Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Making Shoes by Hand, Shanghai-Style

Yim Po Fong Street runs along the outskirts of Mongkok, named after the fabric dyeing industry that cropped up when this part of Kowloon was first developed in the 1920s. Today, you won’t find any trace of this history left, but you will find the Shanghai Gentleman Shoes Company (上海紳士皮鞋).

As its name suggests, this shop is where you will find shoes that are handmade in the Shanghai style. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Shanghai was a beacon of modernity, a place where Chinese traditions met with Western influences in a style known as haipai (海派). As a relatively young commercial hub divided between concessions run by the French, British and Americans, Shanghai was the perfect breeding ground for this new style, which catered to an aspirational mercantile elite that was interested in distinguishing themselves from previous generations.

Shanghai Gentleman shoesCraftsmen steeped in haipai culture brought it with them when they emigrated in the late 1940s, as Communist forces advanced on Shanghai. Many of them set up shop in Hong Kong, which in the decades after 1949 was filled with Shanghai-style salons, saunas, cheongsam makers, tailors and barbers. Among these Shanghai emigrés was Lee Chung-ping, father of Shanghai Gentleman’s current master, Lee Tak-kam.

Traditionally, Shanghai-style shoemaking consisted of two completely separate processes – the upper shoe and the outsole. Lee senior was already an outsole maker back in Shanghai and he continued the business when he started a new life in Hong Kong, working as a cobbler in Tai Hom, a squatter village in Diamond Hill.

In the 1960s, Lee had done well enough to set up his own factory in San Po Kong, a tiny space that cost a whopping HK$100,000. He employed seven masters and took orders from shoe shops that served tourists in Tsim Sha Shui. It was a profitable time, but a stressful one too. Most of the orders were urgent – tourists had only so many days before they had to leave Hong Kong with their handmade souvenir.

For years, without expertise in upper making, Lee heavily relied on upper masters to make shoes with him. Though he treated them with respect, Lee felt his efforts were not reciprocated by the upper masters – something Lee Tak-kam noticed as he was growing up. When the younger Lee finished primary school, he decided to become an apprentice. “I was not academic,” he recalls. At the age of 15, he was sent to work with the owner of Jazz Shoes (爵士皮鞋), another Shanghai shoemaker, to learn the craft of making uppers. Meanwhile, his older brother, Lee Tak-fu, was following in his father’s footsteps by learning how to make outsoles.

That shop was also located in Tai Hom Village, which in the postwar decades was home to numerous film studios – the first building blocks of Hong Kong’s eventual rise to become the Hollywood of the East. Jazz Shoes attracted many clients from the film industry. “Tons of movie stars had their shoes made there,” says Lee. His internship lasted two years. He first served as an errand boy, enduring days of menial tasks before he was given the chance to shadow his si1 fu6 (師傅), the master. “I made HK$50 each month,” he says – a modest sum even for the 1970s.

The two brothers eventually joined forces to carry on the family business. They have now been creating bespoke footwear for more than 40 years. Although they still focus on men’s shoes, they have extended their offering to include unisex styles such as Oxford shoes, which are formal with a closed lacing system, Derby shoes — less formal, with open lacing — and a variety of others, including loafers, brogues and whatever their customers may request.

Shanghai Gentleman shoesBespoke service ensures not only the perfect fit but also room for customisation. Customers can choose from a variety of leather hides, outsoles, toe shapes and different colour combinations. Making a shoe by hand involves myriad steps. The first is a consultation, after which Lee marks the shape and contours of the customer’s feet. He then draws and makes the patterns, sources and cuts the materials and finally stitches the upper. Lee then brings the upper to his brother, who attaches the outsole and heel. In many cases, hand stitching is painstakingly applied along the perimeter of outsole to make the shoe more robust.

The process has not changed much over time, but the trends certainly have. “The ‘70s and ‘80s were the prime time for our industry,” says Lee. “We handmade around 100 pairs of shoes a month. Each cost HK$200.” Prior to that, leather footwear was an luxury item and hence a status symbol. Many people saved up for a pair, which they would then treasure for years to come. Restaurant managers were regular customers, as were real estate agents. “Ready-to-wear footwear was not common and we did not have that many foreign brands selling their products here back then,” he says.

The popularity of sport shoes dealt a blow to the handmade shoe industry. Lee is not one to judge: he wears them too. “They are more comfortable and they are seen as trendy,” he says. Leather shoes take much longer to break in and mould to one’s feet. “Also, people used to go for formal wear on occasion, but these days, they wear trainers to a wedding banquet.”

Shanghai Gentleman shoesThese days, the brothers take their time working on each order – usually around three to four weeks. “Unlike my father, making money shouldn’t be the most important thing in life,” says Lee. “You can never earn all the money in the world.” Lee says he and his brother have never let money matters get between them. “Never sweat over trivial matters and don’t be calculating,” he says.

For more than a decade, Lee has provided pro bono shoe repair services to an elderly centre, and when it comes to patients with foot conditions or disabilities, he tries to be even more accommodating. Lee is familiar with making orthopaedic shoes and has given discounts to the patients with pressing medical and financial needs.

His kindness has not gone unnoticed. One day, without knowing who exactly he would serve, Lee was escorted by a nun to see Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the former Bishop of Hong Kong. Lee had to follow strict liturgical tradition in designing shoes for the cardinal, and he was shown photos of the two types of shoes worn by other cardinals around the world. “The Cardinal was so down-to-earth,” says Lee. When he noticed that his feet were swollen, Zen disclosed that he suffered from gout, which helped Lee design a more comfortable shoe.

Now 61 years old, Lee knows shoemaking has seen better days, but it was not until he saw it described as a sunset industry — a traditional Hong Kong craft threatened by extinction — that he began to appreciate its value. He and his brother are two of the very last Shanghai-style shoemakers in town. Like the fabric dyeing workshops that once lined Yim Po Fong Street, shoemaking could one day vanish from the landscape of Hong Kong.

“My children are grownups,” says Lee. “They have their own world and plans. I won’t force them to take over.” But there is still hope for the future. “A few random people came in before asking me to teach them about shoemaking,” he says. “I may actually do that after I retire.”

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