The Mahjong Family Makers
Disappearing Old Hong Kong Story
October marks the third anniversary of the Karen Aruba Art Studio, and there are a series of celebration activities! One of the special features is a visit to the Cheung family, who have been operating a mahjong craftsmanship work for three generations in Hong Kong. We have conducted a detailed interview of how they transitioned from the previous generation of running a mahjong factory to the third generation successfully transforming it into a cultural heritage operation and preserving mahjong craftsmanship from being lost in Hong Kong. We hope to keep the disappearing story alive with a group of Hong Kong people who contributed to one of the main Hong Kong manufactory sectors in old Hong Kong.
We were very fortunate to invite Mrs. Leung Yuk Hing, the wife of Mr. Cheung Fu Wah, the founder of the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory". Despite being in her nineties and rarely accepting interviews, Mrs. Leung's mind is still sharp and her responses are very fluent.
We believe the history of Hong Kong's mahjong manufacturing industry mentioned in her interview is extremely precious. Mrs. Leung Yuk Hing vividly shared the story of her acquaintance with her husband and the early days of the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory", as well as the memories of her two sons, Mr. Ricky Cheung Sing Chung (now a hand-carved mahjong craftsman) and Mr. Cheung - Chun Chung, taking over the factory. This visit allowed us to delve deeper into the operation of hand-carved mahjong factories in the -1960s to 80s and the early days of Hong Kong's mahjong manufacturing industry.
However, the factory started to face challenges with the advent of low-cost, electric mahjong tables from the Mainland in the 2000s. The business declined sharply, leading to multiple relocations and downsizing before eventually shutting down. The closure resulted in significant financial losses.
Despite the factory's closure, Mrs. Leung expressed admiration for her granddaughter, Karen's attempt to revive the traditional art of hand-carving mahjong tiles, acknowledging the considerable effort required for such an endeavor.
How did you meet Master Cheung Fu Wah?
I am originally from Macau and my husband lived in Guangzhou. When we were young, my grandmother's friend introduced my husband to work as an accountant and cashier in a mahjong factory. After the company moved to Hong Kong, my husband also went to Hong Kong. After the mahjong factory closed, he went to Macau to look for opportunities. I met him when I was 16 years old through my mother's friend's introduction. In the early days of our marriage, we lived in a stone house. My husband had already started working in the mahjong sales industry and often went to work in a mahjong store. After a year or so, after the birth of our eldest son, we moved to Hong Kong.
Why did you move from Macau to Hong Kong, and did Master Cheung Fu Wah continue to work in the mahjong factory-related industry after settling in Hong Kong?
There were not many job opportunities in Macau at that time, and many people said that there were more development opportunities in Hong Kong, so we boldly came to Hong Kong to try our luck! Initially, our family of three lived in a wooden house in Tsuen Wan, where I ran a sundries shop mainly selling candy and snacks. At that time, my husband was learning to carve mahjong at a mahjong shop on Canton Road in Yau Ma Tei.
Later we moved to ‘Sai Tau Tsuen’ in Kowloon City, where we setup the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory" and our family lived in the loft of the shop. At first, my husband was responsible for carving mahjong, and I helped with the finishing touches and delivery. When my fourth son was born, the business was not bad, we had a little savings, so we bought a three-story unit of about 500 square feet on nearby South Wall Road as a workshop and residence.
What was the working situation of the Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory during the South Wall Road (Kowloon City) period?
(Laugh) After the masters had their morning tea, they would return to the factory to start work. At that time, the masters would carve tiles and grind tiles on the back stairs of the workshop. The work was very dusty but no one interfered. At night we would avoid grinding tiles in the workshop. Later, we even converted one of the washrooms in the workshop into a grinding room. Sometimes the neighbors would come up to watch the masters put colors on the tiles. At that time, we basically worked seven days a week from morning to night without a day off. Three or four masters could complete eight to ten sets of hand-carved mahjong tiles a day. After the workshop was closed, we would start delivering goods after dinner.
Reference Photo Only. Credit: Wo Ki Mahjong Factory
Sometimes we would deliver until 11 or 12 o'clock at night. The business was good at that time. Basically there was more demand than supply, and customers would keep urging us to deliver goods – we would try our best to rush to deliver goods to customers. Later, Sunday was designated as a day off, and everyone was very happy!
