The umbrella man

Hong Kong's Guinness World Record holder

Ho Hung Hee made the Guinness World Records for producing the most expensive umbrella in the world. The $2,000 umbrella was made from ox-hide and a 100-year-old German frame. (Eric Tsang)

By Bernice Ha

Inside a small stall on a steep stretch along Peel Street in Central, gray-haired Ho Hung Hee silently repairs a broken umbrella, carefully using modest tools.

Dozens of umbrellas fill the stall with color. Newspaper clippings decorate the wall, showing off his claim to fame.

Among the newspaper clippings hangs a certificate from the 1994 Guinness World Records – for producing the world’s most expensive umbrella.

The umbrella he produced was made using ox-hide from America and two 100-year-old German umbrella frames found in a construction site near his shop in 1982.

Mr. Ho made two such umbrellas, and both received great interest. One of them was sold at $2,000. That one entered the Guinness World Records.

Mr. Ho could have broken his own record a few years ago when someone offered $5,000 for the remaining umbrella. He refused the offer.

“It is invaluable and meaningful to me, and I will not sell it to anyone,” said Mr. Ho.

In 2003, Mr. Ho donated the umbrella to the Hong Kong Museum of History.

At 78, Mr. Ho has been making and repairing umbrellas for about 55 years.

His expertise and fame attract customers of all ages and nationalities. Some tourists travel all the way to Hong Kong for his umbrellas.

One of his best memories of a customer includes a 6-year-old girl. He vividly remembers the day he encountered her.

It was raining heavily on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival 2 years ago, when a mother and her two daughters and a baby boy sought shelter in Mr. Ho’s stall.

The younger daughter, who was 4 years old, asked her mother to buy one of the umbrellas, which cost $100. The mother could not afford it.

The little girl then complained of hunger.

Feeling sympathetic, Mr. Ho gave the mother a mooncake voucher and offered to sell the umbrella at $30.

“The older 6-year-old daughter took the voucher from me. She bowed and promised she would study hard,” said Mr. Ho.

“I saw a hopeful future for the girl.”

Mr. Ho’s own success and survival in his umbrella business was made possible by the graciousness of others, akin to the graciousness he showed toward the 6-year-old girl and her family.

His more than half a century of work started out in an umbrella factory where he worked after World War II.

In 1947, he left the factory to start a one-man umbrella business.

In the beginning, Mr. Ho did not have a shop. He cycled from place to place, offering his services.

“On 18 November 1948, I met a grocery store owner when cycling around.

“He was looking for someone to help him jot receipts.

“I helped him out. He was satisfied with my handwriting and in return, he let me open a small stall in front of his grocery store.”

Mr. Ho still locates there today.

Though the grocery store owner has long gone, new tenants keep providing him with water and electricity for free, just like the old days.

To show his gratitude, Mr. Ho treats his neighbors to a feast every 18 November.

Even though he has many years of experience, Mr. Ho said that he still faces many challenges because every umbrella is unique.

He explained, “Umbrellas break for different reasons. For example, the stem of one umbrella may break into two and another one may have holes in its cloth.”

(Eric Tsang)