No one thought the humble Chiu Kee Ceramic Factory would become as well known as it is today. Ten years ago, the owners hit retirement age and were considering closing up shop for good. Besides, the hand-painted cups and bowls weren’t selling enough to cover the rent of the shop.
Today, the little workshop located on remote Peng Chau Island has become a beacon of local craftsmanship. The matron of Chiu Kee is 72-year-old Nam Kiu who can be found at the shop every day, painstakingly painting flowers and goldfish designs on delicate ceramic vessels. Her specialty is printing patterns by hand onto crockery with the help of small carved stamps, then meticulously adding flourishes and color to the patterns, one by one.
“When you first start to practice painting, your hand is in constant pain and the paintbrush you’re holding feels heavy like a hammer,” says Nam as she picks up another bowl and starts to pain
t with a sure hand under the dim light. She is one of the last people in Hong Kong who still know this hand painting technique.
Tested through fire
Chiu Kee is now known for keeping the traditional hand-produced overglaze painting technique alive in Hong Kong. To get the beautiful setting in the porcelain, the craftsman must first apply pigment to fire-glazed china before sending the vessel to a 700 degrees Celsius kiln. The technique was perfected in the Canton region of China and had it’s glory days in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s when there were more than 1,000 craftsmen practicing in the territory. Peng Chau alone had a dozen ceramic shops and factories during this time and Chiu Kee employed 30 craftsmen at their factory.
But as the more expensive handcrafts were replaced by an influx of cheaper mass produced china, the industry started to decline. Chiu Kee had to disband the larger factory in the late 1980s, leaving only the current shop in operation.
“Our craftsmen made more money from being security guards in Discovery Bay than from painting ceramics. Even my husband had to leave the workshop and work as a handyman at a golf club,” says Nam.
Eventually, the shop was saved by its neighbor, Winus Lee, who happens to be a ceramics teacher and who offered to share the shop space. “I was really attached to the paint and didn’t want it to go to waste. It was fate that Lee found us in time,” says Nam.
A new beginning
Nam’s perseverance in keeping Chiu Kee has paid off in recent years as she witnesses a renewed interest in crafts.
“There are more people coming to inquire about our work lately and even my husband started painting again,” says Nam.
Ceramics teacher Lee has also started a Facebook page for Chiu Kee and has helped Nam host classes there for the public. The class is similar to an art-jamming event and is a big hit. Weekend classes have to be booked in advance.
Nam’s husband passed away recently but his presence in Chiu Kee remains strong. He was a master of the painting technique and his work was much admired. A prominent corner of Chiu Kee now displays items labeled “not for sale.” This is an exhibition of his work.
As Nam resumes to her usual position at the far end of the central long desk, she picks up one of the ceramic bowls that are waiting to be colored.
“I’m 72 now and I will retire when we run out of paint,” she states.
So how much paint does she have left?
Nam looks beneath her table and puts on a rare smile.
“Quite a lot.”
Where: Chiu Kee Porcelain Factory & Winus Lee ceramic workshop , 7 Wing Hing Street; (+852) 9193 8044/+852 9822 6506; open daily 11a.m.-6p.m. Check their Facebook page for details (only in Chinese) Chiu Kee Porcelain