Friday 28 June 2019

Tel Aviv Tales - 4 Change and tradition in the Jaffa Fleamarket

If Tel-Aviv is my favourite city then Jaffa is probably my favourite neighbourhood. I love the faded grandeur of its main street - Jerusalem Boulevard, the quiet lanes and galleries of the old city, the smell of the sea and the possibility of stories on every corner.

Most of all I love the flea market - the Shuk HaPishpeshim. Known for its antique, carpet and furniture shops, the Shuk has seen many changes in recent years. As older traders have retired or died, their premises have been acquired by new, mostly independent cafes, bars, restaurants and design shops, making for an eclectic mix and attracting a new, younger audience reflecting the gentrification to the area. This has resulted in a new night time economy with many of the new businesses staying open into the evening, some of them offering live music at the weekend. Whilst this is new in the Shuk it is not new to Jaffa which in the 1960's and 70's had a thriving nightlife with legendary clubs including the Hammam, the Ariana and the El Dorado the latter of which was to give its name to a gangster thriller movie shot in Jaffa in the 60's. These places are now long gone but perhaps the new bars are reviving this tradition.

Reuven Sinai, carpet and vintage clothing dealer
Mikhail, antiques dealer
Despite these changes a number of older businesses survive, especially on the Shuk’s main street, Oley Zion and the surrounding alleys. I was recently able to talk to some of the older traders, to hear their stories and to find out what they think about recent developments. It quickly became apparent during these conversations that change is not something new in the Shuk. Reuven Sinai explained that when he first began working here, most of the traders were Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom repaired and sold shoes. He particularly remembered a woman Holocaust survivor whose family had all been killed in Poland. She sold shoes and had many Arab customers. Reuven has two shops in the Shuk, one where he repairs and sells rugs, the other a vintage clothing shop. I first met him about five years ago when I noticed him working outside his shop and asked to take his picture. He kindly agreed and later showed me an extensive collection of photographs that tourists had taken of this most photogenic of gentlemen! Now aged 68, he was born in Isfahan, Iran and made aliyah in 1962. His father sold clothes in Iran but a friend advised him that it was possible to make a living from buying and selling rugs and so he bought their shop in 1965.

Today most of the traders are Sephardi, many of them coming from Iran or Afghanistan. I knew that many of the carpet merchants were from "Paras" the Hebrew name for Persia or modern day Iran but had incorrectly assumed that most of them came to Israel following the fall of the Shah in 1979. Time after time they told me that their families had come to Israel in the 1940's, 50's and 60's due to their commitment to Zionism and that whilst life had been good in Iran the desire to make aliyah and to help build the state was more important to them.

Yaron Larian, carpet dealer
Some of the more established traders were unhappy about the decline of traditional businesses but all accepted that that change is inevitable and that if they wish to survive they must adapt as many have. Yaron Larian, aged 60 repairs and sells carpets in his shop on Oley Zion.  He speaks nine languages and has worked in the Shuk for 35 years. Some of his customers have been buying from him for more than two decades. He says "they have bought perhaps 100 rugs from me". Talking about his success he emphasised the need to be honest in business and to ensure both the salesman and the customer are satisfied saying that if someone regrets a purchase they will not return. When asked about change he said "we have to fit in with what people want. In the past they only wanted antique carpets. Now they want modern, cheaper rugs. They don't want to spend, to invest”. He explained that the old rugs are based on natural vegetable dyes and the colour is permanent. The new ones are synthetic and although the colours may be more shiny they will fade.

Yaron was born in Shabazi, Tel-Aviv but his family came from Mashhad in Iran. Previous generations lived publicly as Muslims but in reality were Anusim and practised Judaism behind closed doors. This meant they were constantly at risk of being discovered. His grandfather even made the Haj but later when visiting Hebron he was recognised as a Jew by one of the guards at the Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) and forbidden from progressing beyond the third step.

Several of the traders tell stories about their ancestors having visited Jerusalem, including those who made what is referred to as the "aliyah b'regel" or the aliyah on foot. Mikhail who was born in Herat, Afghanistan explained that Jews from Bukhara (and fro other cities) would visit Jerusalem, making the journey on foot or by camel - a journey that could take three months. On returning to Bukhara these Jews were considered to have made the equivalent of the Muslim Haj to Mecca and some were given certificates to mark their journey.

