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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Old Hong Kong-loving artist paints T-shirts with childhood memories of city’s disappearing past

When Kristy Lau gets nostalgic for things like letter men, dai pai dongs and the King of Kowloon, she designs a new T-shirt and will do so for customers’ memories too – just don’t expect her to paint the Peak Tram any time soon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 2:44pm

Hong Kong artist Kristy Lau loves old Hong Kong so much that she hand paints her childhood memories – and the memories of her customers – on T-shirts, with each intricate design taking about a week to complete.

“I’m addicted to old Hong Kong culture and have loved history since I was a kid,” says Lau, who was born in the ’70s. “I inherited this [love of history] from my father. He was one of the first Harbour Pilots in Hong Kong after the second world war and would always share stories of Hong Kong.”

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Lau paints her T-shirts at her studio home in Sai Kung – also the site for her dog kennel business – saying she left the traditional workforce after a serious spinal injury limited her options. She started painting as a hobby, but word spread.

She is very strict about what she paints. “I don’t want my T-shirts looking too touristy. I won’t paint an old bus or the Peak Tram.

“I’ve collected hundreds of old Hong Kong photos and all my T-shirts are under an Old Hong Kong theme. Some buildings might have disappeared but I will paint from my memories and from my clients’ memories. People have requested modern buildings or portraits, but I’ve turned them down because I won’t enjoy doing that.”

Lau’s most recent T-shirt design is of a match box from the China Match company, which built a factory on Peng Chau in 1939 and employed 700 people until the mass production of lighters in Japan forced its closure in the ’70s. “I lived on Peng Chau for more than 10 years and would wander around the abandoned factory, so I have many memories of this place.”

One of her most popular requests is designs featuring Tsang Tsou-choi – aka The King Of Kowloon. Born in Guangdong, poor and illiterate Tsang moved to Hong Kong where he painted his distinctive graffiti art around the city. He gained commercial recognition in 2004 when Sotheby’s auctioned a board he painted for HK$55,000. He died in 2007.

“I met The King of Kowloon when I was four,” Lau says. “I was with my dad and I saw him writing under a bridge in Kowloon City. I promised my dad that I wouldn’t talk to him but I insisted that I stay and watch because I loved his work, even though I didn’t understand all the words.”

Lau has also painted a “letter man” – someone who would write letters for the illiterate – evoking memories of an “Uncle Wong” who she would talk with almost every day while waiting for her school bus near the former Pui Chi Boys’ Home in Quarry Bay.

“Letter men such as Uncle Wong played vital roles in the 1940s when families were separated by the war. These men would help deliver letters and read them to illiterate family members,” Lau says.

“I once saw an old lady running to Uncle Wong. She handed him a letter and when he read it she cried happy tears. That emotional scene moved me. I will never forget it.”

Other T-shirts feature Green Spot orange juice, her favourite drink as a child that is no longer produced, and scenes from the city’s much loved dai pai dongs or open-air food stalls.

Lau says her technique is old school. “I don’t know how to use Illustrator or Photoshop, but sketch from old photos.”

She also makes subtle design tweaks to ensure each T-shirt is unique. “I’ve sold several King of Kowloon tees. And while the main image is the same, I make small changes to each – maybe the position of the word ‘King’ is slightly different. And my T-shirts don’t have a size tag on the collar – I prefer to write ‘For Michael only’ or ‘This is Jane’s T-shirt, don’t touch.’ There’s always a slight difference to each one.”

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And you can forget about traditional business models or suggestions of mass production. “People ask me why I don’t just draw a scene once and then scan it and send it to digital T-shirt printing place. But the texture will be very different, which I don’t like. I’d rather paint a T-shirt that passes my standard instead of mass-producing them.”

In June, Lau’s paintings will go on show at the Fringe Club in Central. Customised T-shirts can be ordered online on her Facebook page.