Hong Kong’s ‘Brother Wai’ has repaired more than 10,000 umbrellas – and the line keeps growing
But Yau Yiu-wai, 64, may represent the last generation in a family business that has been around since 1842
“If it’s raining, I won’t have time for an interview – I’ll be too busy serving customers,” Yau Yiu-wai, the 64-year-old owner of Sunrise Company, said over the phone. Luckily for us, the sun was out when we made our way over to his umbrella store in Sham Shui Po.
Even so, the brilliant late summer weather did not seem to stop Hongkongers from flocking to the shop.
“Brother Wai”, as Yau is affectionately known, is a fifth-generation umbrella salesman and repairman. The family business has been around since 1842, and the Sham Shui Po store was set up about three decades ago. But Yau may be the last in his family to make a lifelong career out of the craft.
“I love umbrellas. They’re compact and understated when shut, yet very functional when open,” he said. “I’m also very intrigued by their dome shape. It’s limitless, like the sky.”
Brother Wai charges HK$10 (US$1.28) and up for repairs, depending on the extent of the damage.
Customer Ming Li, 40, decided to buy a folding umbrella from Yau after seeing him on a television programme.
“I really appreciate how meticulous and serious Brother Wai is about his job,” Li said, after listening intently to Yau explaining the best way to open and shut automatic umbrellas to make sure they last.
“Point your umbrella towards the ground when you’re closing it so you won’t get stray water droplets on the people around you. If you do, they might get angry and bash your umbrella,” Brother Wai joked.
A woman who gave her name only as Ms Chow came to the shop to collect her umbrella, which she had left with Yau for repairs more than two months ago. She appeared to share Li’s sentiments but admitted she was a little disappointed when Brother Wai said she would have to wait another three months.
“I’ll still wait, just to show my support for Brother Wai,” she said.
Another customer, 47-year-old Maggie Lau, found Yau after searching 21 years for someone to fix her umbrella, which she had bought from a designer store in Japan. She loved this particular one so much that she had kept it all this time despite not being able to find anyone who could repair it.
“When I saw Brother Wai on TV, I knew I had to find him and go to him,” she said.
Yau, who took over the business in his 20s, has become something of a local celebrity and a media favourite because of his unique job.
“I get interviewed practically every day,” he said. “It doesn’t excite me. In fact, I find it annoying because I’ve been getting bombarded with repair requests. Right now, I’ve got 680 broken umbrellas waiting to be fixed.”
Brother Wai reckoned he had fixed about 10,000 umbrellas over the past four decades. And the number of customers whom he has taught the art of opening and shutting umbrellas? Countless.
We had been at the shop for only about 45 minutes but had already heard his mantra at least a dozen times.
“Jiggle, jiggle, push,” he repeated, demonstrating what he described as the correct way of manually opening a folding umbrella.
Yau’s passion may have touched many Hongkongers, but it has also drawn criticism from others in the business.
“Some say I’m insane for teaching people how to use their umbrellas properly so they last. Some have even told me to ‘teach the souls in heaven’ the proper way to use umbrellas.
“But I just want to help people and make an effort to protect the environment,” Brother Wai said, referring to how some people throw broken umbrellas away instead of getting them repaired.
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Asked if it ever got tiring, Yau said “yes” without any hesitation.
“My voice gets hoarse from interacting with customers all day.”
During our interview, a passer-by asked him if he knew how to mend the small hole in her umbrella. Just put some glue on it, he instructed, before waving goodbye.
“I can fix eight umbrellas in one go – no problem. A dozen umbrellas and my palms start to hurt from working the pliers. Fifteen, and I can forget about having a good night’s sleep,” Brother Wai said, holding his palm out. The skin was smooth, but unmistakably thick.
Despite the occasional sleepless night, Yau said he had never – and would never – consider doing anything else. As for whether he wanted his two adult daughters to take over the business, he said: “It’s up to them. But if they do decide to take over, and they’re like me, it’s going to be a lot of hard work.”
In the meantime, Brother Wai said he would continue to promote the importance of proper umbrella care.
“Only four out of five people listen to me,” he said. “But as long as I’m still around, I want to teach as many people as I can – jiggle, jiggle, push.”