Portrait of porcelain painters

It’s a story of passion and dogged determination of a quiet struggle by a couple to keep alive a dying art – the Chinese handmade porcelain painting.
Few Hongkongers know that Lam Hon-chiu and his wife Lam Kew run the only surviving handmade porcelain firm – Chiu Kee Porcelain Factory at the sleepy Peng Chau Island.

Lam left the mainland in 1957 and came to Hong Kong with his parents. During those days, demand for porcelain artists was high. When he was 16, Lam went to Macao to learn the art of porcelain painting at a factory. Recalling his days as a trainee, Lam says: “The teacher didn’t teach us much. He only taught us how to paint flowers. But, I slogged to master the skills.”
In 1968, Lam got a chance to train workers at a porcelain factory in Singapore. “I was quite happy in Singapore. The students were hard-working and the pay was good,” he said. “I also met my wife, who was my student,” he says.
The couple came back to Hong Kong in the same year. “At the time all porcelain artists were required to pay HK0 to an industry association for a license. “I didn’t have the money,” Lam says.
However, he got a chance to work at a factory in Peng Chau. Over the next years, Lam not only sharpened his skills but also made good contacts with other industry peers. “There were only a few factories on the island when we set up ours in 1975,” he says.
For the first two years, the couple had hard times. As the business grew, the Lams employed more people and buy more equipments. “We had about 40 employees within a few years,” says Lam. “Those were the most memorable moments of my life. My works got the recognition they deserved and we had a very good business,” recalls Lam’s wife.
Most other factories exported their products to Japan, Singapore and other Asian countries, while the Lams mostly traded with local clients and did some occasional exporting to Singapore. “We were deeply committed to our products,” says Lam’s wife.
The glory of porcelain industry continued throughout the 1970’s. However, the business faced fierce competition after the mainland opened up economically. As many Hong Kong merchants moved their factories to the mainland, they started hiring local workers at a cheap pay. “With the mass production and cheap supplies of porcelain products from the mainland, most Hong Kong merchants imported the stuff from mainland factories. That tolled the death knell for porcelain business in Hong Kong,” Lam laments.
Consequently, the couple fell into hard times. From 1988 to 2001, Lam had to do various odd jobs to maintain his family. The situation worsened with the opening of the MTR Tung Chung line in 1999, since most people found it more convenient to go to Lantau and other places from Tung Chung, rather than Peng Chau.
Things came to such a pass, that the Lams decided to fold up their factory and shipped all their products to a relative in the Middle East in early 2006. However, one day an old customer, after hearing the family’s tale of despair and desperation, offered to share the rent.
“Sometimes our daughter, who is a pharmacist in Hong Kong, gives us money,” Lam says.
However, Lam seemed to have resigned to his fate. “It happened to all our peers,” he adds. But, his wife found it difficult to accept the industry’s decline. “We have put lots of efforts and time into this business and we just don’t want to give up,” she says, as she was deftly giving finishing touches to a porcelain bowl.
Speaking about the government patronage, Lam says: “Former Chief Executive Donald Tsang came to the island a number of times. He also visited our shop and bought a few things. But, I didn’t raise the issue.” The Lams never thought of seeking help from the government to preserve the industry, since they believed there was no hope. “It’s just impossible and we don’t have any channel to express our grievance,” Lam’s wife says.
Despite the hopelessness, the couple’s passion for the art is undying. As the sun was about to set on the Peng Chau Island horizon, Lam’s wife once again immersed herself into the creative world to chisel out another piece of timeless work of art.

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