Uncle Mui is a self-started, lifelong inventor. He's enjoyed building electronic items for day to day use from whatever materials are available to him ever since he's a child. His connection to what's relevant to the common man probably explains why he's also a man of much popular culture savvy. When Chloe and I visited his hi-fi store recently, he gave us the chance to experience for real that entrancing scene in the cult film Infernal Affairs when Tony Leung and Andy Lau shared a moment of musical reverie before they commenced their duel as moles in each other's camp. Taking over from the movie's protagonists, the two of us indulged in a perfect rendition of Tsai Chin's The Forgotten Times from an expensive hi-fi system that Uncle Mui crafted himself.
Uncle Mui, or Tony Mui, is the father of Sarah, the Urban Diary designer. The 57-year-old started his own audio business nearly two years ago after he retired from over 25 years of working for companies that sell electrical components, initially as a business negotiator and later as a design engineer.
The end of one long career represents the start of an exciting new phase of life for Uncle Mui as he can now dedicate full-time to his childhood interest of inventing electronics for entertainment, even if that means forsaking the orthodox comforts of retirement for the inevitable pressures involved in starting a business. Any stress that he may face is more than compensated by his sheer enthusiasm, however, as the evergreen engineer can easily give anyone a 90-minute lecture on subjects ranging from the nuts and bolts of an audio system to how one can successfully build a new business.
Uncle Mui grew up on Wing Lee Street in Central. He recalled that when he's a primary school student, he spent a great deal of time hanging out at the home of one of his classmate's because that's the most entertaining place to be when he's out of a uniform. At that time, his classmate's brother was training to become an electrical engineer, so whenever he visited his friend, he would see electrical components lying around the flat. This was how he started to get interested in creating small electrical devices for fun.
It was also from his classmate's brother that he got to know about the local mecca for electronics buffs – Ap Liu Street in Shum Shui Po. Following the instructions carefully from his fellow inventor, he took the ferry from Central to the old Shum Shui Po pier. Ap Liu Street was already well-known among DIY engineers in the sixties as the place to go to for both the most ancient and the most advanced technology of the time. The more or less neatly lined, if cluttered, street stalls that we see today didn't exist back then, as sellers would lay out all their wares on the ground for public scrutiny. Most of the items found here were actually duds from factories in China. These components were very cheap even by the standards of the time, so people like Uncle Mui would buy plenty of them and invent their own electrical devices.
Uncle Mui created a range of electronic items based on what he learnt from DIY manuals that he devoured in bookshops and libraries plus advice he received from his classmate's brother. Among the gadgets that he made as toys, one of the most popular was a radio device that could be discreetly hidden inside a metal pencil box. It was so popular that the whole class asked him to make one for everybody so they could kill their boredom during lessons. That's Uncle Mui's first successful business venture. Later at Christmas time, he would be doing lighting decorations for his friends.
He went on to study at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, before starting a career that would span over a quarter of a century in the field of electrical components.
Looking back, the role of Ap Liu Street has changed from providing extremely affordable electrical components in the past to selling electrical products and accessories at very cheap prices these days. Now most people go there to buy accessories and to get updated on the latest electrical product trends instead of sourcing for components. Uncle Mui said that even though Ap Liu Street is no longer the grand bazaar of cheap electrical components that it once was, it's still a place where self-trained engineers can build up their knowledge as well networks, as people would approach you if you know enough and business deals are very often struck after random conversations.
Uncle Mui feels that inspiring places like the Ap Liu Street of his childhood are becoming a thing of the past. Nowadays, all electrical items are made in mainland China, and all one needs to do is to provide a manufacturer with drawings, and they'll build anything to order. Personal testing becomes irrelevant in this process, and with that goes the satisfaction of testing out different components and refining designs through constant creation of new products. As Uncle Mui said, copying and mass production are always quicker than inventing, and creative, individual enterprise will only suffer for that.
Just before the end of our interview, we asked Uncle Mui to play us Tsai Chin's spell-binding number one more time. Sitting on his comfortable couch, the music simply sent me afloat, and I know this is a moment that can only be achieved with Uncle Mui's lifelong experience, innovation and dedication.
A: I dislike Hong Kong's poor air quality and environmental hygiene. Look at Singapore!
A: Hong Kong has to develop its own high-quality and high value-added tertiary industry. Even if everyone wants to make the maximum amount of money, you still have to be ethical. At the same time, the Hong Kong government should diversify the city and its economy. For example, if the whole of Canton Road is only selling luxury goods which mainland Chinese tourists are very fond of, what would happen to the streetscape if the Chinese economy collapses one day? Will the whole street turn empty? The government needs a long term vision for the city.
And have we already run out of milk powder for babies? The government can ensure better supply and coordination between suppliers, distributors and outlets.
Also, if the Hong Kong property market is monopolized by the largest property developers in town, then the government should ask the smaller developers to build.
The MTRC refuses to build railway lines which don't give them high investment returns but at the same time, they refuse to channel the profits they make from property development into the construction and operation of the railway. Then ask another company to run the railway. When the government does little to solve these pressing social issues, why would our future generations want to stay in Hong Kong? If our future generations do not want to stay here, then how can our city be sustainable in the long run?
David was completely immersed in sewing a mini pouch when Chloe and I arrived at his studio for our visit. The pouches are free gifts that come with every purchase of the t-shirts that he designs. Each pouch is made with materials from those iconic "red, white, blue" striped nylon bags seen everywhere in Hong Kong. From the cleaning of the old nylon bags to the hammering of metal buttons into the trendy pouches that they become, David manages every step in the making of these creative items all by himself.
