05 Jul The last surviving Hong Kong tailor shops hidden in a North Point shopping arcade
North Point has always been a magnet for immigrants. Many Shanghainese and Fujianese settled here in the years of Chinese civil war and they turned the neighbourhood into a leisure hotspot. This route traces the treasures they brought with them, the iconic State Theatre and a string of amusement parks, dance clubs and restaurants. Later many more South East Asians moved here, adding yet another flavour to North Point ‘s unique cultural landscape. We met with the two tailor masters in Brilliant Tailor Shop and learn more about their stories.
“EVERY FAMILY NEEDED ONE TO TWO SUIT SETS, ESPECIALLY AROUND THE NEW YEAR”
Meet the master tailors
By the afternoon, many shops had pulled down their front metal gate in North Point’s State Theatre Shopping Arcade. Some shops had already been vacant for a long time since the theatre closed in 1997. One shop’s sign was still lit, detailed with a sharp red Chinese font on a white background, stood out in this mall.
Textiles hung on an adjacent wall, covering it almost to the ceiling. “In the 1970s, wearing suits was popular. However, this trend started to decline in the 1990s. Originally, I intended to retire, but 20 years later and I am still working,” quipped Mr. Tsang, the owner of Brilliant Tailor. Mr. Tsang has witnessed the tailoring industry over the past 50 years, from its peak to its decline. Looking back, Mr. Tsang said that he was satisfied with his life-long career. “There is nothing to regret. [The garment industry] faced an inevitable decline, and its time has come to an end.”
“IN THE PAST, EVERY STREET HAD ONE OR TWO SHOPS FOR TAILORING, EVEN MORE THAN SHOPS FOR RICE!”
Brilliant Tailor is one of the very few shops still open in the State Theatre Shopping Arcade
The Tsang brothers worked as a tailor for over decades
Mr. Tsang, now 76 years old, was born in Bao’an District in Shenzhen. Years ago, he immigrated to Hong Kong and settled in North Point. As a youth, he was interested in tailoring work, so at the age of 20, he became an apprentice for two years. “Sometimes, I needed to cut and iron the garment for the master tailor. During those years, I had to sleep under the shop table. It was quite pitiful.” In the 1970s, the garment industry thrived. “In the past, every street had one or two shops for tailoring, even more than shops for rice,” explained the younger Tsang brother, who quietly worked by his elder brother’s side.
The younger Tsang brother is 60 years old. After immigrating to Hong Kong, he followed his brother who worked in North Point Centre, before finally buying a shop stall in the State Theatre Mall. Together, the brothers persevered. “Business during that time flourished. Almost everyone would have one to two suits made for themselves. During that peak time, we made twenty to thirty suit sets per month. Since the State Theatre Mall was next to the State Theatre, which at that time was a very popular venue, many celebrities would come to have a suit made, including Adam Cheng and John Chiang.
In the 1970s, there was no prêt-à-porter. All clothes were custom made for the buyer. “One suit set cost a few bucks. The most expensive set cost around one hundred dollars. Every family needed one to two suit sets, especially around the New Year.” In anticipation of the Chinese New Year, everyone rushed to buy a new suit to celebrate new beginnings. “After waking, I would go to the store to begin working at 7 or 8am, and continued until around 1am or 2am. Once, I even worked for almost 20 hours. Nearing the eve of Chinese New Year, many customers would ask us to expedite their orders. The shop was so busy, I had to let the assistants handle the requests!” Mr. Tsang smiled at the memory as if it happened just yesterday. During those day, they rented a place in the State Theatre as their factory and recruited other skilled craftsmen to work day and night, providing them also with room and board. Now, Mr. Tsang is the highest master tailor.
“Everyone rushed to buy a new suit to celebrate Chinese New Year, I worked for almost 20 hours in the New Year’s Eve!”
