Exploring Instagram a couple of months ago, we spotted Candice Lau from Kuku Big Bag in the streets of Hong Kong. Her photos showed a world of leathercraft, garment factories and street markets far from the glitzy Hong Kong we recognised. This is the place where she learned her craft and here is the story of her journey into leatherwork…
Earlier this year I was back in Hong Kong where my leather crafting business started. It has been a year and a half since I first learned the traditional art of leatherwork. The idea of going back this time, however, was to see my family, laze about and eat good food. I knew though that inevitably I would get sucked into the leather crafting craze as leatherwork has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong.
I discovered leatherwork when I travelled to Hong Kong in 2013 to visit my family, and at the same time I discovered Alvin, my leather work teacher. I had spent two days with him at his workshop in an old industrial part of Kowloon – streets full of old factories and workshops stacked on top of each other in 30-storey high buildings. It was a thrill to see Hong Kong away from the glitz, glamour and designer handbags. When I arrived at his front door, I liked it instantly.
Alvin was a great teacher. He was knowledgeable and not afraid to admit he had picked up a lot of his techniques from YouTube (I would have kept that one to myself). It took me two days to make a completely handcrafted, hand-stitched leather handbag. He had an answer to all my questions and had leather tools and machinery to die for. Unbeknown to me then, those two days would change my life forever.
The workshop was tiny, like all properties in Hong Kong. But it contained all the leather working paraphernalia anyone could dream of. It was decked out in handcrafting leather tools, an old cobbler sewing machine, rolls of veg-tanned leather stacked on a shelf and colourful waxed threads hung across the wall. Most beautiful of all were the sample bags hanging off the shoulder of the mannequin. Divine! I was in heaven.
Leather craft workshops in Hong Kong are not difficult to find. Actually, this rings true for all of Asia, with workshops spread out across Tai Wan, China, Japan and Hong Kong. Handcrafting tools are easy to get hold of and many companies have started producing them. It’s a craft that is considered feasible for anyone to learn and many take it as a fun, enjoyable Saturday afternoon bit of crafting. Most interesting of all, it is very affordable and most people you come across in Hong Kong will have tried their hand at leather craft.
By contrast, leathercraft in the UK holds a much more of an elitist status. I am not surprised because the number of people involved the craft here are diminishing, and the few I’ve met who are still practising are really masters of their craft. Learning the art of traditional leatherwork here is not easy as it is rather costly.
After my interlude with Alvin at his workshop, I wandered the streets of Sham Shui Po, an area famous for its fabric and leather markets and supplies. I was there every second day picking up pieces and tools along the way. These shops have been passed on from father to son, men who have been there all their lives. They looked at me, the new-age maker with an amused eye, at times disclosing their trade secrets as though I was the first and only person they would ever tell. It was more than just a shopping experience, it was definitely a spectacle of the old Hong Kong. I loved it.
Since then, I practised, taught and produced a range of leather products, which is now the brand Kuku Big Bag. Alvin was my first teacher and taught me the essentials. I must admit, YouTube played a small part in my leather education. Most recently, I was fortunate enough to meet leather master Denise Pearson from Deni-Deni and I’ll soon be meeting leather handcraft hero Andy Bates from Hexham, the home of traditional leatherwork in the UK.
So a year and a half on, I was back in Hong Kong; this time, more skilled and bringing with me my own range of leather products. A good friend from the Sewing Lounge in Hong Kong, asked me even before I arrived to run a leathercraft workshop. I was trapped and I was happy to be. I have been running leathercraft classes in London and Amsterdam over the past year and I felt confident to teach in Hong Kong.
This also meant, back to Sham Shui Po to my favourite leather suppliers. Luckily, they were all still there and have not been taken over by international chains. However, I noticed this time that more fancy new leathercraft supplies shops had opened up, four to be exact, on the same street. They looked great, with rolls of leather on wooden shelves, second-hand tables to showcase the tools, vintage cobbler machine to set the mood and funky hipsters running the show. To my surprise, Alvin my leather teacher popped out from the storeroom of one of these new shops. He had moved on from his mini workshop in the industrial site to the trendy leather street of Sham Shui Po. Although I felt a strange sense of nostalgia and a little sad that he had abandoned the workshop where I had started my leather working journey, I was proud that he had managed to make it out here to share his skills to a larger audience.
I now am where Alvin was a year and a half ago, but in the UK, helping to bring leatherwork back on the scene across London, Newcastle, Manchester and Edinburgh.