As far as Hong Kong markets go, the one on Heung Che Street is a classic. Gai lan and choy sum spill out of styrofoam boxes, ready to be sold by the catty for tonight’s dinner. Vinyl awnings shelter produce from the sun. The market is a drab concrete structure that could easily be mistaken for a multi-storey car park, but hawkers have invested its utilitarian corridors with dry-cured meat, cheerful piles of oranges and live fish that flop around in plastic buckets.
It’s the kind of affordable, unpretentious wet market you’ll find in working-class neighbourhoods all over Hong Kong. But the Heung Che Street Market differs from others in one important way: it’s the first one whose hawkers wear their own tailor-made aprons.
“Look at this – I can put my phone in the pocket and it never falls out!” says a vegetable hawker everyone knows as Sister Kwai. She is wearing a stylish black apron tied snugly around her waist. Picking up her smartphone from the counter, she puts it in her pocket and leans over to demonstrate. Sure enough, it stays in place.
Sister Kwai is one of several hawkers in the market who worked with designers from CHAT — the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile — to create their own personalised aprons. CHAT is part of The Mills, a new art, design and culture complex that will open later this year in the old Nan Fung textile mills, which are located just a few blocks from the market in Tsuen Wan. “We want to see how textiles relate to our daily life,” says curator Him Lo, who oversees the apron project.
Lo and his colleagues often found themselves walking past the market on their way to and from work. “We noticed different stalls had different types of aprons,” he says. But that was the extent of their customisation. “It turns out they had never thought about whether they wanted a better apron. We asked them what they wanted to change. Was it too long? Too short?”
The hawkers had a laundry list of complaints. Hong Kong-style butchery is a messy business, with blood and meat flying in every direction as butchers chop through bone with heavy cleavers. They need to wash and bleach their aprons every day, which means they don’t last very long. Other hawkers were frustrated that their aprons didn’t have enough pockets, or they had a tendency to slip off.
Some simply wanted a better looking apron. “The butcher is really interesting – he’s a twenty-something guy and he listens to heavy metal music,” says Lo. “He asked if he could have an apron made from denim because it looked cool.”
With the help of markers and stickers, the hawkers helped CHAT’s designers understand what they wanted from an apron. Then CHAT teamed up with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to see how they could use the latest cutting-edge textiles in their work. Retired seamstresses made the aprons and finished them last August. There are four different varieties, one each for greengrocers, butchers, tofu makers and roast meat vendors. The fabric is waterproof, greaseproof, stain-free and wrinkle-free, thanks to a new nanoparticle coating that allows the fabric to clean itself when exposed to light.
The apron project is now entering a second phase as design students from the Caritas Bianchi College of Careers work with an even bigger range of businesses around Tsuen Wan, including a bakery, a carwash run by disabled people, a Thai restaurant and a fast food shop.
Lo says it’s a way to build bridges between designers and the community. He has been working with CHAT since 2016, but many might recognise him as a sculptor, painter and performance artist. Lo was a professional footballer when he was young, but he began to draw and paint after he was sidelined by a leg injury. Eventually, he became interested in the relationship between art and community, focusing on projects that involve kai fong. “It’s about creating a platform for different generations to communicate and share stories,” he says.
That’s particularly significant when it comes to textiles. Tsuen Wan was once an industrial hub filled with mills and garment factories, many of them established by industrialists who left Shanghai after the Communist Revolution. But China’s market reforms in the 1980s lured the industry across the border, leaving an entire generation of weavers, dyers and seamstresses out of work.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s colleges and universities are bringing up a new crop of designers – many of whom have little experience in actually making products like aprons. Projects like this bring these designers together with the people who will actually make and wear their creations. “It’s not just top down,” says Lo. “A designer has to listen.”
Lo says textiles knit together even more disparate communities. “We will have a programme this summer called ‘Let’s build a textile village,’” he says. “A textile village is not just Tsuen Wan. After Hong Kong, the industry went to mainland China, then Vietnam, and maybe after it will be Africa. It’s a linkage between different countries.”
For now, the impact will be decidedly more local. Back at the Heung Che Street Market, Lo walks through the upstairs cooked food centre, where noodle shops have strung awning across the walkway to create a sheltered outdoor dining area. “Look at what they’ve done,” he says with admiration.
Heading back to the ground level, he waits for the group of students he will take to the new batch of businesses. It’s the first time they will meet the people that will eventually wear their aprons – the first step in a new relationship. Eventually, the students assemble. “Let’s see what happens,” says Lo, and they set off down the street.
CHAT’s space in The Mills will open in summer 2018. Click here for more information.