Miriam Scheuer, vintage clothing dealer
Miriam Scheur's parents came from Czechoslovakia and Germany in the 1930's. Her father dealt in leather goods. She sells vintage clothing from a small shop in one of the indoor lanes behind Oley Zion. She has had this unit for 35 years but has worked in the Shuk for closer to 50. She described herself as a self-taught expert in vintage clothing of the 1920's-50's but says that young people now want clothes from the 70's, 80's and 90's and she has changed her focus accordingly. She describes the arrival of the bars, cafes and restaurants as being a response to market forces and to changing tastes saying "If I decide to sell my shop someone will turn it into an ice cream parlour". There are already three ice cream parlours in the Shuk, all of them busy from morning until closing time.

Back on Oley Zion, Shlomo Mazlomian has worked in the Shuk for 45 years. His family made aliyah from Teheran in 1971 and were initially housed in a reception centre in Kfar Saba. He learned to repair carpets from an early age. His father taught him to repair carpets from an early age. He can often be seen sitting outside his shop, working on repairs or keeping his antique carpets clean. I have known him for several years now and always spend time talking and drinking strong, muddy Turkish coffee with him when I visit the Shuk. He speaks candidly about how things have changed over the years and whilst understanding that everything changes he is sad at the loss of tradition saying "there is a loss of authenticity, things are different now".

Shlomo Mazlomian, carpet dealer
One part of the Shuk is relatively unchanged. Behind Oley Zion there is a piece of open ground where traders come and spread out their goods on trestle tables or in a number of cases on the floor. You can find just about anything here – books, antiques, clothes, dolls, games, CDs and vinyl, electrical goods, hand-made jewellery, pictures, old photographs strewn on the floor or in boxes - people's life stories being offered for sale. I often look at them and wonder who these people were and what happened to them. The customers here are as diverse as the goods and include secular and religious Jews, Arabs, overseas workers from Africa, China and the Philippines as well as tourists all of whom come in the hope of finding a treasure. I enjoy watching the bargaining that takes place here, including unexpected exchanges such as a Filipino woman bargaining down the price of some second hand Barbie dolls – in perfect Hebrew. But even here there is a hint of change. On Fridays in particular it is not unusual for professional photographers to turn up accompanied by models who strut amongst the customers and pose beside piles of old clothes. 

Bargaining in the informal part of the shuk
Coffee is another Jaffa tradition
Music in Friday morning
Friday is the busiest day in the Shuk. The streets fill up with locals and tourists who come to shop, eat and enjoy the street entertainers including impromptu performances by mime artists and musicians. The streets are filled with haunting Persian and Middle Eastern music played on the oud, saz and kamancheh. These young musicians bring the rich musical heritage and traditions of Mizrahi Jews to a new, primarily young audience. Also on Friday, in the midst of all of this activity, young Lubavitcher men work from a small stall and invite Jewish men to put on tefillin and pray in the street. Open air prayers are not limited to Fridays. Many of the longer established traders are religious and it is not unusual to see an open air minyan during the week.

For the moment the Shuk will retain its attractive mixture of old and new, traditional and modern but as Reuven, Yaron and Miriam say, further change is inevitable. Most of the children of the carpet repairers and antique sellers prefer different careers and many of them work in the professions. Whilst it is sad that some of the old skills and traditions will eventually disappear perhaps the new arrivals are really part of another tradition in the Shuk - that of change, but change mixed with respect for the past.

Hezzi Motada, craftsman at work

Trying before buying
Friday photo-shoot

You can see more pictures from Israel here.

Sunday 16 June 2019

Mahjong, Street Walkers And A Mania For Permed Hair - Hong Kong Stories 3

Five years ago I spent a few nights in Hong Kong on my way to and from Australia. I went to a jazz concert, visited some temples and a beautiful synagogue and took the ferry to Macau. I enjoyed my short stay but didn't really engage with the place and left not really having seen the real Hong Kong. This year I decided to revisit and spent a total of six nights there, once more using Hong Kong as my stopover on a visit to Australia. I decided to take a different approach this time, avoiding the well known monuments and attractions and concentrating instead on discovering what remains of the old Hong Kong. 

Calligrapher, Sheung Wan
I have already written that this visit was to a large extent inspired by the iconic photography of Fan Ho and by Sunset Survivors the recent book by Lindsay Varty that  documents some of Hong Kong's disappearing crafts and traditions. I carried out my search for the world of Fan Ho in the streets of Hong Kong in what proved to be a rich and sometimes surprising experience.

