“Wai Gor,” aka Henry Yau, is the “Umbrella King” of Sham Shui Po. He’s the fifth-generation owner of umbrella store Sun Rise Co. (新藝城). He tells Kate Lok how he got into the business, and why he considers making umbrellas an art form.
HK Magazine: When did Sun Rise Co. start?
Wai Gor: This little umbrella store was started way back in 1842 by my ancestors in Guangzhou. My dad brought it to Hong Kong around 70 years ago. I learned how to make umbrellas at a very young age. I would sit in the store and watch my father making them.
HK: How long does it take to make an umbrella? WG: It takes about three hours to make one from start to finish. I’ve stopped selling my own umbrellas now, as they’re just too time-consuming to make. I still sell umbrellas, but I buy them from elsewhere. I also fix broken umbrellas.
HK: Why are you so passionate about umbrellas? WG: Umbrellas are beautiful things to me. Do you know why people are so fascinated with churches and cathedrals in Europe? It’s because of their rounded roofs. The human eye has always found shapes that are curved without sharp angles captivating, and that’s the same case with umbrellas. Each piece is a work of art.
HK: Do you have any tips when it comes to choosing the perfect umbrella?
WG: Everybody has their own preference when choosing an umbrella. A lot of people nowadays would choose them according to weight—they want umbrellas to be as light as possible. I say don’t go for the lightest, because they are usually made with materials that aren’t that strong and can easily break. Umbrellas used to be made with steel, and that made them really heavy but extremely sturdy. Now they are mostly made with aluminum.
HK: We hear there’s a proper way to use an umbrella. Can you teach us?
WG: Of course. I love teaching my customers the correct way to open an umbrella. People who work in the umbrella industry hate me for it, because opening umbrellas the right way makes them live longer. So listen up: For automatic umbrellas, you must open them while they are facing upwards. If you open them sideways, all the fabric will be facing downwards and that puts great pressure on the ribs of the umbrella. For pocket umbrellas, I always tell my customers that it is “sleeping” when you are not using it, so don’t open it too abruptly. You have to “wake up” the ribs of the umbrella by slowly shaking it while opening it up.
HK: Do you have children? Do you think they will inherit your business?
WG: I have two daughters, but I’m pretty sure they won’t be taking on my business. Young people nowadays are looking for work that is sustainable and will make money quickly. I don’t think sticking with the umbrella industry will get them anywhere.
HK: How did the umbrella revolution in 2014 affect your business?
WG: My umbrellas got REALLY popular. I never used to sell yellow umbrellas, since they were never a popular color, but the umbrella revolution brought hundreds of orders every day. Most were from young people, and I sold them at a very cheap price, because I knew that they were using them for a good cause.
HK: What’s with all the stuff hanging outside your shop? WG: Although most people would call me an “umbrella smith,” I consider myself more of an artist. I like creating random art from things that are usually considered trash, such as water bottles or broken umbrellas. I once made a fan out of the ribs of an old umbrella, and it turned out quite well. I have a very artistic sense when I fix umbrellas: I try to make the repairs as seamless as possible, as if it was brand new. I’m quite the perfectionist in that way.
HK: Any good stories about your customers?
WG: There was once an elderly couple who brought in an old umbrella for me to fix. I could tell right away that it was at least a few decades old and I asked them, “Why don’t you just buy a new one? Repairing it would cost even more.” But the couple insisted on fixing it. They said they didn’t mind how long it took, as long as I was able to fix it. Later I found out that the umbrella was the first gift the man had given his wife. I was really touched and tried my hardest to repair it well. I didn’t charge them.
HK: How do you stay positive and happy all the time? WG: Life is just way too short to be anything but happy. Why hold on to grudges when there are so many things to be thankful for? I always remind my customers, or anybody who comes to talk to me, that being happy is the most important thing in life. When others are happy, I am happy too.
Need a new brolly, or want to get one fixed? Head to Shop B1, 314 Lai Chi Kok Rd., Sham Shui Po, 9248-5748.