For decades, a series of calligraphy-based advertisements for the services of a ‘kui wong’ – translating to ‘King of Sewers’ in Cantonese – have intermittently been spotted around town. Save for a phone number, these hand-painted ads usually offer little information about the mysterious plumber king. Yet his unique, artistic way of marketing his services have made him a household name in Hong Kong. We sit down with the legend, whose real name is Yim Yam (73), to find out a few things plumbers want us to know about their jobs.
“When I first started out in this industry, I would go around dropping my name cards off in different mailboxes inside old industrial buildings, so people could call me if they needed help fixing their plumbing. I quickly realised that wasn’t working when I saw my cards strewn all over the streets. That’s when I switched tactics, and bought a can of paint and wrote ‘plumber king’ along with my number on old walls in alleyways, bus stops, street curbs – all places where many people would pass by.”
“Some clients can be quite the scrooge. I tell them I charge $600 for checking what’s wrong, and to only call me over if you’re really going to hire me to do the work. Otherwise, even if you pay me the $600 inspection fee, it’s just a waste of time. Yet people would still call me over to check their plumbing and when they disagreed on price, they’d refuse to pay! I’ve had cases where the police were called over arguments and people accused me of fraud. Some people are a lot more reasonable. I’m happy to compromise as long as the price you’re demanding isn’t ridiculously low.”
“When a kitchen sink gets really old, rust and dirt can harden the drainpipe like fatty deposits clogging up your arteries. And just like a doctor operating on your arteries, I too have specially designed tools to fix pipes and valves. Starting out in the business, I didn’t have the best equipment, but I slowly modified the tools I used over the years to better solve Hongkongers’ different plumbing issues.”
“It’s possible to pay a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for the same job done by two different plumbers, because everyone claims they can do plumbing these days. A lot of plumbers out there think if they can do the job well, then great. But if not, they’ll just give up and not charge the client. What’s more, there aren’t as many plumbing jobs available compared to a decade ago, and in this industry there aren’t any peak seasons. Whether business is good or not entirely depends on your luck.”
“When I clean drains, I don’t use scaffolding. It could take a week to finish a job when you use scaffolding, whereas I can be done in three hours without it. When using scaffolding, you have to be extremely careful when climbing around it. You also have to be hyper aware of people passing beneath you. Another dangerous part of this job is its dirty nature. I was fixing the drains in a house in Sai Kung one time, and they had a rat running around the underground pipes. When the homeowners let out the washing machine’s water, the rat suffocated inside the pipes. I used a wire to clear out the pipes and ended up pulling out the dead body of a huge rat. Blood water was flowing out of the pipes while I was cleaning too, it was so dirty. With this virus going around, situations like this can be very dangerous. You have to always wash your hands and disinfect properly, or else you can easily catch something.”