Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan story takes influence from the unlikeliest of places. As a major maritime, trading and manufacturing centre, the territory called to it the vast wealth and commerce of the world – and with this came cultural riches. But the 1980s brought change. The sun was setting on the golden age of Hong Kong manufacturing, driving Hongkongers to scour the globe for opportunity. From these experiences, Hong Kong would cultivate its own eclectic style from the most unexpected sources, channelling all of this into increasingly creative endeavours.
Batik, the Indonesian craft of wax resist printing, found its role in Hong Kong’s story via a circuitous route. A treasured artform, Batik is traditionally made by the skillful hands of artisans who render intricate patterns with molten wax on cloth with a spouted stylus known as a canting. Selectively exposing the textiles to dye introduces vibrant colours to parts of the cloth, creating motifs inflected with characteristic imperfections where the wax has cracked.
In the 19th century, Dutch colonists industrialised the process in the hopes of creating mass produced batik to sell back to the Indonesians. By applying wax with copper rollers, the Dutch simulated a version of the Indonesian textile but, clever though the process was, the Indonesians roundly rejected it. Batik is a part of many rituals, ceremonies, traditions and celebrations and plays an important role in Indonesian culture. The inauthentic machine-made batik, lacking the touch of the artist and without the distinctive imperfections of the real thing, was an unwelcome substitute.
Ever pragmatic, the Dutch tried their luck in West Africa where they found an eager market for their printed textiles. Because of the Dutch monopoly, this material commanded hefty prices, making it an unaffordable luxury to most. That’s when Hong Kong businessman and textile industrialist Dr. Cha Chi-ming came into play. In 1962, experiencing difficult market conditions at home for his factory, China Dyeing Works, Cha set his sights on West Africa, where he found and became enamoured with Dutch made African wax prints.
Unsurprisingly, Dutch manufacturers were unwilling to disclose their secrets to Cha, so the Hongkonger independently developed his own method. “He was very passionate about textiles,” says Bruce Li, assistant curator at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, better known as CHAT. “He was particularly passionate about printing things and dyeing things. He was fascinated by the phenomenon and the value attached to African wax prints and he really wanted to make this fabric himself.”
In 1964, Cha established a new factory, United Nigerian Textiles Limited, in Kaduna. Without the Dutch wax printing technology at his disposal, Cha created his own low-tech but effective solution. “It was not mechanised,” says Li, picking up a wooden tool. “They used wood blocks like this and you would dab it in molten wax and print on fabric.”
United Nigerian Textiles successfully broke the Dutch monopoly, introducing attractive and affordable prints that were snapped up all across the African continent. “The wax prints that Dr. Cha produced were cheaper so more West African consumers were able to enjoy what had once been a luxury item circulated in very small expensive quantities. He changed that,” says Li. But Cha wasn’t finished.
Li inspects the wooden block. “You can see this wood block is kind of small. The cloth from selvedge to selvedge is quite wide, metres and metres across, so you might have to stamp three times and it took forever this way.” Li mimics the motions of stamping. “He really needed to adapt and think about how the Dutch were doing this. He used a lot of the technology he developed for the past two decades, in Hong Kong and brought a whole engineering team to Nigeria.”
By the 1970s, Cha and his team finally created a fully mechanised wax printing process with copper rollers. In the 1980s and 90s, CHA Textiles would grow to weave its own fabrics, integrating production from spinning all the way to printing. “They had control of all these elements,” says Li, “so on top of mechanisation this allowed for endless printing, essentially they could go on forever.” At its peak, Cha’s operations would employ nearly 20,000 people across West Africa, with their output accounting for around 70 percent of the region’s wax-printed fabrics.
In 2021, CHAT awarded a research grant to German scholar Johanna von Pezold, who visited Ghana to investigate Hong Kong connections to the local textile trade. CHAT’s interest in the topic has only grown. This year, to celebrate the unlikely quadripartite cultural alliance between Indonesia, West Africa, Holland and Hong Kong, CHAT has commissioned a new textile design featuring icons from Hong Kong culture and produced using wax resist methods. Emblazoned with sparrows, mooncakes and egg waffle motifs, this beautiful print is the work of UK textile designer, Rachel Wood, and was manufactured in Ghana. Both the designer and factory are associated with CHA Textiles.
Eventually, the opening up of the Chinese market would see mainland textile businesses setting up on the African continent. “The competition was really strong,” says Li. “[CHA Textiles] still exists to print other types of fabrics but they’ve stepped out of Africa.” Thus ended the Cha group’s production of African wax prints but not its enduring legacy. Exuding beauty and the boundless energy of invention, patterns, like those found on Cha’s African wax prints are still emblematic of Hong Kong’s spirit of invention and outsized influence beyond its own shores.
Patternways: Visualising Hong Kong in Transition is now on display at CHAT. Click here for more information.