A visit to the outlying islands of Hong Kong, you say? What about Lamma Island, if you’re into eating? They offer scrumptious seafood along the coast. No? What about Lantau Island then, if you’re into hiking and great views? Oh, you’d rather rest? Well then… how about Cheung Chau, the tourist hotspot where you can basically do everything. There must be something for you there, biking, beaches, food, souvenirs – you name it!
Wait, what’s that? You want to visit Peng Chau? That’s a first… what’s there to do in Peng Chau anyway?
Easily accessible from Central Pier No. 6 but not often visited by people other than its inhabitants, Peng Chau Island was once an industrial powerhouse in the 1970s and 80s. It was home to many factories, making furniture, leather, light bulb, needle, ships and other types of handicrafts. In fact, in the 70s, one could even find the largest factory in Southeast Asia for making matches there.
However, the industrial side of Peng Chau is now just a shadow of its past. Unlike its neighbours today, the island does not focus on catering to tourists and instead just silently houses its inhabitants. Without good reason, a typical outsider would not travel there. But there is potential – a little workshop that many people do not know about called Chiu Kee Porcelain, a hidden gem that is simply a 30-minute ferry ride away.
Mrs. Nam Kiu, an elderly woman, was just opening up the gates of Chiu Kee Porcelain as I arrived outside her tiny store on a late Thursday afternoon. She greeted me cheerily as she invited me into her late husband’s oasis of porcelain pottery, telling me about the visit to her family in Cheung Chau recently. It was not my first time there – I had discovered Chiu Kee’s existence two months ago when I randomly stumbled across it one day during summer, and this time, I was back to collect my own hand-painted porcelain plate.
With only a Facebook page fully in Chinese as its presence on social media, Chiu Kee is a virtually unknown former ceramics factory. The page has only 400 likes and the last time it was updated in 2013.
In the 80s, it was a well-powered factory with 30 craftsmen including the Mr. Nam Chiu, who used his porcelain painting skills to feed his family. However, the influx of mass-produced mainland goods that came with time deeply affected the business, and in order to continue supporting his family, Mr. Nam had to take on other jobs. He had no choice but to downsize his workforce when circumstances became so bad that even being a night guard paid more.
In his absence, Mrs. Nam took over the daily running of the store and the painting of porcelain. Chiu Kee is one of the last original workshops in Peng Chau still running today and the last remaining family-owned pottery business in Hong Kong.
While I waited for the next ferry back to Hong Kong Island, Mrs. Nam arranged her ceramics. I watched as she carefully stuck her hand-written price tags onto several condiment palettes. After a bit, she moved on to organising a stack of hand-painted porcelain plates.
“These just came out of the stove,” Mrs. Nam said, gesturing to a small room behind the store. “They were painted by customers this week.”
She went on to explain that in the present day, producing porcelain cannot generate an income with the rising rent and expensive raw materials. A few years ago, in order to earn more money, Mr. and Mrs. Nam began to organise workshops for interested parties to experience painting their own porcelain plates, bowls or cups to bring home. These workshops have proved to be a success with younger customers and also spread the disappearing art of crafting porcelain to the next generation.
“Oh dear, these batch of plates were from August – of last year!” Mrs. Nam suddenly exclaimed while sorting out the plates. “And these – from 2011!”
She shuffled the colourful porcelain cutlery around, sighing.
“Some people say they’ll come and collect their pieces tomorrow, or next week, or next month… but they never come. I never throw my customers’ works away, but they give me a headache in terms of storage!”
Most of Chiu Kee’s visitors are young adults who have heard of the workshop through word of mouth. The only promotion that Mrs. Nam had somewhat intentionally done of her store was a 3-month course she had set up with a collaborator called Mr. Lee, as I later found out when a pair of customers came in.
“I heard about you through Mr. Lee from PMQ,” the pair said. “He told us that we could paint here?”
“Yes – Mr. Lee! Oh, but maybe not today, as it’s quite late already. Come back another day – just call me beforehand because I don’t open daily. You can book a session too, just gather at least two customers and I’ll open for you.”
After the couple’s departure, I curiously asked whether Mrs. Nam did anything to advertise the business, as it seemed that customers only heard about the store’s existence from their friends. The elderly woman shook her head in response.
“I don’t go out of my way to find the media. It’s not that I don’t welcome the journalists, or that I don’t enjoy better business, there’s simply no need. The media can come to me, I don’t mind, but I’m also happy living my life like this – I can open my store when I feel like it and have a vacation when I need a rest. It’s suitable for someone my age. Don’t worry though – there is enough money to manage for now!”
When asked if she would ever move on to something else, Mrs. Nam smiled.
“I first started painting to make a living and intense passion has faded with time, but other than this, what else can I do now? I’m old and no one will hire me… it is much more enjoyable than washing the dishes for McDonald’s, that’s for sure!”