Saturday 11 May 2019

Looking for the old city - Hong Kong Stories 2.

A few years ago I became familiar with the work of Fan Ho - a photographic genius who recorded the Hong Kong of the 1950's and 60s. His black and white images of hawkers, shoppers and children at play captured the every day life of a world now largely disappeared. And more than this, his way of capturing light and shade not only adds atmosphere to his pictures but also transports the viewer back 60 years to the streets of old Hong Kong. I recently visited Hong Kong for a few days en route to Australia. Hong Kong today is almost unrecognisable from the place that Fan Ho knew but I set out to look for echoes of his time and the remnants of his world that linger on amongst the skyscrapers, shopping malls and highways.

The lady in the purple suit
I have written before about the chance encounters of wandering the streets of a city. Whilst walking through the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood after having visited the excellent Mei Ho Heritage House museum I noticed an elderly woman gathering discarded pieces of cardboard from outside shops and loading them onto a small cart. This is a common site in Hong Kong. Many people, particularly the elderly, do this as a source of additional income, receiving payment from dealers according to the weight of the cardboard collected. This lady stood out - slim, straight backed and elegant in a traditional Chinese suit made from purple material. Something about her demeanour made me want to know more about her and if possible to photograph her. I wasn't certain that she would agree to being photographed as a number of older people I'd encountered earlier had been happy to chat but not to pose.

After taking a few candid shots, I was able to have a conversation with her through my excellent guide, Eric Wan. She told us that she was born in mainland China 85 years ago and came to Hong Kong in 1960. She has lived through tremendous historical events and spoke a little about surviving the revolutionary years in China saying "we ate just a few spoonfuls of rice a day". Happily she is comfortable now. She said that she has enough to live on and collects cardboard to stop herself from being bored and not because she needs the money. She covers only a few local streets in her search and takes breaks to sit and chat with her friends. Although she held a cigarette whilst talking to us  she wouldn't let me have a close up of her smoking saying that it is a bad habit and that she didn't want to encourage others. 

Although she was happy to be photographed, the lady in purple was a little surprised that I was interested in her. I had a similar response from a very elegant woman who turned out to be the manager of the dried noodle store outside which the older woman was sitting. Perhaps in her 40's I noticed that she too had a very upright stance, wore a black lace blouse underneath her work overall and wore make up to work. At first she misunderstood my request for a picture, thinking I wanted to photograph the dried goods. When realising it was her I wanted to photograph she became a little shy and laughed but soon agreed and let me take several shots. She then spent some time looking at the  results whilst her employees teased her about them.

Elegance in the noodle store
Chan Lok Choi, bamboo cage maker
Chan Lok Choi has been making bamboo bird cages since he was 13. Now in his 70's he has a shop in Yuen Po Street where he makes and sells the only hand made cages in the bird market. He can be seen working outside the shop, bending the bamboo into place, carving letters or patterns on to it and finally adding paint to finish. It takes him several months to complete a single cage. None of his children wish to learn the trade and although he would be happy to take an apprentice from outside the family it seems that no-one is interested.   

Keeping birds as pets is a long established tradition in Hong Kong and until fairly recently it was possible to see older Chinese men taking their caged birds "for a walk". This would involve taking them to parks, hanging the cage from trees and listening to their song or sitting with friends to talk, read the newspaper or play mahjong. Although a few older men carry on this tradition, the avian flu of 2012 has largely curtailed the tradition as birds are now banned from public transport.

I was able to meet and photograph Mr Chan due to his being included in a wonderful book Sunset Survivors a book produced by writer Lindsay Varty and photographer Gary Jones which records the people keeping Hong Kong's traditional industries alive. I told him that after seeing his picture in the book I was keen to meet him. He was happy to hear this and told me that he has copies of the book for sale.

Leung Lo Yik - one of the last letter writers of Hong Kong
Leung Lo Yik, also known as Chen Yau, came to Hong Kong from Vietnam in 1972. On arrival he secured work as a barman but in Vietnam he had worked as an accountant. He is highly educated and fluent in English, French and Chinese and after some time a customer suggested he could obtain work as a letter writer. Today he can be seen siting in the Jade Market where he still uses his 1970's typewriter to write letters or to complete forms and applications for his few remaining customers. Again I was able to find him due to the Sunset Survivors book. He had no customers at the time of my visit and seemed preoccupied if not a little depressed as he sat in his corner of the market, wearing a mesh vest and thin trousers in order to cope with the heat and humidity. His once lucrative business has diminished due to the development of technology and also by the much improved literacy rates in Hong Kong. In the 1950's and 60's as little as 60% of the population were competent in reading and writing. Today that rate is steady at 99%.

As already mentioned some older people were reluctant to be photographed. I watched one group of elderly people playing cards in the courtyard of their block of flats. They were happy to talk, asked about where I was from and what I was doing in Hong Kong and joked about winning and losing at the game. It would have been a wonderful shot of them gathered around the small table but unfortunately they declined. Gambling is illegal outside of strictly controlled licensed venues and although they played for just a few coins they were concerned about photographs potentially being used as "evidence".

Other elderly people were happy to be photographed including Mister Yeung who was born in Macao and opened his small tailoring shop in the Sheung Wan neighbourhood more than 50 years ago.  He repairs clothes and makes cheongsam (a traditional Chinese dress) to order. He said that the rent is now vey high but although business is not as good as it once was he has enough work to live from. he learned his trades an apprentice when he was paid just $20 Hong Kong per month. That's about £2 today and even back then it was a very small amount. Mister Yeung was happy to be photographed sitting outside his shop beside an example of his work.

Earlier in the day I met Mister Law. He is 70 years of age and sells gardening items in an underpass in Sham Shui Po.  He smiled and nodded and I stopped to buy some lotus buds from him. I was taken with his kind expression and pink fan decorated with Chinese calligraphy.

Mr Yeung, tailor of Sheung Wan
Mr Law, gardening materials vendor
King Yip printers
Shortly after meeting Mister Yeung in Sheung Wan, I had the pleasure of visiting the King Yip printing company in Tai Ping Wan street. This business was originally established in different premises in 1954 by the father of the current owner. He arrived in Hong Kong from Guangdong Province and learned the trade as an apprentice to a master printer. Unfortunately his employer had to let him go due to a downturn in business but provided him with an excellent reference, setting out the reasons for terminating his contract and saying he would happily re-employ him should the situation improve. This letter together with various other documents charting the development of the business, is proudly shown to visitors who are interested and a demonstration of hand set printing can be given if booked in advance. Sadly this is another art that has been overtaken by new technology but the King Yip company has cleverly adapted and generates income by welcoming tourist groups, school groups and people interested in the process of hand printing.

Craftsman at work, King Yip Company
My interest in the older, long established businesses almost inevitably means that I met many older people, but Hong Kong's streets also teem with the younger generation. Just as anywhere else in the world, they can be seen engaging with technology, fashion and art. Below are some examples of this whilst the final picture returns to the old Hong Kong with a small boy standing in the doorway of a tenement block waiting for someone to return or something to be delivered. I took this picture not far from the Yau Ma Tai vegetable market. I hope to explore that area in depth on my way home from Australia when I will again be in Hong Kong, looking for echoes of Fan Ho's city.

 Modern communication
Art and the selfie, Sheung Wan
Waiting, Yau Ma Tai.
You can see more pictures from Hong Kong here.

There is a short video explaining why Lindsay Varty produced her book Sunset Survivors.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful with stories of life told well. Thank you for the wonderful pictures