By Jane Zhang
Strolling along Hollywood Road in Central, people can hardly resist the urge to go into a wide variety of tiny but exquisite art shops. Gu’s Embroidery used to be one of the them, selling copies of famous paintings and portraits made by Chinese traditional Su embroidery.
It has been 13 years since Gu’s Embroidery opened its first store in Kowloon. Gu’s Embroidery has gone through ups and downs as Hong Kong’s economy fluctuated in the last decade. Though being the only Su embroidery shop in Hong Kong, it’s still not easy for Gu’s Embroidery to stand its ground. Finding out the balance between successes of tradition craft art and a practical business model is the challenge for many traditional arts.
With a long history, Chinese embroidery has made outstanding contributions to Chinese labor women in cultural and artistic aspects. Su Embroidery, the top of four famous embroidery genres in China, has 2500 years’ history. Compared with Hunan Embroidery, Guangdong Embroidery and Sichuan Embroidery, Su embroidery has well known as being fine, simple but elegant since ancient times.
Pure silk is the main raw material of Su Embroidery. The artisans dye the silk threads with thousand kinds of different colors in their workshop. Embroidery ladies stitch layer after layer to obtain the interplay of shadow and highlights that brings a painting to life. For over a hundred years, Gu’s family has been practicing different Su embroidery skills, such as flat stitching and random stitching. In the 1980’s, Gu’s family creatively adopted the concept of color and shape in the western oil paintings to cross the threads of different colors, different thinness and different length.
The headquarter of Gu’s Embroidery is in Suzhou, Zhejiang Province, the place where Su embroidery is originated. In order to tap into overseas markets, Mr. Gu Yulai, Gu’s family heir decided to open stores in Hong Kong in 2004. The plan was carried out smoothly at first. Mr. Gu opened four stores in Central, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui and Sheung Wan respectively with the help of Invest HK, a government department supporting overseas and mainland businesses to set up and expand in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gu and her sister Gu Xiaoxian began to think about ideas to spread the culture of embroidery. Gu Xiaoxian accepted the offer from the City University of Hong Kong and taught embroidery courses in its Chinese Civilization Center. Apart from that, they opened workshops to whoever is interested in Su Embroidery. Until now, they’ve accepted hundreds of students in Hong Kong, most of which are housewives.
Mrs. Chan was attracted by the embroidery workshop at the first sight of the delicate embroidery paintings when she ran into the store of Gu’s Embroidery.
“I’ve always been interested in handcraft, like tailoring and cross-stitched embroidery,” Mrs. Chan said, “I’ve learnt Su Embroidery for more than three years and finished about 3 works. I like all of them. If I have time, I’ll keep learning.”
Mrs. Yeung at her forties treats the workshop as a way to kill her time. It not only gives her the opportunity to make friends. She also got a sense of achievement when she finished her works.
Gu’s Embroidery really had its time. Mr. Gu was ambitious in the first few years. He told Invest HK that he was planning to open ten shops in the following five years when he decided to expand his business in Hong Kong. However, the economic slowdown after 2008 financial crisis ruined his plan. Gu’s Embroidery gradually closed all stores in Hong Kong by last March. By this April, there’s only one office left in Wan Chai with some sample products.
But Mr. Gu is optimistic about his business. He doesn’t treat the art galleries on Hollywood Road as competitors.
“Actually, Su embroidery doesn’t have competitors in Hong Kong. Su embroidery is delicate. What we do is high-end artworks. But one limitation of Su embroidery is that there’s not many original designs. In fact, the market is good in the future,” Mr. Gu said.
Mr. Gu holds the confidence about his business because he knows that Su Embroidery requires complicated skills. A one-square-meter painting can take an experienced embroidery lady up to half a year.
For the lasted two years, Mr. Gu’s main focus is in the mainland. Gu’s Embroidery has done great on new e-commerce marketing channels like Taobao and Wechat. However, as Hong Kong has been catching up as one of the most important artwork trading centers in the world, Mr. Gu has reopened a store in Wan Chai on April 13rd.
Gu’s embroidery still wants open up international market. But now Mr. Gu has changed his strategy: instead of opening stores by himself, he wants to cooperate with shopping malls in Singapore and Taiwan.