Early on a Sunday morning in Hong Kong, nestled away in a pedestrian alleyway in the residential neighborhood of Sheung Wan, one stall among dozens is open. It belongs to Ng Kam Chun, a reserved 57-year-old man whose work most Hong Kongers have likely seen without knowing it.
Ng’s business, like that of all the stalls lining Man Wa Lane, is customized chops — traditional, necessary tools for doing business in Hong Kong, China, and beyond. A chop is essentially a square-shaped seal made of jade, marble, or wood with the owner’s name engraved onto the bottom, which is used to stamp a “signature” on important documents, cheques, and contracts. Chops symbolize a company’s identity, and in many offices are kept in safes.
Every nook and cranny in Ng Kam Chun’s tiny stall, which can fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder if you’re really squeezing, is filled with shelves that hold boxes and boxes of blank chops — slabs of stone waiting to be carved. Ng estimates there must be around 10,000 in there.
Ng wasn’t very good in school, by his own admission, so his elders suggested he find a craft he could perfect. At the time, about 40 years ago, the business for engraving chops was booming.
“It’s not a profession you’d starve in,” he says. So at 16, he began an apprenticeship in Macau, a region in southern China and former Portuguese colony. He opened his own shop there in 1980, and moved operations over to Hong Kong nine years later, after his master passed away.
Ng grew up in Guangzhou, mainland China’s third-biggest city, now an industrial foreign trade hub. An apprenticeship in the art of carving chops lasts as long as it takes for the trainee to pick things up, Ng explains — basically, how smart and dexterous you are. (It’s worth noting that Ng is ambidextrous.) He was making chops within one year. When his master traveled for religious worship, he was left to man the shop, which is seen as the crowning achievement: The boss trusts you enough to leave you in charge.
The origins of chops in east Asia date back thousands of years, and while many are made by machine these days, a hand-carved one — knowing your chop is one of a kind — still holds a great deal of weight. While the carving itself might range from a zodiac to a famous Chinese phrase, most feature individuals’ names or company names. Chops from both companies are required when signing business contracts, particularly in mainland China, Japan, and Korea. They’re still used in Hong Kong, but there’s not quite as emphasis due to American and British influence, Ng says.
The process begins with raw materials. Ng’s shop boasts more than 120 varieties of stones, most of which are sourced from mountains in mainland China, though some come from Laos, Pakistan, and Italy, too. He only knows the stones’ names by their country of origin.
Ng sands down the end of a stone column until it’s smooth, then lightly sketches a cross with a pencil to make sure the lettering is centered. Using a thin black marker — he previously used a special fine-print calligraphy pen, but the ink smelled bad, so he stopped — he outlines the edges of the stone’s square base and then each letter. He checks his work on a tiny mirror propped up inside his stall; after all, he’s writing backward so the seal produces a front-facing logo.
He deftly grasps the stone in one hand and uses the other to chisel away at the space surrounding the letters. It’s not brute force, but rather an indirect pressure, Ng says. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard, but not quite as cringe-y.
Depending on the medium of the chop, Ng alternates between five different tools, most of which he made himself — and one that he’s used since the beginning of his career. The entire process takes about 30 minutes.
Any stray marks or errors require starting over, and that’s a waste of stone, Ng explains. But almost in the same breath, he says that one mustn’t be scared of error. “If you screw up, it’s meant to be. If you do it well, that’s a happy accident.”
Speaking about his old tools makes Ng nostalgic about one item from his master, which he’s kept since his Macau days: a contraption that holds a chop in place while carving. It only makes an appearance when Ng is carving a seal made from wood or animal horn; he can hold stone between his fingers just fine.
While chops are still imbued with a great deal of significance in business transactions, they’re growing in popularity for tourists and expats, too. Ng keeps several binders filled with imprints memorializing each customer’s chop. He displays them to show what he’s capable of, perhaps, but it’s not exactly a lookbook; after all, no two chops can be identical.
“Variety is the central tenet of making chops,” Ng says. Each has its own personality that, as a master, you choose how to bring to the surface. This requires a lot “mental juice,” as Ng puts it — your brain must operate quickly. A long company name requires thinner lettering, for example.
The books documenting his past work contain multitudes, from Chinese verses to calligraphy to a replica of an 8-year-old’s stylized drawing that Ng traced on. These types of personal chops can be used much more indiscriminately than ones with an individual’s name and rank, which is considerably more sacred and must not be used frivolously, Ng stresses. When carving a new seal, Ng will always wait until he’s in the buyer’s presence to use it for the first time.
Each stone is topped with an auspicious symbol: sometimes a zodiac, like a dragon, or another animal like a turtle, which symbolizes longevity. A phoenix represents women; a lion might represent guarding the home, but can also be used for celebration, perhaps to commemorate a special date like a wedding.
There’s one horned mythical creature I don’t recognize. It’s the son of a dragon, Ng explains. The animal has no rear end, which means it eats but is never full, and doesn’t defecate. (You can read into that symbolism however you want.) More niche, offbeat companies will sometimes choose this animal for their chop because it’s so eccentric.
The finishing touch is the small box of sponge-like red paste that Ng includes with each of his creations. To make the perfect imprint, tap the end of the chop lightly into the paste, then breathe onto it to add a little moisture before pressing firmly.
It’s only at the end of our conversation that Ng reveals I’ve probably seen one of his designs before in the wild. The chop used on Standard Chartered’s 2010 edition of the Hong Kong $100 bank note was his work. As Ng tells it, a Standard Chartered executive was walking down Chop Alley, happened to stop at his stall, and the rest is history.
Ng’s shop, Pun Han Sin Koon, is located at GPT8, Man Wa Lane, Sheung Wan, in Hong Kong.