A STAR IS BORN I was born in Hong Kong in 1951 without siblings – nor a father. (Lau’s mother) said he was a military man from Taiwan. She was a writer, a beautiful, mysterious woman. Occasionally she would disappear from home for days. Sometimes we lived in a big house in Kowloon Tong, sometimes an apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was too young to know what was going on. I stopped using the expression “my mother” when I was 11, when she said to me: “Stop calling me mother; I am not your mother any more.” I didn’t cry but my heart was in pieces. I could see that coming, otherwise she wouldn’t have started ignoring me when I was eight, or sent me to a boarding school in Fanling and not paid my school fees, leaving me to be beaten by the headmaster. At times she’d visit me, bringing me gifts and promising to come again some day, but then never show up. Throughout childhood, I was subjected to her vacillating affection and aloofness. But I don’t hate her. Hatred only invites pain for yourself. That day when she told me not to call her mother, I didn’t say a word. I went up to the rooftop of my workplace. I looked at the moon and said, “From now on I won’t shed a single tear. One day I’ll be a star shining next to you.”
AS YOU SEW… I started working as a tailor’s apprentice in Tsim Sha Tsui when I was 11. I was the youngest among dozens of apprentice boys. I am grateful to the tailor, an elegant, courtly man from Shanghai, from whom I learned to make clothes to order. He told off many boys but never me, and he once said my handiwork could support me for life. I was paid 40 cents a day. In those days a bowl of wonton noodles cost 30 cents. I made HK$12 a month and spent HK$6 learning English at a language school. At 16, I rented a room at Mirador Mansion, bought a sewing machine and set up my own workshop. I gave out my business cards to salesladies at department stores and they started coming to me.
FAST LEARNER In 1973, I had saved enough money to go to London, where I studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins. I wouldn’t have been what I am without this school, which opened my eyes and taught me what design really was. The three years in London were very tough, but I was happy and felt at home. I worked part time as a busboy at a bar to have enough money to pay the rent and top up the coin-operated heater in winter. In my room there was only a bed, a desk filled with drawing tools and a broken chair I found on the street. My poor English was at first a big problem but I learned the ropes fast. When I came across a new word, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask a stranger what it meant. The first word I learned this way was “sting”, which I saw outside a cinema showing The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
BREAKING NEW GROUND After London, I brought one of my collections back to Hong Kong. I was then the first local designer who could deliver a full fashion collection. My career soon took off. Fashion magazines featured my works and the Trade Development Council invited me to do a collection for the finale of its gala presentation of fashion, a role normally reserved for foreign designers. I was also lucky enough to have met my muse, Paulona Chai. She was then a supermodel and I just a young designer but she loved my work and would only wear the evening dresses I designed. Unfortunately, at the peak of her career, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and passed away in the mid-1990s.
PRIME TIME In the 80s, I was the fashion and image designer for Canto-pop diva Anita Mui Yim-fong, who became a great friend. The 80s were the best time for Hong Kong. You walked into a hotel coffee shop and you’d bump into all these actresses in beautiful bell-bottoms, complete with a nice hat. They exuded elegance. Being born in the 50s, I was able to experience the hard times in the 60s and 70s and therefore knew how to appreciate the 80s, a decade when I was also in my prime.
FRIENDS FOREVER I retired in 1999 after completing a big project – designing the flight attendant uniforms for Cathay Pacific. In 2008, I was invited to do a new design for them, and then for Dragonair, whose chairman is a friend of mine. All along I was driven by friendship. I have no siblings or family and I don’t believe in romantic love or marriage, so friends are very important to me. In the two years between October 2002 and November 2004, I lost my four most important friends: Roman Tam, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui and James Wong. They died one after the other and I was devastated. This is a trauma one never gets over. I can only feel lucky to have met these genuine, brilliant people. Today I live alone in Shenzhen and go to Hong Kong once or twice a week. I look forward to the day when I join these four friends somewhere. Death is just a matter of going back to where you came from. When I was young and naive, I thought people in their 30s were so old. But time passes faster than you can ever imagine.
THE BRIGHT SIDE Last year marked my 50th year in the fashion industry. The upcoming retrospective exhibition of my collections at the Heritage Museum is not only about me but is also a Hong Kong story. The show motivated me to write my autobiography, something I wasn’t ready to do a decade ago because I thought revisiting the past would be painful. As it turned out, it was, but I only recorded the beautiful things and good people without dwelling too much on the negative. I don’t want to complain. I try to be positive. That is the Hong Kong spirit.
Eddie Lau Pui-kei’s retrospective exhibition will open at the Heritage Museum on 17 July 2013. His autobiography Clair de Lune will be released on the same day, at the Hong Kong Book Fair.
Published in Post Magazine on 14 July 2013