Despite the encroachment of modernity, glimpses of old Hong Kong can be seen almost everywhere. This includes groups of people playing mahjong or traditional card games, often for money in narrow alleys, courtyards of tenement buildings or in cafes and teashops.  The arrival of an outsider does not perturb the players and on numerous occasions I was asked if I would like to pull up a chair. I can play a little but did not wish to lose my money so would politely decline. Most gambling is illegal here but for the more serious players there are legal mahjong parlours where vast amounts of money can be won or lost in a single session. 

Whilst gambling is proscribed, prostitution is not. I was surprised to see young women tout for business in the street. They are particularly numerous in the area around Temple Street market but also work in other parts of the city. During the day they stand around looking bored and making half hearted attempts to attract interest before the more serious business of the evening. It is easy for misunderstandings to occur in the streets around the market. Between the massage parlours and brothels (which are illegal) there are other establishments displaying pictures of women in the window. It turns out that these are karaoke bars. The women in the pictures are featured singers and customers can pay to sing a duet with them. Something quite different to the service being sold in the street. The standard of is going is variable but these places are packed with locals almost every night.

Quartering the fish, North Point
Temple Street has a night market largely frequented by tourists these days but for me the neighbourhood markets used by locals are more interesting. Fresh meat and fish are on sale everywhere. And I mean fresh. It is not unusual to see the fish still moving. Several times I saw fish put up strong resistance to getting the chop, jumping and trying to slither away from the fishmonger's knife. However, resistance is futile and always ends in defeat but even then, severed heads can be seen breathing, hearts pumping and sectioned eels wriggling. Whole pigs are delivered to butchers, dumped on the pavement at the entrance to the shop and then hauled in with a huge skewer. They are immediately quartered, sold and probably eaten before the day is out. There are many butchers and competition is fierce. Red metal lamp shades hang over the stalls to enhance the appearance of the meat, enriching the colour, emphasising its freshness and attracting customers. Some vendors sell tiny live frogs. These are also for consumption and I am advised some customers take them home still live and kill them themselves. Hong Kong's markets are not for the feint hearted. I am a vegetarian. 

Food and its consumption is a social activity in Hong Kong. Almost every street has at least one neighbourhood style cafe or restaurant and little groups of fiends or relations can be seen sitting, eating and talking together. Even where people eat alone jokes and comments are shared between table. I stopped in several such places to snack and drink tea but unfortunately couldn't share the jokes not being able to understand Cantonese and the humour can be lost in translation. These little local places are in stark contrast to the skyscrapers and high powered business premises that dominate the skyline here and which represent Hong Kong for so many people. However I have no doubt that the skyscrapers provide many of the restaurants' customers.

Delivering whole pigs to the butcher
Sunday brunch, Tsim Sha Tsui
If I am traveling for more than a few days I like to visit a local barber. I do not care for modern salons and prefer a more traditional service. In London I have used the same Turkish barber shop for a number of years. The service includes a wet shave, hot towel, head and neck massage, threading and other painful activities all in the pursuit of male beauty. It also involves drinking copious amounts of Turkish coffee. I knew that a few, not dissimilar Shanghainese establishments still survive in Hong Kong and so visited the Kiu Kwun Barber Shop on Java Road in North Point. The ground floor has a long row of chairs each of them attended by a septuagenarian barber wearing a white coat and a mask covering mouth and nose. The chairs face long mirrors that enable the customer to see not only the barber but all of the comings and goings around him. A little surprised to see me, the manager asked who I was. Once he understood that not only was I a serious customer but also interested in the shop itself he asked me to come and see the first floor room. I climbed a narrow staircase and emerged to be greeted by the turned heads of a few older women sitting under enormous hair dryers, nursing magazines and looking slightly less than pleased to see me. Like the men, they sat in front of long mirrors encased by tiny colourful tiles that probably date from the 1950s. 

I was shown around by Gao Tak Tin who arrived in Hong Kong in 1959 and initially lived in a squatter village. He began learning the trade at the age of 14 and practised on a watermelon so as not to hurt his customers and has now been a barber for almost 60 years. Mister Gao has seen many changes in style including at one time a mania for permed hair. Mercifully that style is long passed. Kiu Kwan is the largest remaining Shanghainese barber shop in Hong Kong and has 14 employees, not one of them below the age of 70. When the business finally closes a piece of history will be lost. I had a haircut and shave for just 70 dollars. That's about £7. Quite a bit more than my London barber charges.

