Australia Made in Hong Kong was once world-famous. But now it's disappearing from Australian shops

22:18  13 february  2021
22:18  13 february  2021 Source:   msn.com

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a close up of items on a table: The Made in Hong Kong label was once an immense source of pride. (ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser) © Provided by ABC Business The Made in Hong Kong label was once an immense source of pride. (ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

It was a photo of a Hong Kong-made, round-neck undershirt on Instagram that brought back memories of Jennifer Cheung's late father.

Peter Ping Cheung was a sailor who arrived in Australia after World War II.

His name remains on a memorial for Chinese servicemen in Sydney's Chinatown, in remembrance of Mr Cheung's dedication to helping Chinese migrants who suffered under the White Australia Policy.

Ms Cheung remembers her father wearing the undershirts around the house — inspired by Bruce Lee's martial arts movies in the 1970s.

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The 51-year-old said she was fascinated by Hong Kong-made products during her upbringing, which were abundant in Chinatown: from textiles to battery-operated toys and foodstuffs.

"For me, it's good. It represented good quality," Ms Cheung told the ABC.

After being replaced by products made in mainland China and elsewhere for decades, locally-made products are regaining popularity among many young Hongkongers.

As the Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip on the city's civil society in the wake of mass protests in 2019, there has been a rise in localism and the celebration of Hong Kong identity.

Seeking to push back against political and economic influence from Beijing, pro-democracy supporters created the so-called Yellow Economic Circle.

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Under this system, activists label businesses that openly endorse pro-democracy messages, encouraging their peers to only shop with them.

These businesses include small eateries, bookshops, and other outlets selling locally-made products.

In 2020, angered by what they saw as the Hong Kong Government's slow response to COVID-19, some local manufacturers started producing masks.

One local manufacturer saw their allocation of 20,000 masks for pre-order sell out within 10 seconds in March, the South China Morning Post reported.

Despite this uptick in support for buying local, however, experts say it will be difficult for Made in Hong Kong to reclaim its past glory.

What is Made in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong's manufacturing sector began to expand in the 1970s, according to Tai-Leung Terence Chong, associate professor of economics from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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This resulted from the civil war in China, which pushed many people from the mainland to flee to Hong Kong, bringing labour and capital to the then-British colony in the 1960s.

With abundant cheap labour by the 1970s, Hong Kong was able to process and manufacture products on a mass scale for international brands.

Hong Kong produced and exported electronic watches, toys, clothes and other products for daily life to the world.

"All these products [were] very competitive in the international market during the 1980s," Professor Chong said.

During this time, many people from Western countries like Ms Cheung associated Hong Kong products with quality.

Professor Chong said this was because Hong Kong, governed by Britain, strictly adopted Western standards of production and management.

In 1974, Hong Kong established the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

Professor Chong said ICAC had ensured companies and factories strictly follow production standards, while preventing commercial corruption.

With these policies and advantages, Hong Kong saw a golden era of manufacturing in the 1980s.

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Made in Hong Kong in Australia

In Australia, Hong Kong-made products can be traced back to the 1930s, according to Leigh McKinnon, a research officer at the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo.

"In the time of the Great Depression, 40,000 pounds (18,150 kilograms) worth of material was imported from Hong Kong into Australia [per year]," Mr McKinnon said.

At the time, Australia's exports to Hong Kong exceeded what it imported, Mr McKinnon said.

Imports from Hong Kong were usually for the local ethnic Chinese community, including rice, ginger, essential oils, tea, fabrics, embroidery and lace.

In Bendigo, Hong Kong-made products were sold in general stores.

By the 1970s, trade between Australia and Hong Kong was increasing, with more Hong Kong-made products making it onto Australian shelves than ever before.

"And that sort of Made in Hong Kong brand or logo began to become much more impressed upon the consciousness of Australian people," Mr McKinnon said.

George Wing Kee was a founding member of the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce in Sydney's Chinatown.

The 78-year-old recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s, furniture, kitchenware and whitegoods such as transistor radios from Hong Kong were popular in Australia.

He said Hong Kong products were cheaper than Australian-made ones.

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"If we talked about transistor radio in the 1950s, it would be about $10," Mr Wing Kee said.

He has watched the development of businesses in Chinatown since at least 1949, when his father purchased a takeaway joint there.

A wave of migration from Hong Kong in the 1970s saw an influx of Hong Kong-made products like chopsticks and rice cookers imported through Chinatown, he said.

"It was all from Hong Kong. Nothing from China, but some things from Taiwan," Mr Wing Kee said.

"But mainly Hong Kong was preferred because of the quality."

The glory has passed

For a younger generation of Hongkongers, the Made in Hong Kong label contains a special meaning.

Meimi Wong, an international student from Hong Kong, enjoys hunting for vintage Hong Kong-made products in Melbourne and Geelong.

Her hobby began in 2016 when she found a cream-coloured, suede jacket with the label Made in Hong Kong at an op-shop in North Melbourne.

The 33-year-old has since collected teaspoons, handbags and cup mats made in her hometown.

"From these items, I could feel how great Hong Kong was at that time," said Ms Wong, who also said these products reminded her of home.

"You know they belong to the time of [the] Hong Kong I once lived in."

It was during the 1990s that Hong Kong's status as a manufacturing hub began to fade.

As mainland China opened its economy to the world, many businesses moved their factories from Hong Kong to neighbouring Guangdong Province.

Mr Wing Kee said from this time there was an observable decline in Hong Kong-made products in Australia.

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"Many products that are made in China didn't have the quality that some Hong Kong products did," he said.

"But then again, the wholesalers in Australia prefer to buy the cheaper product with a quick retail and the mark-ups were much better than Hong Kong products."

As Beijing developed more trade agreements with other countries, Hong Kong remained the place where products would be completed and shipped to the world, Professor Chong explained.

This meant they could still be labelled as Made in Hong Kong.

As foreign investments continued flowing into mainland China, however, Hong Kong gradually lost its advantages as a manufacturing hub.

With masses of cheap labour and land, China became "the world's factory", while tiny Hong Kong saw property prices skyrocket.

Made in Hong Kong would be replaced by Made in China.

The US-China trade war has worsened the problem, threatening to eradicate the Made in Hong Kong label altogether.

In November 2019, the US relabelled all products imported from Hong Kong to Made in China, in response to China's tightening grip on Hong Kong's autonomy.

"In Hong Kong, the manufacturing sector is like a sunset industry — it's declining," said Professor Chong, adding that finance is now the city's primary economic driver.

"I don't think we can rise again because we don't have any advantage in our labour costs. We don't have any advantage in our land.

"Each economy has a strength and their own disadvantage, we don't need to be strong in every sector."

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