Swanky artisan coffee shops may be cool, but Hong Kong’s traditional stores need our support too, says Anna Tang
FEW THINGS ARE more pleasurable than doing some nostalgic shopping – especially if you are hungry.
What’s your pleasure? It may be the Dragon’s beard candy (龍鬚糖) found in Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, or that one favourite shop of double skin milk (雙皮奶) in Jordan, or the sugarcane juice (甘蔗汁) businesses found in the slopes of Central.
And remember the smoky fragrance and scraping sound of a roasted sweet potato and chestnuts hawker cart (栗子車仔檔) on a windy winter afternoon?
And it’s not just Chinese food. When we hear the plinkety double-speed rendition of The Blue Danube, we know there’s an ice cream truck (雪糕車) approaching.
In fact, it is not just food we’re nostalgic for on our changing streets. Who doesn’t remember the lovely melodies of birdsong – and cricket chirps – when passing through Yuen Po Street Bird market (園圃街雀鳥花園), while older owners enjoy a game of mahjong ?
DYING TRADES NEED OUR LOVE
Time is passing—and some of the traditional businesses are dying.
No longer do we see old men with birds in cases so often. These days, Hongkongers prefer cats and dogs as pets. The last birdcage creator in Hong Kong is no longer crafting cages: “Sometimes I am here just to feed my birds. They’re why I’m here. Business is not so good nowadays,” Chan Lok-choi told reporter Nicole Hurip of Localiiz.
Sometimes an effort is made to preserve the old, but not always authentically. Thanks to the gentrification of the district, Lee Tung Street (known in the past as Wedding Card Street) in Wan Chai has been transformed from a local printing industry ghetto into a place showcasing tourist-friendly attractions and restaurants. It may look bright and welcoming, but some residents complain that aside from the dismantling of physical buildings, the spirit and community has also been demolished.
The shops may be more modern, but as well as loss of heritage, there’s a risk of increasing the social imbalance and putting the low-income population at a greater disadvantage.
But going back to food, there are currently only 25 dai pai dong (pavement cafes) left in Hong Kong. The Jordan branch of Lee Shun Dairy company has disappeared: The present author was sorely disappointed when the new restaurant in its place served its milk pudding without the signature skin on top. The end of an era!
The pandemic has caused an economic crisis in Hong Kong, with even the most successful and flourishing businesses struggling not to succumb to the tenacious days of silence within their market.
“Everyone’s struggling, and we’d rather have some business than none. Talk to other businesses, there are no more secrets. Survival is the key,” Kevin Ho told Timeout.com.
Tiny local businesses known as Hong Kong’s “understairs shops” have managed to survive years of change, but some are withering under the present pressures. Rents may have fallen slightly in recent years, but if the number of customers has fallen, the sums don’t add up.
Yeung Fok, a tailor specialising in making cheongsam garments, told the South China Morning Post: “Of course I don’t want my children to do the same job, it is impossible to support the rent nowadays.”
This sort of pessimistic view is not uncommon within traditional businesses. A Mahjong creator told the newspaper: “It’s a kind of handicraft that cannot earn any money. It’s better for young people to use their talents, so I won’t let my children do this either.”
As society becomes increasingly materialistic and superficial, the economic pressure that arises within the heart of Hong Kong’s heritage cannot continue to be ignored.
Youngsters would rather vye for a stable future in the modern world, opting for well known, prestigious occupations rather than support the family’s business. It is not difficult to see the appeal – but it does lead to the washout of tradition and culture within Hong Kong.
RESISTING OUTSIDE TEMPTATION
But the good news is that some traditional lines are surviving, and even expanding.
Kung Lee, a shop that has been selling sugarcane juice since 1948, continues to prosper under its fourth generation owner Ben Tsui. It was unintentional that he would be running the shop, having simply helped out after his father injured his hand.
He explains that since they started out as cane farmers, they were initially only familiar with making imperatae cane juice. It was only after machines were popularised a couple years later that they started producing sugar cane juice as well, and adapted to the customers demands by selling herbal tea and other variants. They have also adapted to the rising rent prices by introducing products such as sugar cane jelly and candies.
BAMBOO POLE NOODLES
Additionally, there are few bamboo pole noodles that are produced the traditional way. Ah Cheung is the third generation owner of one of the last opening shops – Lau Sum Kee. He demonstrates how duck eggs, lye water and Canadian flour are manipulated, using a bamboo pole, into the signature thin ribbons that are the noodles customers know and love.
These are some of the best case scenarios which have arisen from a dying field of industries. In order to reverse the tide, tourists and residents of Hong Kong must show their support to these millennials who show a substantial amount of passion in their craft.
The recent generation needs to be guaranteed a future in continuing a legacy that will speak volumes in Hong Kong’s culture books. They cannot do that with little hope here in comparison to a promising outside world. But we cannot underestimate the importance of these miniscule shops that seem to hold no voice of their own.
Even without fame or wealth, the history of Hong Kong lies in their hands.