What’s Left of Industrial Hong Kong

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Industrial buildings in Chai Wan

China’s Pearl River Delta is often called the world’s factory floor, but 40 years ago, that title belonged to Hong Kong. In the 1970s, 22,000 factories and workshops furiously churned out everything from clothes to watches to jewellery. Then, when low wages and a newly-liberalised economy made mainland China an attractive prospect in the 1990s, business owners moved their factories across the border. Left behind were hundreds of now-quiet industrial buildings – and even more out-of-work men and women with skills in sewing, watchmaking, cobbling and other trades.

But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, a small group of Hong Kong designers are building new brands on the remnants of the city’s industrial heritage and traditional craft skills. What is not yet clear, however, is whether this is the birth of a new generation of skilled and design-savvy craftspeople – or simply the last gasp of Hong Kong manufacturing.

When designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan discovered that high rents were forcing a 40-year-old shoe workshop named Ming Kee to close, they bought the shop’s equipment and hired its shoemaking master, a 60-something man known affectionately as Uncle Kong. (“He’s a bit media shy,” says Lee, explaining that he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.) That was their first step towards Shoe Artistry, a brand that aims to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s tradition of bespoke shoemaking. Uncle Kong now makes shoes in a second-floor space above the busy Ladies Market, where Lee and Wan also hold public workshops. They eventually plan to move to a new studio in the PMQ design hub, which will open next year.

“Design and industry should work hand in hand,” says Lee, who used to source apparel from mainland Chinese factories for a company in Singapore. “Every year there are so many design students being churned out but without industry they have no connection to how things are made.” At the same time, she says, Hong Kong has lost touch with its own industrial skills. “Instead of always looking to China to get things made, why don’t we look at what Hong Kong has to offer?”

On the surface, Shoe Artistry offers the same straightforward service as Ming Kee: bespoke leather shoes made by hand with high-quality materials. “The masters are trained to be flexible,” says Wan. “They make whatever the customer wants, whether it’s a pop singer or someone with problematic feet.” But the project goes one step beyond that by also offering design guidance. So far, Shoe Artistry has collaborated with Hong Kong designer Kanchan Panjabi, and it is about to start working with Singapore-based Q Menswear on a new line of shoes.

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Across town from the Ladies Market, beneath the office towers of Central, TCNY is bringing a similar ethos to another Hong Kong craft: suitmaking. “From a technical standpoint there’s a strong local culture,” says Justin Chang, who runs the brand with his cousin Lincoln. “Our grandfathers all went to tailors. The heritage is there. Where we fell behind was in the styling, because in the 1990s it swung towards an off-the-runway style.”

TCNY was originally launched in the late 90s as the ready-to-wear line of Ascot Chang, who founded a high-end tailoring shop in 1953 that has since spread to China, the Philippines and the United States. But it struggled until Justin and Lincoln—Ascot’s grandson and grand-nephew, respectively—took it over in 2010 and recast it as a younger, hipper brand that paired Ascot Chang experience with more daring designs. “In Hong Kong, everything is aggregated into one or two suppliers, so you get a homogenous look,” says Justin. “But we’re not an old-school tailor. Our sifus [masters] are younger, they’re more open-minded. We’re a tailor that can also provide the styling for a suit.”

TCNY is building up a collection of intriguing fabrics that avoid the black-and-navy monotony of Hong Kong’s suitscape, and its two signature cuts, known as Madison and Soho, are slimmer than the Hong Kong norm. “It’s much more lightly-constructed than the more structured British style,” says marketing manager Jerry Tong. That helps with TCNY’s other goal, which is to convince more men in Hong Kong to actually enjoy wearing suits. “People in Hong Kong only wear suits because they have to do,” says Lincoln. He thinks that can change with brighter colours, patterns and less blocky cuts. To prove the point, TCNY recently designed a suit for skateboarder Nigel Ong — one whose leather elbow patches and subtle camouflage-patterned shirt seem perfectly at home in the skate park — and another for Joshua Wong, frontman of local indie band Noughts and Exes.

“If you’re going to be wearing something everyday, you might as well take pleasure in it,” says Billy Potts, whose design firm, Handsome Co., created a new logo and brand image for TTCNY last year. “That’s where we made this connection between something with heritage value and something where they could really flex their creative muscle.”

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That same connection between heritage and creativity informs Handsome Co.’s own line of products: a series of bags and watches made from discarded taxi upholstery and handmade by local seamstresses. But Potts has grown increasingly disillusioned with the limitations of this approach. “The process got quite cumbersome, because we had to sort through a lot of materials and that didn’t allow us to produce many bags,” he says. Recently, Potts has taken more of an interest in the potential offered by the manufacturing might up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. “It would be foolish not to acknowledge that Hong Kong’s craft is intertwined with industry that has moved across the border.”

He is sceptical that something like shoemaking will ever flourish again in Hong Kong. “It will never be the same as before, where there was the old master system, with an apprentice who would work for nothing but room and board,” he says. “It’s an interesting concept to work with [a master] and you can soak in the experience, but you’ll fall on your own sword if you limit yourself to that. You have to acknowledge that Hong Kong has developed beyond this.”

Shoe Artistry’s Jeff Wan and Kit Lee disagree. “We want to develop boutique manufacturing – super-small quantities, better quality, higher margins,” says Wan. “If we develop this in Hong Kong, we differentiate ourselves from the mass producers.” Shoe Artistry doesn’t exist in a void, adds Lee. “It combines shoemaking with the leather industry, shoelace makers, people who make threads” – all of which still exist in Hong Kong, to some extent. “It’s the whole ecology.”

Lee says the principal of a local technical school has contacted them about having students learn shoemaking. They also take solace in the global trend towards bespoke products, which means there are more and more designers interested in learning how to make things themselves. Ultimately, says Lee, she and Wan hope to start a goon, or association, of traditional craft masters, including spectacle makers and watchmakers. “Other people go to shopping malls on weekends, but we walk around looking for old workshops,” she says.

Hong Kong factory

Hong Kong factory in the 1960s

This story appears in the February/March 2013 edition of Surface Asia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday February 20 2013at 12:02 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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