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Posts tagged “houseware

CHU WING KEE: HOMEWARES FROM THE MOUNTAINS (朱榮記山貨), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

In the Cat Street neighbourhood, the story of Uncle Tim might have come to an end, but another piece of collective memory from the 1960’s continues to live on. Not a cool vintage store, nor a hip design shop, the down to earth Chu Wing Kee (朱榮記) just happens to make its name as an honest and ordinary homeware shop. Local homewares shops like Chu Wing Kee were pretty common in Hong Kong before 1970’s. As the city entered the decades of economic boom, most of these shops have faded out from the urban scenery. Supermarkets, department stores, dollar shops, convenient store chain, and even online shopping have virtually wiped out these shops. As property prices skyrocketed in recent decades, a 1000 sq.ft ground floor retail space in central Hong Kong could worth about USD 4 million. For a shop owner selling housewares at a few USD a piece, selling the shop makes much more sense than continuing the business. Paying a high rent to sell everyday merchandises also doesn’t make it profitable either. The gradual death of traditional homeware shops in Hong Kong seems inevitable. But there are exceptions. Chu Wing Kee is one of these rarities.

Chu Wing Kee started in 1959 by the father of Mr. Chu, the current owner of the shop, with a street stall selling “shan for” (山貨), or “goods from the mountains”. “Shan for” literally refers to housewares and furniture made of natural materials, notably handicrafts made of rattan, bamboo, reed, wood or grass. In mid 20th century, wickenworks made with rattan were very popular. In Hong Kong, these products were handmade and sold during the dry season. In the 1970’s, Hong Kong had became a major manufacturing city of plastic products. Traditional handmade “shan for” proved to be no match against the cheaper and mass produced plastic products. “Shan for” has quietly faded out from most homes. Rattan was perceived as dated and dull, not as exciting as the colourful plastic products. Two generations have since passed. Rattan decor is making a comeback in recent years. So what actually is rattan? Rattan is a climbing plant belongs to the palm family. It can be found in rainforests in Asia, Africa and Australia. It is light, durable and relatively flexible. It serves as a good alternative to timber. Rattan usually grows under shade in rainforests, and can even be cultivated under fruit or rubber trees. However, as deforestation intensifies in recent decades, so as the population of rattan.

As a traditional shop selling “shan for” (山貨), Chu Wing Kee still offers a wide range of rattan goods and other products made locally with natural materials. Since most local craftsmen are getting quite advance in age, Mr. Chu might eventually have to rely on imported products from Southeast Asia. For now, Mr. Chu still manages to offer some local “shan for”, and other vintage housewares dated back to the 1960’s. For many, checking out Chu Wing Kee might be a nostalgic journey to hunt for childhood memories from a treasure trove. Apart from rattan items, ceramic and plastic piggy banks are two of the most popular merchandises Mr. Chu is offering Hongkongers. Other notable vintage products include plastic toys, traditional thermal bottles, metal mailboxes, ceramic chicken bowls, ceramic cooking pots and rice storage, wood laundry washboard, etc. For us living in the area, Mr. Chu’s shop offers some handy products that even supermarkets or department stores no longer carry. In early spring this year, we couldn’t resist but picked up a handmade rattan/bamboo chair. Touching the pencil marks on the bamboo chair arms reminded us how the chair was made by the chair maker, who had soaked, bend and tied the pieces together with his dexterous hands.

Chu Wing Kee is located at Possession Street, the spot where the British first landed on Hong Kong Island in 1841.
Like many traditional homeware and “shan for” stores, many merchandises at Chu Wing Kee are hung above the shopfront.
The chaotic shopfront of a traditional homeware store has become a rarity nowadays. The rattan drying plates remind visitors an old style of living, when people would sundry vegetables, spices or seafood at home.
Made in Hong Kong, the eye-catching plastic piggy banks were extremely popular in the 1980’s when banks and some big companies would give out these red piggies as gifts to customers. In fact, these piggies were byproducts from the era of blooming plastic and toy manufacturing industry in Hong Kong.
Today, the red piggies greet customers from the pedestrian curb.
We ended up buying a rattan / bamboo chair from Mr. Chu, perhaps out of admiration of a fading handicraft tradition and a nostalgic considerations.
Simple plastic balls have brightened up the childhood for kids growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Peeking into the shop, we could see a wide range of rattan containers or baskets hung from the ceiling.
Given the popularity of laundry machines and coin laundry shops, traditional wood washboard is quite hard to find these days.
Ceramic rice storage container is another rarity these days.
Ceramic pots were common for making Chinese soup and braised meat.
Vintage enamel basin can be a colourful addition to the minimalist decor of contemporary interiors.
Before the emergence of plastic piggy banks, ceramic piggy banks were popular gifts for kids.
Vintage thermal flasks and thermal containers were widely used at homes or for getting takeouts in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Handmade metal mailboxes are mostly associated with tenement apartments (唐樓). Now the old apartments are being torn down across the city rapidly, and many mailbox makers are in their twilight age, the mailboxes have become been revived as a local handicraft popular among designers and the young generation.
Referring to the red plastic piggy banks, the sign “not for sale, legendary merchandise” reveals its significance to the history of Hong Kong manufacturing industry and collective memories of a generation.
Before the emergence of fancy Japanese ceramics and the affordable ones made in China swamped the market, there were once locally made ceramic housewares in Hong Kong. The most iconic one was the “chicken bowl”, a bowl decorated with brush drawn chickens.
Rattan baskets and containers come in all sides and shapes.
Products made of natural materials are making a strong comeback in recent years.
Apart from practical homewares, we can also find vintage toys in Chu Wing Kee.