My name is Lau Chiu, 65 years old. I have been working at Tak Kee Auto Service on Caroline Hill Road in Causeway Bay for half a century. Tak Kee was opened by my master, Tak Suk, in 1968 and I joined this garage as an apprentice in 1972. In the 70s, most families in the city were so cash-strapped that they couldn’t afford to send their kids to school. This, coupled with the fact that I didn’t excel academically, compelled me to drop out of school to learn a trade and eke out a living by myself. Initially, my elders advised me to become an electrician. Later realising electricians had to visit factories and perform dangerous manoeuvres, I switched my job.
I was 15 when I joined Tak Kee Auto Service. There were only 3 workers at the garage — my master, my senior and me. As an experienced mechanic who had received formal training at Ford Motor Company before WWII, my master was well-versed in theoretical knowledge pertaining to car maintenance. Rather than reiterating repair procedures, he built up our foundation with theories. This kind of masters was rare in those days; most bosses would instruct their apprentices to follow their demonstrations. It was then I was an amateur at repair work that I started reading up on the stacks of relevant English-language books with illustrations that my master had collected. These materials were my treasures!
In the first 3 to 4 years of apprenticeship, I was so perplexed by the potential of being stuck in this field for the rest of my life. First, maintenance work was demanding and risky, and the monthly salary was low, only a few hundred dollars. Second, garage technicians were discriminated against. Without advanced lift platforms back then, technicians had to do repair work underneath the cars so they got dirty easily. There was a time that a passenger condescended to me. When I was carrying my equipment on the bus, a lady poked me, shouting hysterically, “Don’t come close!”. I felt she despised me! I didn’t say a word at that moment. I thought to myself: Am I that disgusting? By no means I’m a menace to society; instead, I’m contributing to the community in my own ways. When your car breaks down, you’ll need me to fix it! It’s me who repairs the car for you and brings happiness to you and your family. To this day, I still hold firmly to this belief!
In the late 1970s, Hong Kong witnessed the second mass migration wave. As my master and senior immigrated to Canada, they passed on the garage to me. Later, I was officially registered as a first-class garage mechanic under the Apprentice Training Scheme launched by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department. The Department also arranged evening courses at the Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute for me. Upon attending the courses, I managed to connect the bits and pieces of theoretical knowledge I had once been exposed to and hone my technical skills, which stood me in good stead for being a garage owner.
A Garage Community
My master once told me Tak Kee Auto Services was the first garage established on Caroline Hill Road; Danish Bakery and Caroline Garage Limited were opened later. During my apprenticeship, most shops in the Caroline-Haven community did craftwork. Inside Lei Shun Court there were woodware shops, sofa shops and renovation stores, while on Haven Street were glass stores, carving shops and spray painting shops. Despite the high rent, my master still decided to open a garage here. This is primarily because Caroline Hill Road surrounding South China Athletic Association was wide enough for trial runs, and its proximity to the Electrical and Mechanical Department made vehicle inspection much easier. Most of our customers hail from Happy Valley, Causeway Bay and the Southern District, so the current geographical location brings them much convenience. Most importantly, there’re many component suppliers near this street, for instance, Wing Lee Company Auto Parts & Accessories , Aarum Company, and Wealth Host Auto Parts Limited in Tai Hang, where we can stock up on screws and other maintenance equipment. Thinner’s also available at Cheong Lee Hardware inside Lei Shun Court.
Besides the cooperation between garages and hardware stores, garages in the Caroline-Haven Community have been collaborating with each other. The services of garages can roughly be divided into several types, including maintenance of machinery, car body, tires, spray painting, and welding. Different garages are also responsible for repairing different types of cars. Here on Caroline Hill Road, Tak Kee Auto Services and Caroline Garage Limited primarily maintain car machinery and align wheels, while Kelly Motors Limited sells motorbikes and related equipment, such as tires for motorcycles and helmets.
Since our garage was opened, Caroline Hill Road hasn’t undergone much transformation; the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department and the Drainage Services Department are still located opposite to our garage, and even the stone walls have been preserved. Tak Kee Auto Services and other garages are still here, despite the opening of new restaurants. Haven Street, in contrast, experienced fewer changes; garages once there were all closed down. In the past, a father and his son operated the Chung Wah Auto Services Centre Company Limited there, focusing on machine maintenance, but it was moved to an industrial building in Chai Wan due to the skyrocketing rent. Similarly, the adjacent World Automotive Glass Service moved out because of the exorbitant rents.
Plights of Running a Garage
Having been the owner of Tak Kee Auto Services for many years, I’ve come up against quite a lot of difficulties. The hardest thing to get used to was that I had to charge my customers regardless of how close we were. When I was still an employee, I allowed my clients to pay next time if I helped them fine-tune their cars, such as fixing lights and adjusting tires and wheels. After taking charge of the garage, I came to realise that charging my clients was necessary to safeguard our garage’s interest.
Another obstacle is that cars evolve rapidly, which means I’ll be weeded out if I can’t catch up to the trend. During my apprenticeship, most cars ran on platinum ignition systems. Since the platinum surface easily burnt down and wore, we often had to maintain the system for customers, which drove our business. Later, as vehicle air-conditioning systems popularised, Tak Kee Auto Services started to repair air-conditioners. Fortunately, that wasn’t hard to handle given the technologies involved weren’t complex. Nevertheless, with the updates of the car safety system — brake and traction control functions included — we began to encounter difficulties. Without adequate technology for maintaining high-end systems, we had to frequently inquire large-scale car manufacturers about relevant knowledge and invest up to 400 thousand dollars in advanced maintenance systems, which were unfortunately rendered obsolete within a short time. When we came across problems like these, we tended to outsource complex manufacturing procedures to larger automakers. For now, even though our technologies have advanced and we’ve been utilising computerised machines to test the functions of automobile electronics and oil cylinders, we still lack the skills to repair electric cars. In the face of this conundrum, we have no alternative but to take a step-by-step approach and try our very best.
We also have difficulties hiring technicians. Though the Institute of Vocational Education now offers courses relevant to car maintenance and lays a solid theoretical foundation for apprentices, many parents don’t want their children to work in garages, let alone receive relevant training. Some youngsters are even reluctant to become garage technicians so they resign halfway through their apprenticeship. Even if they’re interested in repairing vehicles, we have to deliberately consider whether to hire them as the minimum wages and labour protection involved may add to our operation costs.
Though, if you ask me what my biggest obstacle in recent years is, it must be the pandemic. To be frank, the repercussions of SARS weren’t even on par with the fifth wave of COVID-19; at least I could run a business during SARS. However, with the spread of the coronavirus, many Hongkongers rather stayed at home. So, there were fewer cases of car damage, which in turn played havoc with our business. Moreover, urban redevelopment posed threats to us. I know that some conglomerates have been acquiring five old buildings in the Caroline-Haven Community, namely Lei Shun Court, Lei Ha Court, Lei Wen Court, Lei Ka Court, and Caroline Building, and planning to redevelop them into shopping arcades and commercial complexes. After owing 80 percent of the property rights, the garages on Caroline Hill Road can be compulsorily auctioned. But I won’t think too far ahead. As a garage owner, I’ve encountered numerous setbacks, and I’m confident they can always be overcome.