NEWS

Rag trade suburb moves blue collar to the catwalk
25-02-2018

Source: metrodaily

 

Sham Shui Po was once the production centre for Hong Kong's cheap clothing industry. Can one of the city's poorest district become a new fashion hub?

 

A white historic building set among the glitzy skyscrapers of Central and the hipster shops of Soho has been the site of thousands of Instagram photos and is described as a must-visit destination in tourist and design guides.

 

The former Police Married Quarters, or PMQ, has since 2014 been a trendy melting pot of local fashion, design, art and lifestyle offerings.

 

Now, the government wants to replicate its success and build a similar design and fashion hub in the predominantly working-class district of Sham Shui Po.

 

Dotted with old residential flats - many of them subdivided units - the Kowloon district is home to large numbers of new immigrants,?ethnic minorities and?the elderly.

 

Recent government figures showed Sham Shui Po had the highest?poverty rate among the city's 18 districts.

 

But it is also brimming with shopping options - from elec tronic parts to toys to affordable textiles - including a ramshackle and?soon-to-be-relocated fabric hawkers' market that has been an institution for budding fashion designers and hobbyists alike.

 

Plans for the hub were revealed in October during Chief Exe cutive?Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet- ngor's?maiden policy address.

 

Lam pledged that her administration would "look into ways for young designers to make full use of the traditional base for apparel and fabrics in Sham Shui Po District to create new synergy".

 

The plan is part of a grander vision to boost the city's creative industries and make them a new driver of economic growthfor Hong Kong, which has traditionally relied on sectors such as real estate and finance.

 

The growth of the design industry - which spans interior and furniture design, multimedia, visual and graphic design, fashion and accessories design and industrial design - shows there is much more potential for it to shine.

 

Between 2005 and 2015, it expanded at an annual rate of more than 15 per cent, and was worth HK$4.1 billion in 2015, up from HK$1 billion a decade earlier.?

 

It is now the fourth-biggest manufacturing sector, with 490 organisations employing 1,000 people last year.

 

So what value can the Sham Shui Po hub bring to designers? And will there be a cost to the community?

 

During Hong Kong's indus trial heyday of the 1970s, Sham Shui Po was the centre of the garment and cottage industries, with thousands of wholesalers, processing factories and retail shops forming a complete production chain.

 

While most of the factories have since relocated across the border to the mainland to benefit from cheaper rent and labour, hundreds of wholesalers remain in business today, mostly along Ki Lung and Yu Chau streets.

 

In recent years, several institutes of art and design have emerged in the district, notably the Savannah College of Art and design and the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.

 

In January, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, told district councillors that the government would take aboutfive years to convert the blockof dilapidated buildings at the corner of Tung Chau and Kweilin streets into a five-storey,3,600-square-metre complex of fashion studios, production workshops, co-working and seminar spaces, and a reference design library.

 

He explained that the idea was to bring designers under one roof to exchange ideas and spark creativity, and provide them with shared equipment to make production more efficient. The government will subsidise studio rents as an incentive.

 

Vendors from the cramped Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar would be resettled to the Tung Chau Street Temporary Market, next to the complex, Yau said, placating the two dozen or so fabric vendors who had turned up at the briefing to demand better relocation terms.

 

Signalling the importance the government placed on the project, Yau was joined by Tourism Board executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon, Hong Kong Design Centre chairman Eric Yim Chi-ming and Urban Renewal Authority executive director Michael Ma Chiu-tsee at the meeting.

 

District councillor Vincent Cheng Wing-shun said their attendance reminded him of a meeting eight or nine years ago when three heritage sites in the area were earmarked for rejuvenation.

 

One of the sites was the former North Kowloon Magistracy, which now houses Savanah College, while a defunct factory was redeveloped as the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC). The third site, Mei Ho House, is now a youth hostel and museum.

 

But Cheng said the revitalisation projects had been a disappointment.?

 

"The operators of those three venues promised us a lot of things, such as better community collaboration and the promotion of culture and arts," he said.

 

"But take the JCCAC, for example. Local groups are almost barred from the venue," he said, referring to the stringent criteria that artists and arts groups had to meet to occupy studio spaces.

 

"It was as if they were looking down on us. This makes me worry about how the future design and fashion hub can engage and blend in with the community."

 

Cheng was not alone in expressing reservations about the project. Fellow district councillor Yeung Yuk said he feared it would unleash a wave of gentrification.

