HONG KONG – In a brightly lit cubicle tucked under the staircase of a tenement building in Hong Kong’s Jordan district, Mr Cheung Shun-king guided a chisel over a pearly white mahjong tile to form a groove of concentric circles.
“I have been doing this my whole life,” he said, standing to brush off the shavings with a voluminous feather duster. “That’s why I have to continue.”
Against a backdrop of breakneck transformation, handmade items in Hong Kong have taken on a special meaning among a younger generation, and those enamoured of the grit and glamour of the city’s late 20th century.
Over the past two decades, other family businesses and decades-old diners have been toppled by inhospitable rents and redevelopment projects. Political upheaval since 2019, coupled by restrictive pandemic rules, have triggered a wave of migration away from the city and kept tourists at bay. As one cultural icon after another has faded, residents have sought to hold onto what remains.
Mr Cheung, 70, came from a family of mahjong carvers and inherited Biu Kee Mahjong from his father in the 1960s. The future of his shop at 233 Temple St, which he has run for nearly three decades, is in limbo, and he may soon be forced to move because of government building regulations. But he continues to open the shop every day of the week. “I will keep working as long as I have the strength to do so,” he said.
While the game of strategy has remained popular in the city, mahjong parlours have faded out of fashion, and cheaper mass-produced sets dominate the consumer market. Handmade mahjong sets like those made by Mr Cheung and his father and grandfather have become increasingly uncommon. For a full set of 144 tiles, which takes him weeks to complete, Mr Cheung charges upward of HK$5,500 (S$969).
Mr Cheung has in recent years begun selling tiles with personalised messages or etchings. Prices start from HK$100 per word and HK$300 per drawing, and orders have to be placed by phone or on his Facebook page, with weeks of lead time.
New look at traditional crafts
A three-minute walk away from Biu Kee, up a flight of steps at the austere Bowring Commercial Center, Ms Miru Wong sells embroidered footwear at Sindart, a matchbox-size shop lined with jewel-toned slippers.
The business was first established in 1958 by her grandparents. Back then, h...