Mister Gao Tak Tin in the Kiu Kwan barber shop
Gao's style of barbering may be dying out in Hong Kong but other traditions linger on. The villain hitters are a group of elderly women who practice a form of sorcery under the Canal Road flyover between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. As well as attracting people like me who want to observe and photograph them they continue to receive many local visitors who believe in their powers. They attempt to place a curse on the individual of one's choice by beating a paper effigy with a shoe whilst chanting about breaking their arms and legs. The ceremony ends with the burning of a paper tiger and the tossing of wooden dice to see if the spell has worked. Not wanting to cause trouble for anyone I elected instead to have any curses placed on me removed. I was invited to write my name of a piece of paper before bowing and waving three incense sticks three times at a small shrine. I then sat perfectly still whilst burning paper was circled three times around my head before the villain hitter declared me curse free and lucky. Throughout the whole process people were passing by, getting on and off buses and generally going about their business completely disinterested.

Still on the subject of effigies, I made a visit to Au-Yeung Ping Chi's shop. He hand makes paper representations (effigies) of the favourite items of  deceased relatives that are then burned at their funerals in order to ensure they have everything they need in the next life. In the past families requested effigies of favourite pets, food, drink, mahjong sets, radios and other every day items. Au-Yeung says that today people ask for more luxurious goods including smartphones, designer clothes, luxury cars, palatial homes and the latest IT equipment. Looking around his shop I saw examples of several of the items as well as an aquarium complete with paper fish, made to order for someone whose passion had been collecting them. The hand made effigy business is now threatened by the import of mass produced items from China. This particular shop will close when the owner retires as he is not married and has no children.

Villain hitter, Canal Road
Au-Yeung Ping Chi at work in his effigy shop
About 16% of Hong Kong's population are 65 or older. They have a visible presence in the streets. streets - working, shopping, sitting with friends or looking after small children. I have already written about the elderly people who collect discarded cardboard in the streets and then sell it for recycling.  In North Point I noticed an elderly woman sitting beside her collection of cardboard,  almost certainly waiting for a dealer to come and take it from her. She seemed tired and bored. Despite this and the nature of her work she was smartly turned out in a patterned blue/ purple jacket and I couldn't resist a candid shot of her. As I clicked she looked up from her place in front of the fly posted walls and saw me. I smiled and to my delight she smiled back and waved. I went across to her but without a language in common we couldn't speak. She took my hand for a moment, indicated that it was OK to take her portrait and broke into a stunning smile.

Many of the older people I met were still working. Some, like Mister Yung who has a small stall in the jade market, explain that they don't need to work these days but do like to have "something to do" with a chance to socialise and pass the time. This was something I came across several times, often at the end of more harrowing stories about the past. People spoke freely about having survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the Second World War only to have to flee China after the revolution. Not all the stories had happy endings and more than one included relatives having been shot or sent to re-education camps following failed attempts at escape. In some cases there was also a nostalgia for the 1980's and 1990's coupled with concern for the future.

Lady in blue, North Point
The smile of a generous heart 
Mister Yung, stallholder in the Jade Market 
My time in Hong Kong passed too quickly. I left wanting to continue my search for the old city and for the disappeared world of Fan Ho. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, there are glimpses of that world everywhere, not just in the alleys and side streets but also in the faces of the Sunday strollers in Sai Ying Pun, the antique hunters and street artists of Sheung Wan and the shoppers in the markets of North Point and Mong Kok. Did I feel as if I'd seen the real Hong Kong? Oh yes, but I left with a desire to see still more and hoping that despite rapid change it will still be possible to find it on my next visit.

As ever, I can't resist including a little more...

Sunday strollers, Sai Ying Pun
Saturday ballet students, Sai Ying Pun
Quarrel between friends, Sai Ying Pun
Sense of humour, North Point
Walking the dogs, Sai Ying Pun
You might also like Looking for the old City - Hong Kong Stories 2 or Street Art and Selfies - Hong Kong Stories 1

You can see more pictures of Hong Kong  here.

I would like to note my thanks to Eric Wan who was tireless in tracking down people and places for me in Hong Kong and to Emily Gilman of Ampersand who made many of the practical arrangements including securing Eric's excellent services! Thanks both.