A durian’s throw away from the commotion of the Yau Ma Tei fruit market lies Lee Wo Steelyard, a stall that has quietly supported the neighbourhood’s businesses for over 80 years. You may have never set foot here in Shek Lung Street, a redbrick lane that runs behind the Yau Ma Tei Theatre. Even if you have, you could have easily missed this matchbox-sized living museum that specialises in Chinese scales, offspring rulers and abacuses. It’s the last shop in Hong Kong that still makes and sells its own measuring devices.
Known as steelyard balances (dang2 cing3 戥秤), these types of scales are said to have been invented around 200 BC, and they have long been essential to the commercial life that has shaped Chinese cities. Like many of Hong Kong’s traditional businesses, Lee Wo traces its origins to Guangzhou, where a man named Wong Yuen-cheung began learning the trade at the age of 12. After a tough four-year apprenticeship, he set off to Hong Kong to open his own business, Lee Wo, in the 1930s.
Wong’s daughter, who is known simply as Mrs. Ho, has been around the trade since she was born. She grew up in the stall and learnt the craft by observing her father. She says she was moved by stories of his apprenticeship in Guangzhou, when his colleagues played mean pranks on him from time to time, like sending him out to run an errand when the staff meal was almost ready. Upon his return, all the dishes were finished and he was left with little but fermented bean curd. Wong soldiered on nonetheless. After he passed away in the late 1960s, Ho took over the stall.
At the time, the harbourfront was just a short hop from Lee Wo’s stall, and Yau Ma Tei was filled with small businesses selling fish and vegetables – trades that required measuring devices. Ho remembers working from 7 o’clock in the morning until 10 in the evening. Many hawkers operated illegally, and they left behind countless scales when they were chased by police. “They would need new replacements time and time again,” she says.
Other businesses competed with Lee Wo, but it thrived by word of mouth thanks to the quality of its products. The stall used to receive plenty of custom orders, and the range of scales was much wider than what is available now. Scales were made to measure gold, medicine, chicken, roasted meat, produce and fish. “We even had a specific kind of scale for opium,” whispers Ho.
The principle behind all kinds of Chinese scales is more or less the same. They consist of three main components: a beam, a metal plate or pan, and a weight. The beam can be made of wood or cow bone — in the past, ivory was also used — and the weights come in various sizes for different uses. The plate or pan is hung from one end of the beam and the weight is moved along the other end until a balance point is found.
The making of these scales involves many steps. First, the sifu (master) making the scale sands down a piece of wood and turns it into a round beam. After creating a straight ink line with carefully calculated marks known as mak6 sin3 (墨線), the sifu drill holes and fills them with hairlike brass wires. The wires are then cut and the metal parts of the scale polished with whetstones. All of this needs to be done by hand to ensure accuracy.
In the past, Lee Wo’s sifus could each make a few scales a day to meet demand, but today it has become more of a labour of love because business is much slower than in the past. Two sifus in their 80s still made Lee Wo’s scales by hand, drawing from their time as apprentices under Wong Yuen-cheung. Ho made scales herself until she had to undergo multiple eye surgeries at the age of 79. These days, she is more like a quality control master. She examines and approves every scale. Any one that does not pass her rigorous examination is discarded. “We can’t and won’t sell anything that we don’t feel happy about ourselves,” says Ho. “We don’t cut corners.”
Traditional steelyard balances have been symbols of fairness, impartiality, equitability with integrity and conscience. They have been imprinted in Chinese culture and used in ways that many people might not realise. In the past, many Hong Kong temples offered a public weighing service called gung1 cing3 (公秤), which was performed in front of the statues of various gods. The Man Mo Temple in Tai Po Market still has a room dedicated to traditional scales. In the San Tai Tze Temple in Sham Shui Po, one of 12 deities that are said to protect babies holds a steelyard balance in her hands, reminding people that their characters and deeds are weighed at all times. Some temples also offer a “blessing bucket” lai5 dau2 (禮斗) that can be used to pray for good luck. Various items carrying different meanings are placed in a bucket, including a scale, which symbolises the ability to differentiate between good and bad.
Despite their symbolism, traditional scales have become less and less popular over the years. The Metrication Ordinance of 1976 is one reason for this, as it encouraged the replacement of imperial and Chinese measurements with the metric system. Traditional scales were labelled obsolete while spring scales were promoted as a more modern way of measuring goods. As time went by, people began to find spring and electronic scales more convenient and user-friendly, though they might not be as accurate, long-lasting and enduring.
Ho says that one of her customers, who runs a Chinese medicine clinic, still goes to her for scales because he feels that electronic scales are not sensitive enough to detect minute changes in weight. “When it comes to certain Chinese medicines, the slightest inaccuracy could cost lives,” she quotes him as saying.
Lee Wo also makes and sells handmade wooden rulers known as tong4 cek3 (唐尺, literally “offspring rulers”). These are prized by the fabric sellers of Shanghai Street, along with people who sew their own clothes. To these day, offspring rulers are still part of the dowry for some women in Hong Kong, as they are symbols of fertility.
Lee Wo’s products are made to last a lifetime and beyond, but this is a double-edged sword, as a scale that lasts forever never needs to be replaced. Today, Ho spends more time repairing scales for her customers than she does selling new ones. She has seven children, but they are reluctant to learn a craft they see as dying. They urge her to retire, but she still spends most of her time at Lee Wo, tending the scales, chatting with old neighbours and waiting for the next customer who still appreciates tradition. “This keeps me healthy and upbeat,” she says.
Like her father, Ho has devoted her life to this industry. She often thinks back to him. “My father gave me a gold steelyard balance as part of my dowry,” she says. “He loved me dearly. He never hit me, not even once. Knowing that I’m keeping my father’s craft alive makes me happy.”
Lee Wo Steelyard (利和秤號) is located on Shek Lung Street, adjacent to 345 Shanghai Street.