What a gem: tiny Hong Kong jade shop continues to sparkle as family business battles global turbulence to keep its sheen

What a gem: tiny Hong Kong jade shop continues to sparkle as family business battles global turbulence to keep its sheen
  • In 2020, jade exports from Hong Kong surged to more than US$140 million making the city a globally renowned trading centre
  • The city has been a hub for the importation, processing and finishing of the precious gemstone which is said to help ward off evil and bring good health

It is 10am on a Tuesday and the shutter of the Mei Mei Wonbow jade shop in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong slowly winds its way up.

Outside might be grey but the shop’s interior has a welcoming glow, enhanced by the hundreds of jade gemstones that have been cut and polished into shapes – bangles, rings, statues – and neatly displayed on glass shelves and cabinets.

Siblings Anna, Davis and Ziennifer, and their mother Mimi are behind the counter. That is to be expected; this is the Hui’s family business after all. But a link is missing.

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“Our father passed away in 2020 and we miss him a lot,” said Anna of Hui Cheong-shin, who founded the business in 1975. “We are working together to keep his legacy alive.”

Anna says her father, who was born in southern China’s Guangdong province, led a tough life under Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

“He did a lot of labour-intensive jobs like hand-cutting marble and making ceramic pots in hot kilns,” she said.

In the early seventies, Hui senior successfully crossed the border to Hong Kong. It was his third attempt and the journey was difficult: “He had to swim for six hours and walk a long distance.”

He found a job cutting jade but soon ventured out on his own, setting up his first jade store not far from where the current premises is on Canton Road, Jordan, the heart and soul of Hong Kong’s jade trade.

The area is commonly known as “Jade Street” and is a gemstone’s throw from the city’s famous jade market.

While the business had its ups and downs, Anna said it was the pandemic that took a toll: “My father loved being on the move but Covid stopped all that.”

The pandemic disrupted supply chains and sourcing trips to Myanmar, which produces 90 per cent of the world’s jade, of which between 70 and 90 per cent ends up in China.

Political unrest such as the 2021 military coup in Myanmar combined with poor safety – in 2020, more than 160 people died in a mining accident – also blighted the country’s jade trade, one reported to be worth more than US$30 billion.

Luckily for the Hui family their father had stockpiled some jade before the pandemic hit – an emergency stash that kept the wheels turning, said Anna, who left a career in electronics to join the family business.

All the siblings plan to stay in the business, supporting a trade that has a long and lucrative connection with the city. In 2020, Hong Kong’s jade exports surged more than 40 per cent to top HK$1.1 billion (US$140 million).

Today the family’s business is one of the few to cover all aspects of the industry, from carving and polishing to the selling of finished products.

It also hosts workshops to teach people about jade, show how it is cut and the story behind each piece.

At the back of the shop, away from the perfectly cut and polished gemstones, are machines, some more than 30 years old. “The old machines are the best,” said Anna.

Chunks of uncut rough jade, some still bearing marks from auction, sit in piles.

Much as a diamond is defined by clarity, cut and colour, jadeite’s three most important qualities are colour, transparency and texture.

“While typically green, the most valuable colour, jade can also be purple, black, yellow and white,” said Ziennifer, whose trained eye can spot fake jade by sight and touch.

She is also keen to share her knowledge. Later that day she is taking secondary school students on a tour of the premises and workshop.

“I want to open people’s eyes to jade and give them an insight into the process behind a finished piece of jewellery,” she said, adding that there is a growing interest in jade among the younger generation, in particular jewellers keen to give the traditional craft a contemporary twist.

In Chinese culture, jade is believed to ward off evil forces, bringing good luck to the wearer, and Ziennifer says: “Jade has tremendous power and energy, it has soul.

“I never tell customers what piece to buy because they must choose something based on the emotional connection they have with it. “

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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