David Yeung, 30, is a long-standing friend of mine. We met in London eight years ago, when he's studying graphic design and I was doing urban planning. I'm always impressed by his bubbly character, creativity, dedication and perseverance even in the smallest things. Take the shirt tags in his designer tees, they double up as a business card for his label. What's more, separating the tag in the middle makes two bookmarks. Everyone in my office is amazed by the quality of the pouches, thinking that they must be from G.O.D. or some other trendy local boutique. The excitement for the accessories is perhaps the best endorsement of the huge amount of effort that David has invested into his business.
He started his fashion label Lambmark more than a year ago. The label reflects his Christian values and is also a play on his surname ‘Yeung', which has the same pronunciation as lamb in Cantonese. Upon graduation, he joined a garment company back in Hong Kong to design t-shirt graphics, cloth tags, packaging and back pockets of jeans. This experience would put him in good stead when it's time for him to build a start-up and run his own garment business.
"I've been professionally trained as a designer since I was 17. Every designer dreams about having his own gallery so they can express what they think. What I'm now pursing is no different – by starting my own business and selling products that I design myself, I'm able to express myself to the audience," said David. "I'm a Hong Kong born-and-bred. I love Hong Kong and know this city well. If I could, I wish to serve the people in Hong Kong first as I'm proud of my homeland. Also, this city gives me the freedom of creation and opens my eyes to markets around the world. There are many opportunities available to passionate designers."
Launching a start-up in Hong Kong is no easy task. It took David 21 months to set up the Lambmark studio in Fo Tan. Every stage of the production process takes place in this 1,500 sq. feet space. David's workshop is neither a grim, messy factory-like unit, nor a studio with fancy decor and stylish fittings; it is a rather modest, neat and tidy studio cum workspace. Every part in this studio is specially designed for a different production process; they're interlinked yet separated spatially. From design and production, to sewing, printing and marketing photo shoots, the studio is a one-stop shop for clothing design and production. With his pink bike parked at the studio entrance and a big pool table taking centre stage inside, having fun in the workplace is always David's motto.
But as I was listening to his Hong Kong start-up story, it feels as if starting a new business in this city is doomed to be a lost cause. The biggest issues facing a small enterprise include high rents, difficult suppliers and limited sales channels. "Sometimes when I try to place orders for plain garments, I get turned away because the quantity that I want is too small. Other suppliers would just generally treat small companies without much respect. Sales channels are also a problem as street level shops in Hong Kong are so expensive that small independent businesses simply cannot afford the rents. High land prices mean it's harder for artists to show their work to the general public, so their interactions within the society and community are limited. All you can rely on for now is your company's online shop as the main sales channel," said David.
He also spoke about the difficulties in setting up a business in the art and design industry. "Why can't Hong Kong brands develop on the international stage, while brands from other countries can? Perhaps we need to cultivate the ability of Hong Kong people to appreciate good art and design, so that they'll increase their appreciation of local Hong Kong designers instead of just chasing after global luxury brands."
Despite all these difficulties, David is determined to succeed. Apart from having a business of his own, he also wants to establish a brand with positive and encouraging values. Currently, Lambmark has a range of clothing products which include t-shirts, hoodies and other accessories. Many of the design concepts behind his products originate from his Christian beliefs and also from his focus on people and human well-being. He explained: "Every designer wants to express themselves in their own artwork. As you grow up, you'll realize there are so many messages out there in this world, so I chose the one which I've adopted and express it in my work."
"I've also spent a huge amount of time researching the latest trends in graphic design, printing and fashion so I can make my brand both fashionable and fun. I want others to look at my products, and to reflect on what I've expressed through them, particularly what I want to say about life."
He continued: "This is also a big reason why I started this brand and developed my career in the manufacturing and design industry. People can't be happy simply by looking at numbers and figures in the stock market. Why can't they be happy from looking at artworks and nice designs? If small creative enterprises can flourish in other countries, why can't the same happen in Hong Kong? "
His love of the city also explains why he set up his business in Hong Kong. "Although the competition is fierce, I want my brand to possess the best qualities of Hong Kong: it will never yield to challenges, failures or difficulties. I love Hong Kong because my family is here, and the people that I care and want to interact with are here. Life is short and there is no time for regretting," said David.
As I went through his t-shirt designs, I saw the words "Handle with Care" in one of them. David explained that he got the design inspiration from the box that his t-shirt graphics printing machine was delivered in. "I saw the sign when I was unpacking the machine, then I realised actually, humans need to be handled with care too as we are all human beings with different needs. We all need to be handled with care and be nice to each other, especially in a stressful place like Hong Kong."
Will this city give David and Lambmark a chance to do something different for the people, despite all the obstacles facing small and medium enterprises in Hong Kong?
Before we left David's studio, we saw a guitar next to his desk. He then strummed us a few tunes that he's written over the years. One of them is a song about office life. "It is a song I wrote when I was daydreaming in my former office, reflecting on typical Hong Kong office routines and stress." The song truly reflects David's personality: he's always thinking and dreaming about something funny when he's doing something seemingly routine and 'normal'. Perhaps this is exactly what Lambmark is all about: trying to have some fun and make a little difference to the humdrum of everyday life. Perhaps all David needs is a chance to bring his dreams to Hong Kong, to inject some positivity to this place. At the very least, he's giving us a bit of breathing space in this often maddening city.