As Chan Chuen-foon guides viewers around a community gallery exhibition in Sham Shui Po, she stops at a framed piece. “This one,” she beams, pointing to a pea green clutch bag with two teetering teacups sewn on.
It was one of the many designs she had put together with a team of volunteer artists at Les Beatitudes, a local non-profit that employs working-class women to sew necktie pieces onto bags, creating vibrant new accessories in the process.
It was a sense of pride that Chan seldom felt when she first arrived in Hong Kong from Guangdong, China. With no support system and a young daughter to care for, she became increasingly depressed, worsened by her preexisting mental health problems.
“I was always unhappy,” she told HKFP. “I had to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. I felt hopeless for such a long time.”
But in 2017, she happened across a local organisation that promised flexible hours in exchange for sewing work. Chan, by her own admission, was not a natural seamstress. She toiled away, sewing together intricate designs, then hastily unstitching those she was unhappy with.
Her first purse took almost a fortnight to make. The second, a week. And the next, only a few days. “My palms sweat when I’m nervous, which makes it hard for the needle to go through,” she explained. “But my daughter would say ‘Mother, it looks beautiful’ and encouraged me to do better.”
Turning the old into new
Les Beatitudes began in 2014, with the support of NGO Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), hiring women, typically from poor districts of Hong Kong, to transform donated neckties into colourful bags – a process dubbed “upcycling,” which refers to using creative means to turn unwanted materials into new products.
These ties are cut and overlaid on top of each other to create patterns which, at first glance, appear in conflict with each other. Then, slowly, an image emerges: a traditional junk boat sailing across Victoria Harbour; the red brick arches of the colonial Tai Kwun arts centre; a panoramic view of the city’s skyline, accompanied by its native although endangered pink dolphin leaping out of the sea.
‘I rarely went out’
As the architects of these scenes, the sewing women take pains to find the right tie to fit each design. It’s a laborious process that Ling-poon, a seamstress, takes delight in doing.
Poon joined Les Beatitudes in 2014 to the demur of her family, who disliked the amount of time and space the job took up in their tiny apartment.
“My husband is a traditional man,” she told HKFP. “He thinks that housewives shouldn’t work because the man will give her money.”
Poon speaks with a quiet confidence that masks a lingering insecurity about her accent, which is inflected with a slight curl reminiscent of that in the mainland. She leans in closer when talking about her work, gesticulating with her hands the delicate intricacies of the task.
It was a job that allayed the initial stress Poon faced as a mainland migrant to Hong Kong.
“When I first arrived in 1998, I wasn’t happy. The boys were always naughty. I had no social life, and I felt Hong Kong people discriminated against me because my Cantonese wasn’t good. I rarely went out,” she explained.
In 2017, Les Beatitudes sold a bag sewn by Poon to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, with a request to use it during a public appearance, expecting nothing to come of it. But later in July, as Poon sat with her family watching the annual televised flag raising ceremony, Lam emerged on stage, clutching a small, blood orange purse embroidered with intricate flowers that overlaid a motley collage of Hong Kong’s skyline.
With that, her family were filled with pride. Poon’s husband frantically shared the news with his extended family on Whatsapp. Her sons began to help her purchase dense rolls of cloth.
“Now they don’t think my job is so bad,” she chuckled.
At the core of Les Beatitudes is a desire to lift the underprivileged out of impoverished circumstances through financial empowerment. It does this at a grassroots level, partnering with community workers to reach out to those who would otherwise slip under the radar.
Sze Lai-shan, a social worker with SoCO who connects women with Les Beatitudes, told HKFP the organisation provides marginalised women with an inclusive community to integrate into. “We work with a lot of migrants from mainland China who feel rejected by Hong Kong society,” she said. “It’s hard for them to integrate and they don’t have the support of their family or friends. They are in need of a community to support them.”
“This [sewing] job not only gives them skills but allows them to become economically independent,” Sze added.
In a city of high living costs, grassroots workers often suffer the most. According to a Commission on Poverty report last November, over 1.27 million people in Hong Kong were found to live below the poverty line, marking a nine-year high.
In 2017, the poverty line was set at HK$4,000 per month. In spite of this, 14.7 per cent of the population lives on less, even after government cash handouts.
The issue of economic empowerment is one that Les Beautitudes Chief Executive Margaret Leung wants to tackle on a local scale. “We want to weave together a social fabric where everyone starts to respond to each other’s call,” she told HKFP. “If everyone did that then society would be very different.”
Art as therapy
Les Beatitudes work with volunteers to collate designs for women to sew. These artists spend hours of their personal time designing patterns, driven by a deep commitment to the cause of grassroots empowerment.
“We do it because we believe the concept is good. It’s helping to create jobs for mothers who have very little,” Grace Tam, who joined Les Beautitudes in 2016, told HKFP.
Garlin Lee told HKFP that their work enables them to build bridges within a community and empower whole families. “When you help a sewing mother you help her family too,” she said. “Art brings people together.”
The theme of community connectivity is not lost in their upcoming exhibition on historic police stations, called SOS.999, depicted in a series of handmade bags, collages, as well as an art installation piece by designer Henry Lee.
But Leung reflects on the work carried about by the sewing women as more than about the material products. “The bag is not only about a job. It is also about how they understand their abilities,” she said.
Les Beatitudes’ work goes on display at H6 Conet in Central from March 3 to 29, 8am-10pm.