 

"Grass-roots residents are a large part of the Sham Shui Po community," Yeung said. "I fear the project will push up prices in the neighbourhood, and worse still, become a mismatch with the bazaars and street stalls nearby.Does the project include clearing out these areas that authorities think are too dirty for tourists to see?Yeung Yuk, Sham Shui Po district councillor"Does the project include clearing out these areas that the authorities think are too dirty for tourists to see?"

 

The councillors at the meeting also voiced concern about the possibility of rents rising, pushing out the small fabric, tailoring and clothing shops that gave the area its character.

 

Local designers have asked how the design venue would be marketed. PMQ caters to local shoppers and?tourists with upper middle-class incomes, and Kevin Ho, who runs his own clothing label said he was not sure if the same brands would thrive in Sham Shui Po.

 

"Sham Shui Po has always been an area with a humble background. You can get a jacket or a top for as cheap as HK$50. I'm not sure whether locals would con sider my garments," he said.

 

Ho, who specialises in womenswear, said a typical jacket from his brand went for HK$6,000, while tops cost HK$3,000.

 

"All of my clothes are tailor-made from quality materials and require a lot of craftsmanship, so it would be impossible to push prices any lower," he said.

 

While the convenience of being close to a wide range of fabric shops was advantageous, designer Shirley Wong said the location of the new hub was not desirable because it was not a known destination for fashion enthusiasts and tourists.

 

"I don't think shops would do well there, but having a subsidised studio or workshop space would help," Wong said.

 

But fellow designer Yeung Chin was more optimistic. He said the hub was likely to serve more tourists and fashion-conscious locals, and they were willing to pay higher prices.

 

"There must be space for us to sell our products. What's the good in having a studio for us to work in, a venue to hold fashion shows but nowhere for customers to go to and bring home a few pieces of clothing in the end?" he asked.

 

Yeung said that what designers wanted most was a communal workshop with a complete arsenal of machines and equipment to test out different garment treatment techniques.

 

"Polytechnic University is equipped with machines that will drastically cut our production time and costs, but they are only accessible if you study there. We have always dreamt of using the equipment, but that is unlikely to happen," he said.

 

Yeung now runs a boutique at PMQ which doubles as his workshop, and said the most significant difficulties local designers faced were a lack of financial and business resources. He hoped the future hub could provide more of such support.

 

He noted, for example, how designers had to source fabric and raw materials by visiting whole salers one by one.

 

"Is it possible that the hub could create a central database so we could put through orders in one terminal?" Yeung asked.

 

Yau addressed these concerns to some extent when he spoke of the groundwork that had to be laid now to ensure the design hub takes off when it is launched, which is likely to be in 2023.

 

To put the area on the radar of tourists, the Tourism Board will highlight the district's cultural and historical significance such as its street-food culture and vibrant wet markets.

 

These efforts will form part of a global campaign to draw visitors from high-end markets like South Korea, Europe and North America through nature, heritage and art activities.?

 

The campaign will be modelled after the Old Town Central campaign, a self-guided excursion for tourists through the hilly roads of Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island featuring maps and audiobooks highlighting notable heritage landmarks.

 

Earlier this week, the board confirmed that it would begin marketing Sham Shui Po in the second quarter of this year, and planned to do the same for five other districts, including Wan Chai.

 

"If the tourists can spend half a day in each of these districts, then we can lure them to stay for three days already," executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon said, as he revealed that?more than 60 million tourists were expected to arrive this year.

 

Melbourne-based designer Sam Giles, who was previously based in Hong Kong for eight years, suggested that the fashion and design hub cater to broad tastes rather than target an exclusive group of visitors. He hoped it would be a showcase of the old and new.

 

"I have met a lot of old ladies in the area who offer alteration services. Is there a way the hub can bring in such old-school talent and let the young ones learn from them, in a commercialisation of the trade?" he asked.

 

But for at least one fabric vendor with 30 years in the business, entrusting a new generation of Hongkongers to lead the district's revitalisation would not be such a bad idea.

 

Chen Hsing-chu, owner of Yick Fung Piece Goods, acknowledged that time was ticking for veteran entrepreneurs.

 

"Shops like ours are closing down one after another," he said. "By the time the hub is ready, I will probably have retired. I don't know how many of us will survive until then."

 

By Raymond Yeung and Harminder Singh

 

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