Hing Bee Zips
This story starts with the malfunctioning of the zipper on my little red boots. The shoe craftsman who makes all his shoes by hand used all his wits but couldn’t repair my boots, so he suggested that i visit the zip factory to see whether they can help me.
As i entered the retail store of Hing Bee Zip-Fastener Factory, I spotted a charismatic grey-haired old shop keeper sat there. I thought to myself, could this be the owner of the factory? After I explained why I was there, he said “We don’t normally do shoe repairs, but you seem a bit different. I’ll give it a go!”. And so, 10 minutes later, my red boots were good as new!
I was curious about the history of this place and made an appointment to return on my birthday (my day off) for a proper chat.
The old shopkeeper is called Cheung Kwok Wah, and he has been working in Hing Mei for more than 40 years. At the age of 14, Cheung Sifu’s first job was as a tailor’s apprentice. Back in those days, he made quite good money, HK$100 a month back in 1970. He used to buy cigarettes for all the old tailors, and with his entrepreneurial mind, he’d purchase them in bulk and then redistribute the cigarettes in order to make a small profit. He managed to give his mother a few hundreds dollars within a few months. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take all the scolding and shouting from the old tailors and decided to leave. By chance and with an introduction from a good friend, he started working at Hing Mei. When much later the owner of Hing Mei passed away, leaving his 90 years old wife behind, she was no longer able to come to the shop and so left it to Cheung Kwok Wah to manage the place.
Hing Mei had started out in 1967 in a back alleyway, employing some 40-50 workers. In later years, they occupied a few stories of an old building in Sham Shui Po before finally opening up a much larger factory in Tsuen Wan. The owner had also opened a factory in China back in 1973-4 during the liberation of China to the outside world. He told me the best time for business was between the early 80s and the end of the century. Their clients included Levi’s, Apple Jeans, as well as the armed forces from Germany and Iran asking for a full range of military clothing and more.
I never realised the process of making a zipper was so complicated. Until now, I’ve just taken the humble zipper on our clothing for granted. The process actually involves making a stringer, which consists of the tape (or cloth) and the teeth to make up one side of the zipper. A mould, shaped like a chain of teeth is then clamped around the cloth tape, and molten zinc is then injected into the mould. Once the individual stringers have been made, they are joined together with a device similar to a slider and then when pressed together, wire brushes are used to scrub down the sharp edges. The tapes are then starched, wrung out and dried. Metal zippers are then waxed for a smoother operation.
After many good years of business, from year 2000 onwards, the zipper market began to be largely replaced by a Japanese manufacturer, the YKK brand. The Hing Mei factory closed down around 10 years ago and their business model is now to supply, not to produce. The fate of this old shop will be similar to many others unless the next generation wish to take it forward. The irony of it all is that this little Hing Mei shop plays an integral part in the local community. On the day of the interview, several customers walked in and out, looking to find the right zipper for many different purposes and have a good old chit chat while they were there.
I really hope Hing Mei will be able to stay trading for years to come.