The process of making a set of hand-carved mahjong is so complicated. How did you ensure the quality of production?
Each master had a slightly different style, basically each set of "hand-carved mahjong tiles" is unique. The carved mahjong tiles still need to go through several steps such as "coloring", "rubbing off tiles", and "wiping tiles" to complete. While everyone was going through these steps, they would check the tiles carefully, sometimes the size of the mahjong tiles was not uniform, or a certain pattern was not well carved, so the masters needed to fix it.
Sometimes it might be the last step of "wiping tiles" (i.e., cleaning the mahjong tiles) before the related problems were discovered, and we tried to be as perfect as possible.
Who were the main customers of the hand-carved mahjong produced by Fuk Hing Lung at that time? Compared with other mahjong factories, what were the characteristics of the products?
Fuk Hing Lung was quite famous at that time. Our products were made of good materials, so we supplied all kinds of restaurants, clubs and mahjong parlors. We might have been the only two in the industry to order raw materials from Germany to make the tiles. Although the cost of using German materials was higher, it was really good quality and special, even the longstanding "雞記" in Temple Street patronized us. Many times, customers would change a new set of tiles every month. We rarely made mahjong tiles for home customers. Although the business was almost dominant in the market, we would not take the opportunity to increase prices. The price increase was usually due to the increase in worker's wages or the rise in the price of raw materials.
What roles did you play in the Fuk Hing Lung factory when you were young?
Haha! I walked around everywhere! I had to do "coloring", "rubbing off tiles", and "wiping tiles", and sometimes I helped with delivery. I also did "grinding tiles", which was to integrate and standardize mahjong tiles of different sizes. If I couldn't finish the work in a rush, I would try to carve mahjong tiles too!
I can carve "bamboos" and "circles"! Our factory provided a meal for employees, and I was also a chef. Buying and cooking was quite hard. Later, we had a daughter-in-law to help cook. During holidays, everyone in the factory would go to a restaurant for a meal, and it was lively and happy to think about it.
What roles did your sons mainly play in Fuk Hing Lung?
The eldest son and second son started to help when they were in their teens, and then the third son was in charge of "grinding tiles". My husband didn't specifically teach them; the three sons learned to "carve tiles" and "grind tiles" by observing my husband or other masters' techniques. Later, the two sons learned to drive and started to help deliver goods with the cargo van. Later, my husband's health was not very good, so it was natural for the second and third sons to take over Fuk Hing Lung. My husband taught his sons by example, and none of them gambled on mahjong or smoked.
Fuk Hing Lung moved to the Kowloon Bay Industrial Area in 1987. What were the considerations at the time? Can you describe the operation of Fuk Hing Lung in the Kowloon Bay Industrial Area?
The business was actually very good. At that time, we employed eight workers and had two masters carving mahjong tiles on a contract basis. The workshop in Kowloon City began to lack space for work, so we moved to the Kowloon Bay Industrial Centre, which had a larger unit area. At that time, we also started to use machines to assist in production, and purchased a “tile polishing machine', while the rest of the procedures were still handled manually.
Reference Photo Only. Credit: Wo Ki Mahjong Factory
At that time, we also purchased a 'grinding machine'. We moved several times in Kowloon Bay. Since the low-cost 'electric mahjong tables' appeared in the Mainland after the 1990s, our business started to decline. As we moved, the size became smaller. The business got worse and worse, and we didn't see any improvements, until in the end, we couldn't bear it and closed down. In the end, the cost of the goods and severance pay for the employees cost us over a million dollars.
The factory has been closed for almost ten years. What do you think of your granddaughter Karen reviving the hand-carved mahjong craftsmanship and preserve the craftsmanship in a new way?
She did it very well. I don't have such skills, and I'm very old now. I need to take good care of my health. But my granddaughter Karen really did a very meaningful thing to preserve mahjong craftsmanship from being lost and put a lot of effort into it……
(Mrs Leung smiles)
We would like to express our gratitude to Mrs. Leung for sharing the vanishing mahjong craft story, to keep the disappearing story alive in Hong Kong. Stay tuned with our next interview with Hand-carved Master Ricky Cheung Sing Chung to share the second generation of the mahjong factory story.
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