ultramarinus – beyond the sea

FAREWELL UNCLE TIM, Calligrapher of Cat Street (摩羅上街), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

It was a fine Saturday morning about two weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, the second Chinese New Year since we moved to the Ladder Street neighborhood. We walked down Ladder Street just like any weekday when we go to work. It wasn’t our working day but we walked down specifically looking for an elderly vendor called Yim Keng-tim (嚴鏡添), who had been writing fai chun (揮春) or decorative banners with Chinese lucky phases for decades. Fai chun is usually written in Chinese brush calligraphy, with either black or golden ink on red rice paper. In Sheung Wan, the intersection of Ladder Street and Lascar Row (摩羅上街), commonly known as Cat Street, is a popular spot for fai chun calligraphers to set up their booths around the time of Chinese New Year. Calligrapher Yim Keng-tim, nicknamed Uncle Tim (添叔), was a renowned figure in the Cat Street neighborhood, the largest antique street market in Hong Kong. Probably the earliest fai chun writer who set up his booth since around 1960, for over sixty years Uncle Yim had made a name for himself with his Chinese calligraphy, which other than fai chun, were also available for signage and banners for restaurants, shops and even offices of politicians. Apart from calligraphy, Uncle Tim also sold and repaired eyeglasses from his street stall at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), a small street off Ladder Street that was once teemed with neighborhood lives decades ago. Since the street was dramatically cut short in the 1990’s by modern residential development, shops and stall vendors gradually disappeared. By the time we moved into the neighborhood, only a restaurant and two street stalls remained. Uncle Tim’s Tim Kee Eyeglasses (添記眼鏡) was one of them.

As we walked down the rather filthy steps covered with pigeon droppings to Circular Pathway from Ladder Street, we were hoping to find Uncle Tim at his eyeglasses stall and buy a few fai chun from him. It wasn’t our first time to check out his stall, but just like earlier, his stall was closed and the Circular Pathway dead quiet. Disappointed, we walked over to Cat Street. Most of the antique shops had yet opened their doors. We sat down outside Halfway Coffee, one of our favorite neighborhood coffee shops, for a morning coffee. The sun gradually moved up the sky, while shop vendors arrived at their antique shops one by one. We finished our coffee and decided to checked out Tim Kee Eyeglasses once again. At the junction of Cat and Ladder Street, we chatted with a friendly souvenir stall owner about Uncle Tim, who at the age of 96, would only come to his stall occasionally. Five minutes later, we finally saw Uncle Tim emerged from behind his stall. With his bent spine and grey hair, Uncle Tim looked a little older than the online videos and photographs in newspaper, magazines and blogs that we saw in the past few years. After greetings, we told him that we wanted to buy some fai chun from him. He was delighted to receive us as his first customers of the day, and asked us to write down the phases that we wanted him to write. We helped him to set up his folding table, while he went to his stall to search for red rice paper, paper knife, calligraphy brush, and gold enamel paint. He slowly cut the paper into square and rectangular pieces, stirred the paint thoroughly, and jumped right into calligraphy writing. While his calligraphy might not be as fine as his earlier works, we were touched and grateful to witness Uncle Tim at work doing his favorite Chinese calligraphy. Being persistently to maintain his eyeglasses stall, selling fai chun and promoting the art of Chinese calligraphy continuously for over sixty years was a remarkable effort. At the age of 96, climbing the steps of Ladder Street and Circular Pathway and set up his table all by himself were no easy tasks, and would probably scare off most people. We bought six fai chun from Uncle Tim in total, thanked him and happily took the pieces home.

After that day, we saw him a few more times in the following week or so, either quietly sitting in front of his stall, or up at Ladder Street waiting for potential customers. After Chinese New Year, we never saw him again. Whenever we passed by Circular Pathway going to work, we would always peek down to check out his stall from a distance, and wonder how the old calligrapher was doing. Until one day in early July, while walking down Ladder Street going to work we saw a bunch of paper and boxes piled up against his stall. Then the next day we walked down Circular Pathway to take a closer look. Beyond the pile of paper and boxes we saw a notice on his stall saying the recent death of Uncle Tim at the age of 97. After 60 years selling eyeglasses and calligraphy in the Cat Street neighborhood, Uncle Tim finally called it a day and rest peacefully ever after.

For 60 years, Uncle Tim had been promoting Chinese calligraphy to locals and tourists in the busy Cat Street neighborhood. In the last two decades, he had been interviewed by all sorts of newspapers, magazines and online media. Display of an old newspaper was clipped on the wire fence where he sometimes set up his temporary calligraphy station at the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Uncle Tim was a well known figure in the Ladder Street and Cat Street (Lascar Row) neighborhood. Once a vibrant second hand market many decades ago, Cat Street is now a sleepy tourist attraction and home to Hong Kong largest antique market.
We often visit Halfway Coffee at Cat Street for a morning sip.
Halfway Coffee makes use of the vintage ambience of Cat Street, merging traditional decorative arts with contemporary cafe culture.
We had a sip of morning coffee while waiting for Uncle Tim to show up at his stall.
Uncle Tim’s stall was located at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), about 30 steps below the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Circular Pathway had seen better days, before the alleyway was cut short by a large residential development, disconnecting the historical lane from Gough Street (歌賦街) to the east.
When we saw Uncle Tim that morning, the first thing we did was to set up the table for him.
We asked Uncle Tim to write us five fai chun. Uncle Tim looked at the piece of red paper, and figured he should get a bigger piece of paper.
From his stall, he found a big piece of red paper for the work.
We wrote down the phases for him, while it took him a while to look for his rusty paper knife.
Uncle Tim used his paper knife to cut the paper into the right sizes.
Uncle Tim picked out a can of gold enamel paint, stirred it for a few minutes and started with writing the single character “fuk”, meaning “fortune”. The paint was really thick, but he managed to control his brush to start his calligraphy.
Moments later, Uncle Tim completed the first piece of fai chun.
We were delighted to see the 96-year old calligrapher focused on his work.
From interviews on magazines, newspapers and online videos, we can briefly piece together the story of Uncle Tim. According to an online interview, Uncle Tim was born in Hong Kong, and stayed several childhood years in Guangzhou with his uncle, who taught him Chinese calligraphy.
According to a newspaper interview, Uncle Tim loved to hike up The Peak from Central when he was young. Walking up and down the Ladder Street and Circular Pathway could be a challenge for any elderly person, but it didn’t stop the 96-year-old calligrapher.
In his stall, we saw some of his eyeglasses. In newspaper interviews, he mentioned that his eyeglasses business had become scarce in recent years.
The friendly souvenir stall owner told us that Uncle Tim’s calligraphy was not what it used to be due to his age. What we interested in was not the perfect calligraphy, but a chance to pay respect to the old calligrapher, witness him at work closely, and learn more about the man from our neighborhood.
His story was a 60-year effort of promoting Chinese calligraphy at Cat Street.

***

In early July, we learnt about the death of Uncle Tim from the notices at his stall.
Outside his stall, several pieces of calligraphy were pin up to remind people the memory of Uncle Tim.
The signage Tim Kee Eyeglasses has became remnants from a bygone era.
A business card of Uncle Tim stood out from the pile of paper and boxes. Probably someone was clearing out the stall after Uncle Tim passed away.

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