An old man wearing a white bushy beard and a happy smile is the one and only umbrella expert left in the city following the death of Ho Hung-hei, Hong Kong’s “King of Umbrella”, in July.
Yau Yiu-wai, 61, is a fifth-generation member of the family running the umbrella business. His family started the trade by opening a shop in Guangzhou in 1842.
Having spent a lifetime selling and repairing umbrellas in Sham Shui Po, Yau has got so used to welcoming tourists and visitors. His shop is decorated with his proud works of handmade bottle windmills and paper crafts.
“I love things that move,” says Yau. “They look lively and make everyone happy.”
There was once a customer who was willing to pay a thousand dollars for his bottle windmills.
However, Yau refused, saying that they are works of art that are absolutely not for sale.
Yau has a gift for doing handicrafts. He either repairs the umbrellas for the customers or making his lovely artworks during the day.
“It takes 40 minutes to fix an umbrella. I charge HK$50 for each. If it is a difficult umbrella, then it will cost HK$80. I charge by the amount of time devoted to my work — just like lawyers!”
He pulls out a traditional British umbrella, which was left by an 80-year-old ship captain.
“This umbrella is an antique. It was very popular 40 years ago. The frame was made of steel and the handle was plated with silver. It cost HK$200, but a flat in Hong Kong at that time was only HK$20,000,” he recalls.
But it isn’t Yau’s favorite as it is far too heavy. To him, pocket umbrellas are the best as they are convenient.
However, the market is full of low-quality pocket umbrellas as people prefer light-weight ones and don’t mind the quality.
“Somehow you can’t blame the manufacturers entirely. There’s supply where there’s a demand,” Yau explains. “But there are people complaining my HK$20 umbrellas are expensive, telling me that they prefer the ones costing only HK$5 in Yau Ma Tei. It’s ridiculous they prefer broken umbrellas from the bin.”
Since umbrellas are no longer expensive, it is interesting that many people still visit Yau’s shop and pay to fix their umbrellas.
“People usually come along with their favorites, usually bought abroad or gifts from others,” he notes.
As an umbrella expert, Yau couldn’t help giving some tips.
The best umbrellas are those made in South Korea using umbrella frames from Germany, he says.
In order to make an umbrella more long-lasting, people should give it a shake before opening it and never forget to dry it completely before folding it.
Yau regards umbrellas as durables as well as works of art.
“The umbrella has become a symbol since the Occupy Movement. In ancient times the Chinese emperor went on parade under the shade of an umbrella.”
During last year’s pro-democracy protests, Yau sold over a few hundred yellow umbrellas to people at wholesale prices. After that, he couldn’t manage to find many yellow ones.
Customs officers are probably checking for huge shipments of yellow-only umbrellas, he jokes.
Yau compares people to umbrellas. Nothing is impossible as long as one can support himself like an upright umbrella.
“Umbrellas are beautiful when it is stretched out,” he says. “People should keep themselves in high spirits and never go into hiding like a folded umbrella.”
He sees Hong Kong as a broken umbrella as contending parties in society have reached a deadlock.
It is good if they can come up with something, but it also may be no good at all, Yau says. “They are idle if they don’t do something. But if they do, everything will then drag on.”
“Except for CY Leung, I guess no one would like to come forward to be Hong Kong’s chief executive,” he says. “Why? Because it’s a cursed position and whoever occupies it is bound to reap criticisms.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 13.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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