Craft beer lovers who make their way into The Ale Project bar in Mongkok have noticed something new lately: two door gods affixed to the bar’s sliding glass doors. It’s something you would normally expect to see on the entrance of a temple or an old village house, not on a bar that draws young beer aficionados, but these particular gods are a new spin on an old tradition: wood block prints painstakingly handcrafted by Marble Print & Clay, a printmaking studio founded by artists David Jasper Wong, Bambi Lam and Terence Leung in 2012.
The door gods came about by chance. The trio moved into a new studio in a Kwun Tong factory building at the end of last year, and their next door neighbour turned out to be Moonzen, a craft brewery with a cult following and a penchant for traditional Chinese imagery. Brewmaster Laszlo Raphael liked the studio’s work, so he asked them to craft a set of posters that could ward evil spirits away from the brewery and the outlets where Moonzen’s beers are sold.
“The idea of woodcut is really traditional and it matched with craft beer,” says Wong. “It’s handmade, so it’s really tough to do.” Lam spent hours painstakingly carving the fierce-looking gods into blocks of wood, which he and his partners then used to make a two-tone print.
“We had to do it about 600 times,” says Wong. “There’s no machine for this.”
Lam grins: “We are the machine.”
Hong Kong became an industrial powerhouse in the decades after World War II, a city where thousands of workshops and small factories churned out everything from garments to bamboo steamers. These were not state-of-the-art operations; most of them relied on the skilled hands of their workers, who stitched together loafers, welded mailboxes and moulded complicated neon signs, building up decades of expertise in the process. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the boom ended almost as quickly as it began, as production moved to cheaper and larger facilities on the mainland.
Now a new generation of artists and designers are taking up the tools of Hong Kong’s traditional trades. Marble, Print & Clay is just one of many new studios that have opened in the city’s grimy industrial buildings, often sharing a floor with the longstanding workshops that remain. Marble, Print & Clay’s other next-door neighbour is a commercial silkscreening studio. “When we moved to Kwun Tong we were surprised how many old masters are here,” says Wong. “There are more than 10 [printers] in our building, one-man shops,” says Wong.
They have struck up a relationship. “They always give us their opinions,” says Lam. “They are all over 50 or 60,” adds Wong. He would like to start documenting their work before they retire.
Shoe Artistry has taken that collaboration one step further by hiring local shoemakers to make bespoke shoes. Since it was launched in 2012 by designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan, Shoe Artistry has tried to bolster Hong Kong’s fading shoemaking industry, which once counted dozens of workshops like Ming Kee Shoes, which folded in 2011 after 40 years of business. Lee and Wan bought Ming Kee’s equipment and set out stirring up new demand for handcrafted dress shoes, pumps, sandals and more. “In Hong Kong you don’t see many companies doing this anymore,” says Wan.
In Wong Chuk Hang, Ditto Ditto’s twenty something designers create stationery with vintage letterpress machines. Though Hong Kong has a large printing industry, with groups like the Open Printshop trying to keep the craft alive, it was while studying fine art in the United States that Ditto Ditto co-founder Nicole P.S. Chan fell in love with the medium. “It’s hard to explain with words – you really have to touch and feel it,” she says.
Chan’s products have a whimsical quality, with hand-drawn illustrations that are etched onto a plate and printed with hand-mixed, pastel-toned dyes. Her aesthetic is reminiscent of Miroslav Šašek, the Czech illustrator famous for children’s books that explored different places around the world, something Ditto Ditto evokes in its series of Hong Kong postcards.
Ditto Ditto’s products are made on four letterpress machines, which imprint a raised ink surface onto paper, giving them an tactile quality that seems more authoritative than digital printing. When the studio launched in 2012, Chan bought a pair of hand-operated Chandler and Price presses, which she named Sylvia and Felicity. “She is very old,” says Chan, putting her hand on Sylvia. “More than 60.”
Printing each card by hand proved tiring for the diminutive Chan, so her next investment was a set of automatic Heidelberg machines built in the 1970s, which she named Will and Mill. Though the newer machines are automated, they have developed quirks with age. “The surface is a little uneven,” says Chan. “You start to know the machine and how to adjust it. This problem-solving part is what’s interesting to me.”
That’s the thing about making products by hand: each product is unique because the process of making it is inherently idiosyncratic. In 2011, Handsome Co. began making bags, watches and other products using recycled taxi parts assembled by local craftspeople, but co-founder Billy Potts soon realised the very process that made his products special made it difficult to meet demand. Though the design studio won a lot of attention when the bags were first launched, Potts eventually moved towards simpler products like wallets.
My reasoning was that if the items were smaller, the material could be used more efficiently and small operations such as die-cutters and seamstresses in Mongkok could handle it,” he says. Potts has started making the bags again, but with a 10-day lead time so each one can be made to order. “Craftspeople are still around, but they’re not factories, they’re individuals. They’ve all got personality quirks. It’s a very different mode of working [compared to mass production].”
Shoe Artistry ran into similar issues as its business began to grow. It eventually solved the problem by following a path familiar to earlier generations of Hong Kong businesses: it expanded its production overseas. It takes a master shoemaker about 32 hours to craft one pair of shoes, and there just aren’t enough shoemakers in Hong Kong, so Shoe Artistry now hires craftspeople in Guangzhou and Indonesia to fill some of their orders. “As long as the quality is there, as long as the comfort is there, we don’t mind working with people outside of Hong Kong,” says Jeff Wan.
That doesn’t mean it has strayed into mass production; each shoe is still made to order. Wan says this has revealed interesting differences between craft traditions. “In Hong Kong, the most obvious thing is flexibility – they don’t stick with one style like shoemakers in Italy or the UK, which make shoes the way they have always made them. In Hong Kong, they mix up styles and techniques in order to get things done efficiently.”
Wan hopes that tradition can survive. In addition to working with local shoemakers, Shoe Artistry hires apprentices and runs public workshops to teach people how to make shoes. “We still have younger people interested in what we’re doing,” he says.
After all, today’s young designers are the master craftspeople of tomorrow. Before moving to Kwun Tong, David Jasper Wong and Bambi Lam saw themselves primarily as artists. “We always wonder, what is printmaking? Is it art, like drawing, or is it a craft?” asks Lam. Wong says they have begun to answer that question: “We want to show art can be combined with commerce.”
Where to find these products
Marble Print & Clay: prints
Ditto Ditto: stationary made with vintage letterpress machines
Handsome Co: wallets and bags made with recycled taxi upholstery
Shoe Artistry: bespoke handmade shoes