24 October 2016
Michelle takes care of design and production of the bags, while her husband finds the best way to present and sell them online. Photo: Facebook/Misala
Michelle takes care of design and production of the bags, while her husband finds the best way to present and sell them online. Photo: Facebook/Misala

How a HK couple are crafting their second life in Taipei

After one year of planning, six months of preparation and a two-week field trip, Sanford and Michelle’s Taipei workshop finally opened for business in July 2013.

The two-year-old operation is still alive and kicking.

The start-up has been promoting its own brand of bags and purses through Facebook, bloggers and various Taiwanese media outlets as well as its own website.

The company also takes part in craft fairs in Hong Kong, the couple’s hometown.

Sanford and Michelle were both railway engineers.

Attracted by generous pay and the exposure, Sanford took a job in Dubai in 2009.

The couple spent three years in the Middle Eastern country, where they started to seriously think about a different lifestyle.

The fact was that Michelle was fed up with the nine-to-five office routine.

“Pursuing an engineering career is not the kind of life I want,” she told reporters.

The pair were also unsettled by the changing political atmosphere in Hong Kong, not to mention the rising cost of living and worsening quality of life.

Noticing how unhappy Michelle had been and seeing the kind of quality handmade bags she had been making and trial-selling, her husband decided to turn her hobby and craft into a business.

They thought about a few options.

Dubai requires foreign firms to hire locals for at least 50 percent of their staff, and operating costs there are expensive.

Hong Kong rents are chokingly high, and quality control would be difficult in China.

That’s why they decided to use Taiwan as their production base.

In this global village, Stanford reckoned they could sell things from anywhere in the world, but they wanted a place where they can live happily and the cost of living is affordable.

At about half to a quarter the cost of Hong Kong, Taipei became an obvious choice.

More importantly, unlike Hong Kong, where people recognize only luxury brands, Taiwanese value handicrafts and creativity.

In Taipei, there is a cluster of artists and artisans.

“We can find lots of people sharing similar dreams,” Michelle said.

“They truly understand what we are trying to do.”

Precisely because there is such a cluster of like-minded people, the couple can secure supplies of quality parts.

The cheap cost of mailing parcels is another key plus given their online business model.

Another of Taiwan’s attractions is that it has more diverse regional cultures.

In Hong Kong, people from Mongkok and Taikoo Shing are, most likely, no different.

But Hualien and Tainan, for example have distinct cultures.

Originally, the couple didn’t plan to migrate to Taiwan.

But having planned to invest NT$5 million (US$158,000) in their business, they were told that amount already qualified them to apply for residency.

So the pair started their venture and moved to Taiwan just before they turned 30.

Most of their clients are from the United States.

But their brand, Misala (Michelle as pronounced in Arabic), is also gaining traction elsewhere.

The husband and wife team work perfectly together, with Michelle looking after the production side and Sanford (Michelle calls him an idiot if you take away his computer) taking care of the website, online marketing and other promotion.

Having got off to a good start, Sanford said he wants to spare some time to do consultancy work for similar start-ups and share a few tricks with them.

Their workshop is open to visitors.

Customers can come by to see the products they have chosen being made.

Sometimes, neighbors, their Taiwanese friends or visitors from Hong Kong also pop in.

Rather than making quick money, the couple’s philosophy is doing the right thing and treating their staff properly, something rarely seen in Hong Kong’s commercial world.

It is evident that the couple have said goodbye to Hong Kong life and the Hong Kong way.

In Hong Kong, most people pick a job that pays the bills, Michelle said, but in Taiwan, she is doing something she enjoys and is happy earning just enough to get by.

As for Hong Kong, it’s now just their hometown, a place they consider unfit for living and to which they will never consider returning for their retirement.

Planning to stay in Taiwan for good, they are looking around for the best place on the island.

They are thinking about Nantou county, where houses are affordable and they can enjoy nature’s beauty and bounty.

“With the amount we earn, we are afraid we cannot survive in Hong Kong any more,” they said.

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Michelle loves to create designs with a distinctive character. She said Asian clients tend to prefer more functional products, but her unique designs are very popular with western customers. Photo: Facebook/Misala

Although Michelle chose to live in Taiwan, she still cares about Hong Kong. She made this umbrella coin purse last year to cheer on those taking part in the Occupy movement. Photo: Facebook/Misala

EJ Insight writer

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