The time when we paid attention to detail, not anymore
Despite his long career and perfected skills, Mr. Tsang reveals the difficulty of the trade. “There are very few people entering the tailoring industry. Even if you spend years as an apprentice, you may not succeed in your business. Even if you succeed, that doesn’t mean that you have perfected the skills. Tailoring is a difficult craft!” To start with, measuring the size of a customer is not as easy as you’ve thought. “We have to remember all the body contours of the client, including a rounded back, a short neck or an uneven shoulder. If the client has a rounded back, you must make the back of the suit longer. If someone arch their chests, we need to add more fabric in the front. All of these qualities need attention.”
In the past, everyone preferred to wear a full suit set, including the jacket. Most of the materials were imported directly from the UK, and clients wished to reflect the fashion style of the British gentleman. Working together, the Tsang brothers would also wear such trousers and shirts, and they sat in chairs with their backs straight and their work style meticulous. Upon meeting, the wife of Mr. Tsang had been attracted by his proper attire. “In those years there many female factory workers, including my wife, who worked at the nearby King’s Center. She was making clothes on the upper floor. Of course I have to find someone who can help with my business.”
In the 1980s, the garment industry gradually emerged. “It was difficult at that time. However, after the opening-up of the mainland, more people came, so the business could be maintained. But by the 1990s, wholesale clothing became popular, and custom-made clothing experienced a downturn. Those mass-produced garments were well-designed and cheap. It was obvious why our industry declined.” In addition to emerging competition from the garment industry, people started to have a different take on clothing. “In the past, people were very particular about their clothes. Every inch matters. People these days don’t care that much, that’s why the suits are cheaper now and made with less detail.”
“IN THE PAST, PEOPLE WERE VERY PARTICULAR ABOUT THEIR CLOTHES. EVERY INCH MATTERS”
Measuring the size of a customer is not as easy as you’ve thought. Tsang brothers make sure all the details are accurate
Tsang still uses a Brother brand sewing machine made in Japan 50 years ago
Most fabrics were imported directly from the UK, and clients wished to reflect the fashion style of the British gentleman
No signs of stopping
After working for more than half a century, Mr. Tsang sold the street-front shop. His children grew up. “In the 1990s, I was prepared to retire. At the time, a ginseng shop asked to sublet the store at ten times the original rent price, so we moved to this current store in the State Theatre Mall. The rent is cheap, so the business has continued over the years. Finally, we became “semi-retired” for more than 20 years, which is unbelievable. In fact, we have a sense of attachment to this place. Some of our friends retired, and after that we never heard back from them, that’s why I don’t want to retire. Life in retirement could be boring, quiet and idle, and it could speed up the deterioration of my body.”
During our conversation, many old customers came over and chatted with the Tsang brothers. “Some customers bring suits they bought ten years ago, and ask for modification, they were very fit before and now they come back with big bellies! ”
Although tailoring is a declining industry, with few young people wishing to learn the skill, Mr. Tsang is still satisfied. “I feel fulfilled, and have no regrets. This has been a sunset industry for some years already, and the time to close down may be approaching.”
The Tsang’s brothers show no signs of stopping. “Semi-retired” for over 20 year, they still want to run this shop as long as they could
“I DON’T WANT TO RETIRE. LIFE IN RETIREMENT COULD BE BORING, QUIET AND IDLE, AND IT COULD SPEED UP THE DETERIORATION OF MY BODY”
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Words by Sally Chong
Sally Chong loves writing. Graduated from the School of Journalism, Chinese University of Hong Kong, she truly believes she’s a“pseudo-KOL”/ travel blogger/journalist/editor/content creator. Sally enjoyed strolling along the streets, listening to stories and searching for her true self. She published these stories online as travel blogs, as she still believes words is a powerful way of recording. Find her on Instagram walking_travel.
Photography by Bertha Wang
Bertha Wang is a photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. Her work is mainly focused on issues relating to identity and the urban landscape. She is interested in using photography to explore the impacts of different social interactions on urban cultures. She is also passionate in travel, believing that photography can serve as a wonderful means for communicating urban stories. www.berthawang.com