First and Last Standing: Hong Kong’s Porcelain Craftsman Preserves Traditional Art

Yuet Tung China Works factory, Kowloon Bay Industrial Centre. Photo by Zoe Law

Inside the warehouse of Kowloon Bay Industrial Centre lies a hidden gem overlooked by the public. Upon stepping into the store, you are greeted with overflowing shelves of ceramics, each one with their unique shape and vibrant patterns. As you squeeze through a narrow passage flanked by stacks of porcelains, you are greeted by a craftsman working meticulously on a porcelain under a small desk lamp.

Piles and piles of porcelains. Photo by Zoe Law

“It’s actually not entirely about passing on the tradition, but also about continuing the family business,” said Joseph Tso Chi-hung, owner of the porcelain factory and grandson of the factory’s founder.

Yuet Tung China Works, established in 1928, is the last factory that produces hand-painted porcelain in Hong Kong. Its decorative porcelain ware is called Canton porcelain, or “Guang Cai,” which has more than 300 years of history since the Ming dynasty. The industry started to prosper during the 70s with several thousand people practising the skill, but that number has reduced to a handful of local craftsmen today.

“I basically grew up in the factory and started working here as a kid to learn the steps of making a hand-painted porcelain. So naturally after secondary school, in 1968, I took over the business,” Tso added.

One of the few craftsmen in Yuet Tung China Works. Photo by Zoe Law

Many local people like Tso are becoming more concerned about cultural preservation in Hong Kong. The city has undergone several redevelopment plans at the expense of local heritage, including demolition of Lee Tung Street which used to be internationally famed for manufacturing wedding cards, and the historically significant Red House, which was controversially sold to a bidder from mainland China in November 2016. This coincides with the government’s effort to promote public interest in art through events such as Art Central and Art Basel in March 2017.

Public demand for porcelain ware has been waning slowly, and the majority of Yuet Tung China Works’ porcelain tableware are sold to establishments such as hotels and restaurants. These porcelain wares used to be a popular export commodity to the West. Today, one can see tourists digging through the porcelains in the store.

The owner of Yuet Tung China Work, Joseph Chi-hung Tso, explains to a foreign customer about the porcelains. Photo by Zoe Law

“There are a lot of changes over the years. My dad started to use stamps to decorate some of the porcelain wares in order to increase production speed during the 1960s. Later, we introduced the special stickers for outlining simple floral patterns. But, we still follow the tradition of painting [procelains] by hand,” said Tso.

Originally having around 20 craftsmen, Yuet Tung China Works has downsized massively due to increasing cost, meanwhile, its competitors have moved to mainland China for cheaper labor. Tso now manages the factory alone.

Hand-painted porcelain. Photo by Zoe Law

Tso did not seem worried when asked if he has found a successor after his retirement.

“A lot of people said they wanted to learn, but unlike the old craftsmen, they do not treat it as a career, but a hobby. They have to be very patient and meticulous, they have to dedicate two to three years in order to fully grasp the skills. It is rare to find someone who has the same type of craftsmanship as people we used to have.”

Yuet Tung China Works, the last hand-painted porcelain factory in Hong Kong. Photo by Zoe Law

Writer & Photo: Zoe Law

Editor: Gene Lin

Copy Editor: Yu Lynn Tan

Online Team: Sara Furxhi

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