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On the Job With: Yim Chiu-tong, plumber & graffiti artist

By Annette Chan 23 November 2021

Header image courtesy of Jen Paolini

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From office security guards to street cleaners, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Yim Chiu-tong, the plumber and graffiti artist known best as Plumber King (渠王; keoi4 wong4).

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Photo: Jen Paolini

“I grew up in China, near Shenzhen. I was there all the way up until I finished secondary school. I remember we had to labour in the fields after school; there was a famine and life was really tough. That’s when I thought of coming to Hong Kong with a classmate. We stayed at his aunt’s home for the first 10 days before I found a job. I sold dim sum at a five-storey teahouse at the junction of Shanghai Street and Prince Edward Road. The hours were very long, and the pay was little—I only made $6 a day but I would have to get up at 3.30 am on weekdays and 4 am on weekends.

“I wanted to change professions, and my friend suggested working on a construction site as an apprentice. Back then, si fu (師傅; skilled workers) made $12 a day and apprentices made $6 a day. So I started as an apprentice plumber—it was hard to support myself because I had to pay for my own housing and food, unlike at the teahouse. But I was sure I wanted to change my profession, so toughing it out was my only choice.”

“But construction sites only last so long—the projects end. After I finished the first project, I kept looking for more work on construction sites and learned how to fit gas lines for new apartment buildings. That job ended too, and I was out of work again. The construction foreman said, ‘Little si fu, it’s not that I don’t want to hire you. I just can’t give you work until I get a new project.’ I always found something to do with pipes. Plumbing, gas, [liquefied petroleum gas]—anything that uses pipes. The materials are different, even if you are doing the same thing with or without scaffolding. But at least if you always do something with pipes, you don’t have to start from scratch every time.”

“Because I had struggled so much back in China, I was desperate to make money. I still remember when I was studying for my exams, I asked my mother for money to buy a pencil. She said she didn’t have money, but she told me to take an egg to the store and exchange it for a pencil, so I did that. The next time, I asked her again and she said the same thing—but we were out of eggs. But I needed a pencil for school, so I had to be resourceful. I collected 12 or 13 leftover pencils from my other classmates—one-, two-inch stubs—to use for myself. Life was very hard.

“When you have known poverty, you are always trying to find ways to make more money. One time, I was working on a site in Shek Pai Wan in Aberdeen, near the cemetery, and they were building these 16-floor government estates. If you work at a construction site, you take afternoon tea at 3.15 pm (三點三; saam1 dim2 saam1) every day. When I was eating, I’d look at all the apartment buildings—Wah Fu Estate, all the residential buildings in Sai Wan—and I thought, those buildings are so tall, they have so many pipes. Sure, they are good when they are new, but after five, seven years, they will all get clogged up and need to be maintained. So I decided to focus on plumbing.”

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“At first, I advertised my business by distributing business cards in people’s mailboxes. I would print thousands of cards and go to all the industrial buildings around Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan every day and put my cards in their mailboxes whenever I had free time, so I could get as much business as possible. 

“One day, I had just done my rounds in a huge industrial building—two, three hours just inside this one giant building—and turned around the corner to see that all my cards had been thrown on the floor! I couldn’t waste them, so I picked them up and kept going. I went home and tried to come up with a less wasteful alternative. I had the idea of printing my details on label paper—you know, stickers. I could stick 10 or 20 of them around a mailroom with 100 mailboxes instead of giving each business an individual card. And stickers are not as easy to remove.

“I liked sticking labels inside the lifts—it was the most effective way. For one building, if it has eight to 10 lifts, then I only need to use that many stickers for that building. If someone doesn’t need a plumber, they don’t take any notice of it. But if they do, they’ll notice it—people sometimes run back and ride the lift again just so they can write down my number.”

“I also tried to think of a more effective way of advertising my services. One time, I was in San Po Kong on a job and saw a big nullah. On either side of the nullah, a company had painted advertisements for their medicated oils and that gave me the idea to do the same—that’s how I started painting my signs on the street.

