Forced to move with the times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am

The crucible of Hong Kong's manufacturing revolution in the 1960s, San Po Kong Industrial Estate, is dead, but new industries are being drawn to the district

The gates to the Hip Shing metal shop creaked to a close yesterday. Around it, gates leading to other workshops at the San Po Kong Industrial Estate were already boarded up and padlocked, eviction notices from the Housing Authority the official seals of their fate.

Just in front, Tang Sai-bun was taking one more look at the place that defined not just his work but his life for the past four decades. By the end of the month, he will have finished relocating Hip Shing to another Housing Authority factory estate in Kwun Tong, but the 74-year-old said it would not be the same - even though he is moving everything, down to the gate itself, so the new shop will look exactly like the old.

Mr Tang was among the 40 tenants who protested last month against the authority reclaiming the estate for redevelopment, and he said every person on the estate was a friend and a neighbour he would now have to leave behind.

The protesters, representing about 10 per cent of the estate's 900 units, wanted more compensation but the authority refused to give in. Mr Tang was offered $250,000 for his two 24-square-metre units, but he said the authority should have helped pay for moving and the cost of installing water and electricity in the new shop.

Then again, Mr Tang recalled, there wasn't much help the last time he had to move either, back in 1963. On January 15 that year, he moved from Tai Kok Tsui to the then newly built estate. The government resettled him and his store after Typhoon Wanda nearly flattened the city the year before.

'There were just Blocks One and Two then, and broken ground all around with no buildings or anything,' he said. 'For the first eight months there was no water or electricity because it was such a new development.'

Mr Tang makes metal products and ornaments such as fences, stairway railings and metal gates.

'I don't remember how many thousands of gates I made,' he said. 'It was mostly soldering by hand and other manual labour because we didn't have any fancy machines. And we made everything to order.'

San Po Kong was already booming as a manufacturing centre in the 1960s, with metal shops like Hip Shing and garment factories that never closed. Factories had begun springing up in the district in the 1950s as a result of government planning after the second world war. The most notable example, perhaps, was a company that exported plastic flowers started by a young man named Li Ka-shing.

Wong Tai Sin District Council chairman Wong Kam-chi said the development of San Po Kong helped draw people to the 'frontier areas' of Wong Tai Sin and Diamond Hill. 'At its peak, over 200,000 labourers worked there, and around 70 per cent of the residents in the area were working in the factories there,' he said.

Mr Tang said Hip Shing took in about $500,000 a month in its heyday - a pittance compared to many of the other, bigger factories. 'I hired just four or five people, paid by the day, whenever there was work. It was difficult because most things were done manually and so labour took up such a large part of it.' Several thousand dollars worth of labour went into every few hundred dollars of metal, he said.

The good years lasted until the late 1980s, when the vast migration to the mainland began. 'What's left now is less than 10 per cent of the factories,' Mr Wong said. 'Most of the companies just use their San Po Kong factory for packaging or as a transfer point.'

One exception is Star Industrial Company, which continues to make its ubiquitous Red A plastic household products in its Dai Yau Street factory.

With the continued decline of industries in the district, San Po Kong is once again undergoing a transformation. 'The government is quietly pushing for it,' said Mr Wong. 'We've discussed rezoning some factories to include commercial and industrial uses, for example.' Mr Wong said two parcels of land were bought by developers to build hotel-type residences, but construction had yet to begin.

'The change in San Po Kong is really happening very quickly,' he said. 'I won't go as far as to say that industry will die out completely in the district, but I think it will be very hard for them to survive.'

But where traditional labourers like Mr Tang are on their way out, new industries may yet find their way into the district. DCDCorp, a computer graphics production house behind Dragonblade, Hong Kong's first 3D computer-generated animated feature film, is based in the glass-fronted Stelux House in the district.

Marketing manager Karen Choi Pui-yan said the company decided to move there from Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong nearly four years ago mainly because of the cheap rent.

'The unit is huge and the rent is cheap,' she said. 'It's also much more conveniently located than Cyberport.'