Last summer, several student and community groups convened at The Mills, a new complex in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district, to create a 35-metre-long dragon out of bamboo and recycled fabric. The result was a fierce creature with a hand-crafted sensibility – one that also served as a colourful symbol of Hong Kong’s roaring manufacturing past.
In the post-war 1950s and ’60s era, Hong Kong reinvented itself from a trading port city to a manufacturing hub, enabled by the wave of immigration from the Chinese mainland that brought in wealthy businessmen and created a large labour force. Much of this manufacturing activity involved textiles, especially cotton spinning, and there was a period when textiles contributed over 30 percent of Hong Kong’s GDP and more than half of the city’s jobs. The industry was concentrated in Tsuen Wan, which became known in Asia as Little Manchester.
But with the opening up of the Chinese mainland in the 1970s, much of the manufacturing shifted there, and Hong Kong once again reinvented itself, becoming a services and financial hub. Many of the old manufacturing districts like Tsuen Wan have since been transformed into residential areas.
While Hong Kong’s textile heyday has passed, many of the historical advantages remain. Global businesses still use the city as a base to learn about manufacturing in the Chinese mainland’s Greater Bay Area, and fashion students still source fabrics from shops in Sham Shui Po district.
But at the same time, technology is reshaping the industry, with increased use of automation, artificial intelligence and personalisation. Many of these innovations have come from Hong Kong. Unspun, for instance, uses 3D weaving technology to create customised, perfectly fitting jeans with minimal waste. And there’s Goxip, an online store that uses image recognition technology to help shoppers find what they’re looking for.
Both of these tech startups are housed at The Mills, which was converted from former textile factories. Apart from housing an incubator for ‘techstyle’ startups, The Mills also includes a heritage centre, which takes a look at the city’s textile manufacturing past, and a shopping area. It celebrates the past, but also shows us how Hong Kong’s textile story is still being written today. Read more about The Mills.
Alexander Chan is co-director of incubator and investment platform The Mills Fabrica.