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Hong Kong's traditional crafts live on across generations

Whether it’s making milk tea, wedding dresses, or paper offerings, families are keeping the city’s culture alive.

Photograph by Laurel Chor
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A seamstress sews elaborate patterns onto a kwan kwa wedding dress.
Photograph by Laurel Chor

The skills and knowledge required to make Hong Kong’s traditional crafts vary widely. To make the perfect cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea, chefs must learn the secret blend of tea leaves, the ideal brewing time, and the correct ratio of milk to tea. It takes years to master the techniques of sewing bright beads into spectacular designs in order to make a kwan kwa, the traditional bridal dress. And it takes months to painstakingly craft the bamboo offerings paraded only for a day during festivals, and much longer to perfect the requisite skills.

A seamstress adjusts a garment inside a kwan kwa wedding dress shop in Mong Kok.

Despite the diversity of their expertise, when masters tell the stories of how they got started in their professions, one sentiment in particular permeates their voices: a sense of duty. For many of them, they were born into their professions, inherited from parents who were masters of the craft themselves. They often got their feet wet by helping their families, and now, they continue not only their families’ legacies but also Hong Kong's cultural traditions.

Filial piety has been a tenet of Chinese family values for thousands of years, helping to ensure that traditions are passed down from one generation to the next. However, though younger people may eventually dutifully accept their roles, some are hesitant at first.

Alex Lee, who is in his early forties, is a third-generation shopkeeper for a business that sells exquisitely embroidered kwan kwa. His father sold the dresses, as did his grandfather, who first opened a store in Macao in the 60s before moving his business to Hong Kong.

This beautiful kwan kwa wedding dress took 120 days of intricate work to complete.

“At the beginning, I didn’t really like doing this,” Lee admits. “But mom and dad were getting older, and I didn’t want them to work so hard. So I began helping them, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Now, Lee seems to find pride in his work, as he stands in his Mong Kok store patiently guiding anxious women, whose daughters are soon to be married. He offers dozens of different dresses for different styles and budgets, alongside venue decorations essential for traditional ceremonies and banquets. After clients are done browsing their options, he folds away the precious kwan kwa – which can take 120 days to sew – with such delicate care that it can only be described as a labor of love.

The life of Au Yeung Ping-chi bears several parallels to that of Lee: he’s about the same age, he also inherited his store from his parents, and he too was initially reluctant to take over the family business. Out of the cramped store in Sham Shui Po once occupied by his father, Au Yeung is a traditional craftsman who conjures beautiful, elaborate paper-and-bamboo structures used for festivals and funerals.

Au Yeung makes a fa pao offering for the Tin Hau Festival in his Mong Kok shop.

Traditionally, people burn offerings for loved ones who have passed away. For example, if the dearly departed had a penchant for whisky, chocolate, and seafood, their loved ones can burn replicas to ensure that they can continue to enjoy such delicacies in the afterlife.

“I was just helping my father out at first,” Au Yeung recalls. “I wasn’t interested in the beginning, but the more I did it, the more interested I became.” At first, he simply learned how to tie bamboo sticks together. But as his skills improved, he found himself relishing the creative nature of his work. After spending a few minutes sketching out a design, he is able to fashion whatever he sees in his mind’s eye, using only bamboo, paper and string as his materials.

His work is now recognized and celebrated by the community and by the art world, and religious organizations commission paper-and-bamboo offerings from him months ahead of festivals. One of his recent creations that he’s most proud of is a replica of a Nintendo gaming console, with buttons that could actually be pressed and a joystick that could really move. But he’s used his craft to celebrate other parts of Hong Kong culture too, having even made a cup of milk tea and a pineapple bun for an exhibition.

Though a sense of familial duty has ensured the survival of Hong Kong’s traditions so far, it’s not clear if it’s going to be enough. Times change, and not all young people want to take over their parents’ old jobs, nor is it easy to attract new people to enter these trades.

Brother Tong steeps a special formula of tea leaves to make his famous milk tea.

More than two decades ago, Brother Tong took over his parents’ well-known dai pai dong, the outdoor food stalls that are a gritty but essential mainstay of the city’s culinary scene. Ever since, he’s been brewing up milk tea and preparing sandwiches and noodles at lightning speed for the hungry patrons waiting at his stall in Tai Hang.

Tong also started off by simply lending a helping hand to his parents, but now, at age 55, he doesn’t know who will take over when he retires. When you ask him about the future of his dai pai dong, he sounds a bit wistful: “I don’t know how to describe why dai pai dongs are special… But it is important for them to continue to exist. They’re just one of Hong Kong’s special traits.”

A cup of freshly made Hong Kong milk tea sits on a table at Brother Tong's dai pai dong in Tai Hang.

Though the future of his business may be unclear, one can’t help but notice the long lines that form every day outside his stall, and the patrons snapping photos of the well-known eatery. Like the women who cheerfully shopped for their daughters’ wedding gowns at Lee’s kwan kwa shop, or the temples that compete for Au Yeung’s time in order to commission paper-and-bamboo crafts, the continued demand for these crafts allow them to not only survive, but thrive. As long as locals and visitors alike continue to cherish these crafts, they’ll remain an essential part of Hong Kong’s cultural fabric.

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