The Hong Kong artisans who can bash sheet metal into anything, and how they survive in the machine age
Buckets, letterboxes, pots and pans, a food stall – there’s nothing these men can’t fashion out of galvanised iron using a hammer, cutters, a bending machine and their bare hands. It’s a dying art some are trying to pass on
Upper Lascar Row, also known as Cat Street, on Hong Kong Island is famous for its shops and stalls selling antiques and bric-a-brac. But one of the oldest businesses on the street has nothing to do with those trades. Fu Li Metal, run by 74-year-old Ho Wing-sun, is like a time capsule.
The workshop has barely changed since Ho’s father opened it before the second world war. Surrounded by antique shops and trendy bars, Ho toils away at the front of his shop, seated on a small stool. Ho is a “white metal man” (baak tit lou in Cantonese), an artisan who makes goods out of galvanised iron.
With a strong pair of cutters, an ageing bending machine and a hammer, Ho hand crafts every product that emerges from his workshop. These range from donation boxes for temples and spare parts for air conditioners to cooking pots for restaurants.
In the 1940s, galvanised iron began to play an increasingly important role in Hong Kong households. It was durable – the iron is coated with a layer of zinc to prevent it from rusting or corroding – and also extremely light and inexpensive, making it ubiquitous in the city. It has been used for making everything from small household appliances such as buckets, watering cans and letterboxes, to larger structures including corrugated iron sheds and open-air food stalls.
As the use of plastic grew in the 1950s and ’60s, however, galvanised iron lost its competitive edge. Automation and mass production led to a further decline in the industry in the ’80s, and today only a handful of metal craftsmen continue to ply their trade in Hong Kong.
Ho is even more of a rarity because neither his shop nor his methods have changed much since the day he first picked up his tools.
“You draw a sketch on the metal, cut it, bend it, then hammer the parts together,” Ho says.
“I have done this for so many years, the blueprint and the dimensions are already in my head.”
Within 15 minutes, he has made a small metal box.
Dicky Tse Kwok-wah, another metalworker, says he has had to learn new skills to keep his galvanised iron business afloat.
Tse, 71, owns Kan Kee Sheet Metal Works on Reclamation Street, across the harbour in Kowloon’s working class Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood. Like Ho, he got into the industry by following in his father’s footsteps. Tse has vivid memories of watching his father at work in his first shop, a few hundred metres down the road from the current one.
“People were less educated back in those days, so they learned this type of craft to make a livelihood,” Tse says. People could invest in very simple tools, such as strong scissors and a hammer, then open a small stall in a back alley and start producing metal appliances.
Everything was done by hand. So when Tse suggested buying an electric drill, it took a while for him to convince his father that the expensive power tool could dramatically increase efficiency and that the investment would pay off.
Tse took over his father’s business in 1978. Even that far back, he realised that they would need to do more than buy new tools to stay in business, and produce more than just household appliances. For this reason Tse started to learn about commercial kitchen design, ventilation systems and electrical wiring to complement his metalwork skills.
“I was lucky. I went to technical college for a while, and the skills I learned there have been useful to me,” he says.
Tse then started working on bigger projects for his clients. As the Hong Kong economy began to soar in the early ’80s, he landed opportunities to do extensive work for restaurant operators and other large-scale projects.
Kan Kee Sheet Metal Work’s business model continued to evolve, and with a workshop directly behind his shopfront, Tse has found a niche market making customised products and taking quick-turnaround orders.
“I just had a customer who needed some metal parts in 30 minutes. I can do it straightaway because I have a workshop just at the back,” Tse says.
“I love my job. It is not just about making a product. There is creativity involved. I am helping my customers to solve their problems.”
While Tse has focused on evolving his business to meet the needs of the market, another craftsman has been trying to find new markets and pass what he knows on to the next generation.
Michael Yu Kwok-keung makes ventilation ducts with galvanised iron as a day job. In his spare time, he has a collaboration with Kindergarten Insane Studio, a community organisation based in To Kwa Wan, a working class Kowloon neighbourhood, where he teaches the younger generation how to make things out of galvanised iron.
Now in his 50s, Yu has been a metalworker for the past three decades. He began to think outside the box when he was invited to make souvenirs to be sold at the Blue House, an award-winning heritage conservation project in Wan Chai.
There he met Melty Chan Ching-yee, 29. After being involved in the cultural preservation aspect of the Blue House project, she established Kindergarten Insane Studio five years ago, hoping to go a step further in protecting Hong Kong’s traditional crafts.
“People won’t come into contact with this material under normal circumstances,” Chan says. She hopes that when students join one of Yu’s classes, they will get a chance to understand his craft and take away something they have made themselves.
One of Yu’s most popular classes is making metal letter boxes. They are a common sight in older districts and have become a familiar and much loved motif of old Hong Kong. Made out of three separate pieces of metal, students cut out their own shapes, use a bending machine, and hammer the components together.
The studio has now begun to sell bespoke metal products online in various designs.
“These handmade crafts have a huge market; people do like old-school products. If we can generate income, then the industry won’t die,” Chan says.
Yu also teaches in design schools and other institutions. Students come up with their own designs – ranging from vanity tables, clocks and chairs to desk lamps – and Yu acts as a consultant, helping them to execute their ideas.
The combination of Yu’s professional knowledge of the material and the students’ creativity has proven to be a winning formula in modernising the art of metalwork.
More than 700 people joined Yu’s classes in the past five years, and both Yu and Chan feel it will help the galvanised metalworking industry stand the test of time.
A man of few words, Yu seems to be in his element when he is making things. “Why do I like crafts? Well, because I can use my own hands to do it. For mechanical things, you have to buy a lot of tools. But craftwork is easier, you just need your hands,” Yu says.
Fu Li Metal, 46A Upper Lascar Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2544 0568
Kan Kee Sheet Metal Works, 225 Reclamation Street, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, tel:
2384 8432 or 2780 8098
Kindergarten Insane Studio, Room 1003, Fook Shing Industrial Building, Yuk Yat Street, To Kwa Wan, tel: 6082 4067