Peel Street’s Umbrella Man

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Sitting in front of his makeshift green stall on a particularly steep block of Peel Street, Ho Hung Hee could be mistaken for one of the many fruit vendors and junk dealers that work in the narrow back streets of Central, uphill from the offices and department stores of Hong Kong’s financial district and in the midst of a rapidly-gentrifying enclave of restaurants, bars and art galleries. Like the other vendors, Ho is old and withered, but his bright, expressive face, more youthful than you would expect for an 82-year-old, hints at the energy it takes to work long hours in the street. But the service he provides is unusual: he makes and repairs umbrellas.

Ho’s career began in an umbrella factory just after the Second World War. In 1948, he set out to start his own umbrella business, riding his bike around the city, offering his services. That’s when he met a grocery store owner who let him open a stall in front of his Peel Street store in exchange for helping him write receipts. While the grocery store is long gone, Ho and his umbrella stall remain, and he continues to receive free water and electricity from the adjacent business owners. Ho’s decades spent working with umbrellas have even led to a certain notoriety: in 1994, he won a Guiness World Record for making the world’s most expensive umbrella, crafted from American ox-hide and a century-old German umbrella frame Ho found at a construction site in 1982. He used the material to make two umbrellas, one of which he sold for $2,000. Ho donated the other one to the Hong Kong Museum of History — even after he was offered $5,000 for it.

Surrounded by a colourful mess of umbrellas, bags and old cookie tins full of tools, Ho works carefully, pulling at an umbrella’s wires with a pair of pliers. Behind him are newspaper articles and a laminated certificate of his Guiness World Record. Craftsmen like Ho are increasingly rare in Hong Kong, and especially in Central, where soaring rents are displacing decades-old businesses. More than rent, though, it’s age that threatens the neighbourhood’s traditional shops and businesses. Ho is about the same age as many of the other people who work in the tiny stalls on Peel and other nearby streets. Several years from now, when they die, there will be no one to take their place. A centuries-old tradition of street vending will disappear.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday April 07 2008at 02:04 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Peel Street’s Umbrella Man”

  • Cedric Sam says:

    In today’s SCMP, they were saying that the plan to save the 140-year-old market near Peel Street and Graham Street in Central was rejected by the Town Planning Board…