher-than-imaginable rents to keep their traditions alive, moving into more modern-looking workshops or continuing their old skills where they were practised decades ago.

And now, the tourism industry is taking notice, arousing new interest in the old crafts as their practitioners struggle to survive.

One such skill making an apparent comeback is threading - the ancient method of removing facial hair.

Sixty per cent of beauty shops provide the service and many community centres teach it, said Chong Sui-ko, 34, who runs a small beauty shop near the Hung Hom harbourfront.

Chong, who learnt threading from a housewife when she was in secondary school, now performs it every day - along with an array of space-age cosmetic skills for which she holds certificates.

After carefully applying "crabapple blossom powder" - similar to baby powder - on a customer's face, Chong doubles and twists a thin cotton thread into the shape of a butterfly, holds it between her teeth and hands, and rolls it over the areas of unwanted hair. The treatment, which can be a little painful, costs up to HK$120.

"It removes facial hair in a subtle way," said Chong. "It won't make your pores rough."

It's an uphill struggle, however. Chong opened her shop in Sai Wan Ho two years ago, renting an 800 sq ft two-storey shop for HK$10,000 a month.

When the rent was tripled to almost HK$30,000 a month this year, she decided to move out and found her current site next to an industrial area, a petite 400 sq ft unit at HK$12,000 a month.

"We have customers of all ages, and even men," she said. "Hopefully, we can last longer here this time."

Iris Fung Man-shan, spokeswoman for travel agency HS Travel International, said there were still people trying to find ways out for the so-called sunset industries.

"But it's very hard for them to find workshops when rents are so high these days. We want to take people to visit those who are still surviving," she said.

The agency is partnering with the Tourism Board on a new tour of the city's old industries.

Fung said the tour requires at least 10 visitors per trip, at a cost of HK$730 each, and is mainly targeting Western tourists.

Tour guides pick one visitor in each trip to try out threading.

"It's not about shopping or food and drinks," said Fung.

"We think Westerners will be more interested in this kind of tour."

In a bustling street outside the Mong Kok MTR station, several thin wooden boards divide two nostalgic open-air workshops from a wide, modernised pedestrian area.

Dozens of stencils for advertising plates or signs hang on the walls, and Man Shik, 60, is seated in the centre of one of the workshops, meticulously writing and cutting out Chinese characters from thin iron sheets with a chisel and hammer.

Man has been producing these stencils by hand for more than 30 years. "There were a lot of people doing this in the '80s and '90s, before computers became popular," he said.

"Now, only a few construction companies want these made. I'm doing this only as a hobby."

It takes Man about an hour to cut out four characters, he said, and he once spent a month cutting out a passage of more than 1,000 words.

Prices depend on the number of words and sizes of characters, which can be HK$30 a word or HK$1,000 for four.

Practising in an open area means there is no rent to pay, and the government will not disturb you if you are not blocking people's way.

These days, Man has become more of a tourist attraction.

It seems as if booming tourism might just lift him up from the street into a bright studio.

But Man knows better. "The industry is gone," he said. "No one earns money out of this now. No one even bothers to try."