“I can’t say how many signs I’ve painted now. Think about it—I’ve been plumbing for over 50 years and apart from those first three or four years, I’ve been advertising my services this way the whole time. I’ve painted all over Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Even Yuen Long, Tuen Mun, Sha Tau Kok, Tai Po, Sheung Shui, Pak Tam Chung, Sai Kung—I can get anywhere on my scooter. Every time someone calls me to go on a job, I’ll go. When I’m done, or if I have nothing to do, I’ll look around to see what would make a good spot to paint.”

“Bus stops, slopes, anywhere where a lot of cars or people pass, I’ll paint. I always prioritise plumbing first; painting only comes after. I’ve been doing it this way for a few decades now, I don’t have a real schedule of how much time I need to spend plumbing versus painting. Work always comes first.

“I choose the style and colours intuitively. If the wall is white, I’ll paint in black. If it’s black, I’ll paint in white. But sometimes the wall is neither white or black, it’s another colour or maybe not a plain colour at all. Then, I’ll use pink. I like pink, it has a humble quality to it—and girls like it! If I am writing big words in pink, I’ll add black borders to the words to make them stand out more, so it seems almost three-dimensional—like the words are coming off the wall.

“I don’t know if I would call myself an artist. But Tsang Tsou-choi (King of Kowloon) is dead, and some people are now calling me the second Tsang Tsou-choi. A lot of people praise my handwriting. Some people think I use a stencil and spray-paint my messages, but I tell them, ’You can see me painting everything by hand!’”

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“People say I’m an artist or a calligrapher, but I don’t know if I agree. I never studied art, but when I look at my own work from afar, I know what I think is good or not, and whether I accept it. If I step back and think a piece is not very good, I remember the parts that disappointed me and adjust them on the next piece to improve my form.

“Sometimes, I will get called out to a job after one or two plumbers have already tried and failed, or said the job cannot be done. When I have fixed the problem and I’m packing up my tools, getting ready to go, the customer will say off-handedly, ‘You really are the Plumber King!’ When I hear that, I get a real sense of satisfaction.”

“I will keep plumbing as long as I can physically do it. If you have known extreme poverty, you will always want to make as much money as possible to support your family. I will only stop if my body does not allow it; I still have a passion for this job. If you can help people solve their problems, you have a sense of satisfaction.

“When people congratulate me, I do feel happy. Sometimes the things I write on the street get a lot of admiration—some people even call me to ask if I can teach calligraphy classes! Some mothers even call me to ask if I can teach their children handwriting. I said I can’t, I only write for my own business, I’m not a calligrapher.”

Plumber King’s mural at The Stallery in Wan Chai. Photo: Annette Chan

“I have a method to the way I paint. It all depends on the size and shape of the space I’m painting in—I adjust everything to fit the space. The biggest words are always “clear drains, no scaffolding,” which take up about one-third of any advert I write. I write my phone number close to the top as well, but sometimes, I break it up into four digits on either side of the “clear drains” slogan. Underneath, I’ll add the scope of work—kitchens, bathrooms, subdivided rooms, manholes—so people know what I can do.

“Recently, I painted a piece by the fruit market in Yau Ma Tei, which I consider to be a 95 out of 100. The words are big and very well-balanced. I also wrote another one on a construction site on Nathan Road, near Wing On. At first, I wanted to write it so that it faced the road, but I was worried the police would call me and tell me I was being too ostentatious, so I painted it inside the scaffolding so people see it when they’re walking on the pavement.”

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Annette Chan

Senior editor

Annette is an editor and copywriter with a lifetime of experience in hunting out the most interesting, odd, and delightful things about her beloved home city. Having written extensively about everything from food and culture to fashion, music, and hospitality, she considers her speciality to be Hong Kong itself. In her free time, you can find Annette trying out new dumpling recipes or playing Big Two at her favourite local bars with a cocktail in hand.

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