Imagine being a 40-year-old housewife with no formal qualification and just HK$50,000 to set up a business. What would you choose? Faced with that challenge, Yeung Lai-kuen opted for setting up a launderette in Wan Chai with a fellow housewife. 'A launderette doesn't need a lot of money to set up and doesn't require much skill. This is something a housewife is familiar with, and we thought we could handle it well,' Ms Yeung, 56, said in her 300 sq ft shop. It was a good choice. The shop, 88 Laundry, has been in operation since 1991, surviving through the Asian financial crisis and Sars. 'Wan Chai has a lot of demand for a launderette since many people living here are tenants who are single or young couples and who do not have maids,' she said. To start up the business, the two friends invested HK$50,000 each to buy two giant washing machines and driers, as well as another machine to help dry the clothes faster. A year later, her partner withdrew for personal reasons, and Ms Yeung was left running it alone until her husband, Lai Yat-ming, retired as a company driver two years ago. The shop generates an annual turnover of about HK$500,000, which, after expenses, leaves enough to support the couple and their two daughters. 'It is not big money, but it is good enough for our living. Many customers have become good old friends,' said Mr Lai, also 56. Rent and electricity are their major expenses. They pay about HK$12,000 a month for the shop and HK$3,000 for power. The business does not need to advertise - people in the area flood in, including tourists staying at the Wesley Hotel next door who want to save on their cleaning. 'People choose to do their laundry near their homes as no one wants to carry a bucket of dirty clothes a long distance,' Mr Lai said. Unlike many other small retail proprietors, they haven't had to deal with an avaricious landlord. In the past 16 years, the property owner has raised the rent only once, by HK$1,000. 'We're lucky,' said Ms Yeung. 'The landlord even gave us a 20 per cent discount during the Sars period to help tide us over.' In addition to laundering on site, the couple also collect items for dry cleaning for a factory, with which they share the fees equally. The store charges HK$34 for a load of up to 3.6kg of washing and drying, and as much as HK$250 to send a leather coat for dry cleaning. Handling 20 to 30 loads of washing a day often leaves the couple with little time to check carefully all the clothes they process - on rare occasion with terrible results. The most serious case Ms Yeung recalled was when a man left his son's pens in the pocket of a pair of trousers, colouring all the clothes in the load. 'If I have enough time, I do some checking in the laundry bags before putting the clothes in the machine,' she said. 'It is interesting to see the things people leave - spectacles, knife and forks. So far, pens are the most commonly found items.' Ms Yeung said her customers had always been reasonable whenever something went awry, but she was shaken recently by a case in Washington, in which a judge unsuccessfully sued a dry cleaner for US$54 million over a lost pair of trousers. 'I was quite scared when I heard the news since I was worried whether it could happen to me,' she said. Another scare happened two years ago, when a laundry chain opened a shop across the road. It closed a year later. 'In this business, there is not much of an advantage running a chain shop as there are no economies of scale,' Mr Lai said. 'Rather, a small laundry shop like ours can be more flexible and run at a lower cost.' While the Lai couple can meet each other every day in the shop, the family business means they can never travel together. Succession is also an issue. Neither of their two daughters has shown any interest in the business. One is an air hostess and the other is a merchandiser for a garment company. 'We plan to run the shop until we really want to retire,' Mr Lai said. 'But since we are not that old, I think we can still serve the Wan Chai residents for many more years before that happens.'