Craft market in Tai Hang. Photo by Mary Cheung
On a muggy afternoon, a few dozen people have come to check out a small craft sale at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei. Milling about, they chat and nibble on snacks while browsing the wares. There are necklaces, drawings, dolls, bags and other handmade items.
The atmosphere is more party than market, and that’s exactly what Shan Luk had in mind when she decided to host an informal fair outside her sixth-floor studio in the centre. Dubbing it the Artisans Show, Luk has asked her artist friends to include their work in the sale to promote handmade design.
“People are getting bored by brand names and glamorous gimmicks. They’re looking for things that reflect their identity,” says Luk, who quit a civil service job last year to pursue her passion for making glass and metal jewellery. “The market is very materialistic but, compared to five years ago, it’s changing.”
When handicrafts underwent a revival a few years ago, many enthusiasts shared their work online, through blogs and social networking sites. But they have begun to turn virtual groups into real-life communities.
Five informal craft markets have emerged in the past year – intimate events that don’t require entrance fees and give artists and enthusiasts the chance to socialise with a diverse crowd and, occasionally, sell an item or two.
What many crafts enthusiasts seek is appreciation rather than money, says Billie Ng Sze-kiu, who has been hosting a series of market days on the street outside La Belle Époque, her handicraft boutique in Tai Hang.
“It’s not about money. [Handcrafters] enjoy the whole process – it doesn’t matter if it sells or not.”
There are many people who invest a lot of time making something that they’re willing to give away, Ng says. For instance, when she appealed to people in craft circles to donate works for an animal charity fund-raiser, she collected 143 pieces in two weeks – everything from bags to accessories.
Ng, a former creative director of an advertising agency, fell in love with felting during a trip to Japan and started making wool felt accessories in her spare time. She became so absorbed in the craft she quit her job to focus on it full time. And when a tiny shop space near her home became available a year ago, she jumped at the chance to open the craft boutique, where she also runs workshops for enthusiasts.
Recalling her ad agency days, Ng says the work wasn’t fulfilling because she couldn’t see anything of herself in the finished projects.
“But if you make a little [object] from start to finish and everything is under your control, you create something from nothing. The satisfaction is really big – more than if you’re working on a project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Like Ng, some enthusiasts have made crafting a full-time pursuit. Dave Cheng Wai-yin and Vicki Lo Tin-yan left graphic design jobs to open Littledate Workshop, a small craft boutique in Kwai Fong.
But many continue to dedicate their free time to handicrafts despite demanding day jobs. Investment banker Aileen Cheung Oi-ling often works late into the evening, but still finds time to make the small, lacy accessories that are among the top sellers at La Belle Époque.
The pieces have always been made for her own pleasure rather than with a view to sales.
“I was making stuff for myself, my dogs, my girlfriends and my mother. Billie came across some of the brooches I’d made and asked whether I’d be interested in selling [them] in her shop,” says Cheung.
“It would be good if someone likes my stuff but it would not be the end of the world if no one wants to buy them. I enjoy the process of making them.”
Such attitudes make for a decidedly varied mix of objects and people at craft markets. At Sense 99, a pleasantly ramshackle bar in Central, vendors taking part in a monthly market called the Living Room sell anything from hand-drawn colouring books to home-baked cookies.
In nearby Sheung Wan, textile artist Edith Cheung Sai-may hosts another monthly fair at her studio, Cloth Haven. The event began as a jumble sale while she was in the midst of a relocation last year to clear unwanted items she and her friends had.
When she found a new space with big wide doors open to the street, Cheung decided it would a waste to use it only as a weaving studio. “I wanted to share the space with other people,” she says.
So Cheung decided to host a flea market where her friends could sell their handmade items and curiosities. The first market day coincided with a typhoon, which proved to be boon: with shops closed and little to do, people in the neighbourhood flocked to Cloth Haven. Since then, thanks to word of mouth and online buzz, the market has grown to such an extent that Cheung vets possible participants to ensure there is a good mix of vendors and artists.
“We encourage people who make their own things, but also people who have just collected over the years a lot of things that serve as inspiration,” she says. “We thought it would be interesting to have a mixture, so that younger designers can see things that aren’t just produced for the mass market.”
At Cloth Haven’s most recent market the items ranged from handmade soaps and notebooks to 1960s toys left over from an old toy factory and silver jewellery. But more than offering a diverse array of objects, the market draws people from many backgrounds.
One of Cheung’s favourite vendors is a former garment worker who makes cushions and bags from fabric scraps. The vendor’s work has proved to be so popular the woman’s daughter now helps her to make items.
“Every time it’s an inspiration to see people actually enjoying it. It’s a place where you just have fun, where you feel happy because you’ve shared with others something you enjoy,” says Cheung. “It’s less about trading than communication. That’s what I think is most effective – people connect without judging where they are from, what their status is or whatever. Otherwise, in the city, relationships have been reduced to buy and sell.”
Handcraft community thrives on social media
La Belle Époque might be located in a tiny space on an out-of-the-way strete, but it didn’t take long for it to become a hub for Hong Kong’s handcraft community. Billie Ng Sze-kiu’s blog has long had a strong following, so when she announced last year that she would open a small shop, people came from as far away as Tuen Mun to check it out.
“It’s just like you have a group of friends, but you don’t need to go out with them,” she jokes. “Many handcraft people are like this. They work on their own and rarely hang out with friends. This way I can stay at home and talk with someone who’s doing the same thing as me. Without [social media], I don’t know what channel I could go into and show my things to people.”
Ng shares photos of her work on the online photo sharing website Picasa and she is also a member of Plurk, a social network used by many handcrafters to showcase their latest creatons. In fact, Ng uses social networks and blogs to compile a database of local handcrafters, whom she categorizes by the type of material they use for their work. She eventually hopes to use that information to build an social networking website for for Hong Kong handcraft artists.
Joanna Kee Tuen-wing, one of Hong Kong’s better-known handcrafters, sells her jewellery on etsy, an online craft market, and she has run a popular blog, Candlelight, for more than five years. She has developed close online relationships with many of the people she has met through her blog, she says, especially after she became a mother.
“We started off talking about handmade and now we’re talking about babies. It’s amazing. Overall, there are getting to be more and more [blogs] and there are more people blogging in Chinese, in Cantonese. Most of the artists who sell through Billie’s store have blogs and go to the flea markets. One thing links to another.”
This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on July 15, 2009.
Tags: Community, Hong Kong, Markets