Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: The Luthier of Sui Fai Factory Estate

It’s lunchtime by the concrete banks of the Shing Mun River and Fotan Village is beginning to bustle. Bicycles coast by as school children enjoy the dappled shade of open air eateries. Construction workers snooze in the winter sun.

Counting off its 24 floors in bold painted numbering, Sui Fai Factory Estate towers over this scene, but its wide corridors are quiet. In a lift lobby the words “Oppose eviction, return my livelihood” are spray painted in black. Slated for redevelopment, many of Sui Fai’s tenants have already left. Slight stirrings behind padlocked doors betray little. Sunlight streams into one open workshop and suspends in the air along with fine sawdust and the dry aroma of teak. Surrounded by an assortment of Chinese musical instruments, the luthier Lau Kai-ho glances towards the entrance, puts down a tupperware of stir fried gai lan, and saunters over curiously.

Now 90 years old, Master Lau found himself in Hong Kong by mistake. Born in the coastal city of Shantou in the east of Guangdong, a 15-year-old Lau and his younger brother had paid to be smuggled into Thailand in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War and ahead of the impending Communist revolution. “We’d paid them in beautiful Kuomintang money, but when we got to Hong Kong, the smuggler disappeared,” he says.

Left to his own devices, the young Lau began working in construction and furniture making, and even spent time at Cheung Kong, Li Ka-shing’s plastic flower factory.  Finally, Lau was taken on as an apprentice luthier, where he earned HK$25 a month. “I learned with my sifu until I was 22 and then his business dried up and he couldn’t pay me anymore. With a wife and child to support, I struck out on my own and opened a workshop in Ho Man Tin,” he says.

Lau eventually made his way to the Sui Fai estate, where the Lau Wing Kee Musical Instrument Factory (lau4 wing4 gei3 ngok6 hei3 cong2 劉榮記樂器廠) has been making Chinese instruments, music stands, instrument cases, piano stools and drum stands for just over ten years. At its height, the workshop could make up to a hundred instruments to order, producing them for schools and music shops all over Hong Kong. Lau’s biggest customer used to be a piano store on Austin Road. “They would order unfinished instruments and apply lacquer themselves. That family’s all emigrated to America now,” he says. 

Because of cheaper, mass produced musical instruments from the mainland, orders have tailed off since those glory days, but there is still demand. Lau’s main clientele are schools in need of both instruments and instrument cases. Wooden parts for pipa (pei4 paa4 琵琶) and other stringed instruments like the yehu (je4 wu4 椰胡), erhu (ji6 wu4  二胡) and guzheng (gu2 zang1 古筝) stand at the ready, waiting to be assembled even as the reality of eviction bears down.

“They’re offering me HK$100,000 if I leave by the end of February,” says Lau. “And if I don’t, I get nothing.” Sui Fai Factory Estate has been slated for demolition so that it can be redeveloped as badly needed public housing. All of Sui Fai’s 600-some tenants were given 18 months notice to quit last May.

One of Lau’s neighbours pokes his head in the door. “Hi there, sifu, I’ve got some scrap wood – would you have any use for it?” The master greets his friend. “First of all thank you, but I’ve got more than I can store already,” he replies. Lau shows him the heavy remains of an old bed frame. “This beauty’s solid teak! Good stuff. I’m going to turn it into instruments.” Surveying the shop full of wood and unassembled instruments, it is clear that the old master intends to hang on till the bitter end. “I’ve got orders to honour. Customers are counting on me. I can’t leave next month – I’m going to stay on till November.”

Lau selects a yehu, an instrument with a coconut shell for a sound box. Lowering it carefully from a hook, he fingers the bow. “We used to make these bows.” Other than the bow, Master Lau makes each part of the yehu himself: scooping out the coconut shell, carving intricate tracery and even adding delicate shell inlay. Laying the two stringed instrument across his thigh, he flashes a little smile before launching into a spirited, if halting, tune. “My boss never allowed us to play the instruments. ‘Get back to work!’ he’d yell. But now and again musicians would come in and play, and we’d listen.”

A disc of python skin, hanging by the window, filters sunlight through its brown and black blotched scales. Pulled taut over the hexagonal belly of an erhu, such a skin would vibrate and give the instrument voice. “It used to be very easy to get the snake skins,” Lau explains, indicating bags of the translucent reptilian hides hanging above him. “Someone would catch a python and we’d skin it, scraping off the meat. The meat would be made into soup!” The master smiles with some relish. “It’s harder to get these days but a skin used to cost a few dollars. We definitely can’t export this to the US,” he says, caressing the scaly membrane. “The last time we tried, customs poked holes in it!”

Lau still has occasional help from an assistant, who carves intricate floral and dragon designs into their instruments. Metal stencils, for this purpose, hang amongst spare tuning pegs and skins. “We also make shrines for temples,” Lau explains while flipping through the stencils. “We create the gold wording with a mesh that the client gives us. We pour gold powder onto the mesh and brush it through, then cover it in lacquer – it never fades.”

Delving into the back of the shop, Lau points to a group of unfinished guzheng, which are also known as Chinese plucked zithers. “I bend the wood for those with metal wire,” he says as he picks up a stick and amuses himself with beating a set of bangzi (bong1 zi2 梆子) or temple blocks – percussion instruments with a distinctive sound. “This is the ‘dook chang dook chang’ that you hear in Cantonese opera. We make these too,” he says with barely concealed pride.

This is only the latest incarnation of Lau Wing Kee’s workshop, which has moved several times from Ho Man Tin to Tung Tau Estate, Wang Tau Hom and Ngau Tau Kok. This time, Master Lau is unsure if another move will be possible. “I can’t afford the rent in another factory building but I can’t move into a subsidised place like the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei, because I won’t be allowed to use my loud and dusty machines, which is pointless!”

By way of demonstration, Mr. Lau fires up a saw and begins cutting lengths of wood. He has lost two fingers to this machine; the nub of his left index finger is still crowned with a livid red spot. This same saw once launched a piece of wood into Lau’s face, cutting his lips open and smashing his bottom front teeth. He smiles wide to show off the gap. “The doctor said I should get surgery to replace the teeth or use dentures, but I said ‘No way!’ Because when you rely on dentures you’re dead meat! How maa4 fan4 (麻煩, “troublesome”)!” He laughs.

Few if any other musical instrument makers like Master Lau remain. Though the need for public housing is pressing, it may come at a great cost to Hong Kong’s culture. When Lau stops his work, his traditional craft may disappear from Hong Kong. Despite everything, Lau is determined to go on. “I’ve got about HK$40,000 or $50,000 of orders, which isn’t a lot but I’m not working for money,” he says. “I’m 90 years old, what do I need money for?”

To Lau, labour is life and to quit his craft is to quit on life. “I have six kids all over the world. They send me money but I don’t really need it. Retire? Pay me to sit in a park? Never! My legs would grow stiff from sitting. Without work you grow old,” says the nonagenarian as he places his yehu back on its hook and returns to sawing wood.

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