A pioneer of the DIY craft movement in Hong Kong, Handmade Hong Kong co-founder Megan Olinger talks with The Loop ahead of its June 5 market. Olinger explains why it’s so important to work with your hands, what crafters bring to the community, and how Hong Kong has risen above its stereotypes.
A little background
From the Midwest US, Olinger moved to Hong Kong in 2002 to work in film production. She got involved with the DIY movement in 2008, after seeing the scene percolate on lots of US blogs and visiting the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago. Inspired by the cool crafters and communal atmosphere, she wanted to build a similar street market in Hong Kong. Her first attempt started with a craft market at The Living Room Cafe (now closed) in 2009, which saw just 15 vendors. From there, she partnered with Eclipse Group on the annual Soho Wine & Dine Street Festival and, at the same time, officially launched Handmade Hong Kong. Champions of handcrafted artisan goods and food, the monthly market runs from August to June in Discovery Bay.
1. There are a lot more crafters in Hong Kong than you think
I think that if you’re interested in doing things with your hands, if you make things, and that relaxes you or fulfills you in some way — then I’d say you’re a crafter. Whether or not you try to sell what you make, that doesn’t matter. There has always been creativity in Hong Kong but it’s been below the surface. There’s always been music, art and all that but it’s hard to get exposure. Venues are a huge problem for everyone, and it’s expensive to show visual arts. That has changed a lot to in the past 10 years. The Occupy movement brought a lot of creativity out from underneath. Things are happening here.
2. The DIY scene is really picking up
I think that the DIY handmade movement started off in the US in mid 2005 to 2006 and didn’t really get going in Hong Kong until around 2012. I moved away to the UK in 2010 and when I came back in 2014, there was just exponential growth in crafting during those few years. Our first market at Discovery Bay was 35 vendors and now it’s over 170. There are a lot of people making things now. The culture is there for people who want to participate. At the beginning, once we got the vendors out, there was a disconnect between people coming to the market and saying, ‘Why would I come and pay $500 for your handmade leather band when I can get a Gucci one?’
Now there is more value placed on things that are handmade. But that took a long time to sink in. The artisanal, local movement has shifted and people really value it. You see that in food culture too, with artisanal beer and local produce. People want something more unique and different. It’s a backlash against mass production and mass consumerism. It’s good for Hong Kong because it can be seen on one hand as such a consumerist culture. To have more things made in Hong Kong, by Hong Kong people is gratifying. When I see a market in Stanley, in Quarry Bay, in Sai Kung — that’s awesome.
3. Crafts are good for you
Working with your hands is a great way to relax. There’s scientific proof that doing things like knitting and playing the piano will trigger something in your brain to help you relax. But also the quietness about it, the sense of community, it helps you clear your mind. It brings people to a different space. So if you’re going to get together and have wine, why not also knit. Creative things can happen out of that.
4. Space is at a premium, so artisans have gotten creative
I think that the main difference is the mode of making in Hong Kong. Our places are so small and rent is high. Makers have to be adaptable to work in small shared spaces and find ways to make their work transportable, because studio space in Hong Kong is so inaccessible for most makers. Crafters might not be able to have a permanent space due to rent, but having that part time space or communal space is really cool. Now people can even approach a shop or cafe to share the space, and they’re much more receptive than they would have been 10 years ago. PMQ giving attention and space to artists, and hosting its own markets, that’s an excellent addition. These maker spaces are really cool because you can go for a day or for a few hours, as a total beginner, and learn the basics. It’s made all these new skills really accessible.
5. Street markets are insanely hard to pull off
I think about 10 years ago, I would have said we don’t have a lot of markets here because the DIY culture hadn’t really hit Hong Kong yet. But now, it’s been embraced. So I think it now just comes down to viable venues and space. it’s also really, really difficult. The government will work with you, but you have to have the patience to work through the channels. It’s a long process.
We’ve been approached to do other markets outside of Discovery Bay, but the process to get a license is really difficult. The licenses can restrict the types of vendors you can have, and you can have it in a public space but it’s gotta have good footfall. If you do a private space, then you have to rent it and that can be wildly expensive. We try to make markets affordable to our vendors since they are DIY crafters, it’s a major consideration for us.
To close down the streets is big pain in the ass, with all the stuff you have to go through with licensing. It makes it really really difficult to do. You have to have some heavy hitters behind you to make it happen. You have all kinds of things to work on — fire laws, noise complaints, barricades — there’s so much to think about.
And looking toward the future?
I would love to see knitting workshops start in schools. They have programs like that in the UK, just like how meditation has gone into schools. Having knitting clubs in schools would be very beneficial for any kids, those under stress and those with learning differences. Spending 10 minutes knitting can help you focus better on everything else.
Similarly, I’d love to see corporate culture embrace crafts by bringing people in to do team building events and workshops. Especially if you spend all day at a computer or at a desk, then you have this feeling of accomplishment that’s away from a screen.