From second-hand to first-rate

From second-hand to first-rate

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Dickson Lee
Photo: Dickson Lee

Prudence Mak Ngar-tuen's career should inspire all who dream of living their very own rags to riches story, writes Lai Ying-kit

In Prudence Mak Ngar-tuen's childhood, Lunar New Year wasn't a very extravagant occasion. But when her family could not afford to buy sweets to fill their red candy box, the young Mak came up with her own imaginative solution.

Using old cloth and melon seeds, she filled the box with colourful decorative sweets.

Although these days homegrown talent Mak is an international award-winning designer, her success has been built on the same ability to create something unique from leftover fabrics and second hand clothes.

And from now until the end of February, the designer will be teaching visitors to a Sha Tin shopping mall how to use eco-friendly materials to make dolls and Chinese New Year handicrafts.

Along with her handmade accessories brand, Chocolate Rain, Mak is best known for Fatina - a comic-figure-like doll made by hand from old fabrics.

Mak's brand has won more than 10 awards in Hong Kong, Europe and the United States. But back in 2001, when she launched her business, her products weren't an immediate hit with a public accustomed to mass-produced gadgets.

At certain points, she admits to even considering closing down. 'For a period, the idea of giving up crossed my mind every night,' she said. 'Times were really tough in the first two years. Sometimes it was so frustrating to see no one visit our shop for a whole day.'

Since she couldn't afford to rent a flat, she even slept in the store. But that also allowed her to spend more time working on her products.

Fortunately, in the third year something near a miracle happened. A few buyers from New York and Japan visited her shop and started placing orders regularly. This encouraged her to carry on.

'They said they were confident customers in their home countries would love my products,' the designer explained. 'Then my business started to grow. I think this was a reward for my persistence and hard work. I always believed handmade products are different. Every one of them carries the love of its maker.'

For the past month, she and her colleagues have been busy sewing dresses and headwear for 12 two-metre-tall versions of Fatina. To mark the upcoming New Year, each giant doll is dressed to represent a sign in the Chinese zodiac.

Smaller versions of these figures will be sold to raise money to help children from poorer families develop their artistic interest.

Mak, who has taught doll-making skills in community centres, said she had seen many underprivileged children with a talent for art and design who lacked the resources to develop their skills. Having grown up in a slum herself, she wants to use her experience to encourage them.

'Even with the very limited resources around, we could still make some little toys to cheer ourselves up,' she said. 'When I was small, my parents could not afford to buy me toys. My mother was a sewing worker and I took leftover pieces of fabrics from her to knit my own dolls.'

According to the designer, a difficult upbringing may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise. When she was young, Mak did not always have the money to buy pens and tools. Instead, she had to win the coupons to buy them in open design contests.

With her hard work and artistic talent, Mak won a scholarship which allowed her to complete her bachelor's and master's degrees.

And the designer has always valued everything she's been given. 'When I was six, I received a pack of colour pencils as a gift. I was very grateful for it. I was not willing to throw them away, even when they became very short and were hard to hold. Everything I got was a precious gift to me.'

Mak will hold workshops at New Town Plaza Phase III in Sha Tin on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm from Jan 23 to Feb 7, 3pm on Feb 13 and 14, and 2pm on Feb 20 and 21

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