Diversifying in a changing world
As the years passed, people’s needs also changed. New materials such as plastic, aluminum and stainless steel became popular, electricity became more accessible, mechanised production went mainstream, Chinese restaurants gradually switched to using stainless steel kettles, and copper rice pots for household use were replaced with electric rice cookers.
The two brothers have been in charge of the shop since the 1970s, with the elder brother focusing on drawing, design and market development, and the younger one on the actual copper working.
“I’m the leader,” says Luk, “so of course I have to keep up with the trends and do whatever is popular. I enjoy following the changes in the market, which are a challenge. The customers make strange requests, and if you can deliver and please them, it is really satisfying,” Luk says.
After the decline of both household and catering copperware, Ping Kee turned to making prop weapons for the martial arts and film industries from the 1970s onwards. “We made all the weapons, such as military forks and guandaos (a type of Chinese pole weapon), for the famous TV series ‘The Book and the Sword’. The Hong Kong martial arts community was flourishing at the time, thanks to the influence of Bruce Lee,” Luk recalls. They also seized the opportunity to export copperware to Singapore, mainly to mines.
“In Singapore, when many workers laboured in the mines, they took our copper pots with them to cook rice. Let me sketch one out for you,” Luk explains enthusiastically, as he looks back on his business of years gone by.
But all too soon, the ever-changing tide turned. With the reform and opening up of Mainland China, Hong Kong people went north to set up factories, and the manufacturing industry there became so prosperous and its products relatively inexpensive that the Hong Kong film and television industry began ordering their props from the Mainland instead.
“With free trade, things became cheaper on the Mainland, and we couldn’t even cover our costs selling them at that price, so how could we survive?” Luk asks. But one door closes and another one opens: since the 1980s, more and more herbal tea shops have opened in Hong Kong, and the Luk brothers turned to making copper tripods half the height of a man, for storing herbal tea for those shops; many herbal tea chains became their customers.
Over many years of seizing business opportunities and making copperware for a variety of purposes, the two brothers have always relied on their hands and a selection of hammers. The only electrical appliances used are welding tools and electric drills. Walking into Ping Kee today, you see dozens of hammers scattered around, and almost every one with a different shape and size of head.
“This is the ‘nesting hammer’”, explains Luk, “which is used to make a nest out of copper; this is the ‘sliding hammer’, which rounds out the finished product; and this is the ‘pecking hammer’, which creates a grainy pattern on the final product.” He says there is no need to memorise everything: once the craftsman has mastered the art, he can select the most suitable tool by instinct.