In the Cat Street neighbourhood, the story of Uncle Tim might have come to an end, but another piece of collective memory from the 1960’s continues to live on. Not a cool vintage store, nor a hip design shop, the down to earth Chu Wing Kee (朱榮記) just happens to make its name as an honest and ordinary homeware shop. Local homewares shops like Chu Wing Kee were pretty common in Hong Kong before 1970’s. As the city entered the decades of economic boom, most of these shops have faded out from the urban scenery. Supermarkets, department stores, dollar shops, convenient store chain, and even online shopping have virtually wiped out these shops. As property prices skyrocketed in recent decades, a 1000 sq.ft ground floor retail space in central Hong Kong could worth about USD 4 million. For a shop owner selling housewares at a few USD a piece, selling the shop makes much more sense than continuing the business. Paying a high rent to sell everyday merchandises also doesn’t make it profitable either. The gradual death of traditional homeware shops in Hong Kong seems inevitable. But there are exceptions. Chu Wing Kee is one of these rarities.
Chu Wing Kee started in 1959 by the father of Mr. Chu, the current owner of the shop, with a street stall selling “shan for” (山貨), or “goods from the mountains”. “Shan for” literally refers to housewares and furniture made of natural materials, notably handicrafts made of rattan, bamboo, reed, wood or grass. In mid 20th century, wickenworks made with rattan were very popular. In Hong Kong, these products were handmade and sold during the dry season. In the 1970’s, Hong Kong had became a major manufacturing city of plastic products. Traditional handmade “shan for” proved to be no match against the cheaper and mass produced plastic products. “Shan for” has quietly faded out from most homes. Rattan was perceived as dated and dull, not as exciting as the colourful plastic products. Two generations have since passed. Rattan decor is making a comeback in recent years. So what actually is rattan? Rattan is a climbing plant belongs to the palm family. It can be found in rainforests in Asia, Africa and Australia. It is light, durable and relatively flexible. It serves as a good alternative to timber. Rattan usually grows under shade in rainforests, and can even be cultivated under fruit or rubber trees. However, as deforestation intensifies in recent decades, so as the population of rattan.
As a traditional shop selling “shan for” (山貨), Chu Wing Kee still offers a wide range of rattan goods and other products made locally with natural materials. Since most local craftsmen are getting quite advance in age, Mr. Chu might eventually have to rely on imported products from Southeast Asia. For now, Mr. Chu still manages to offer some local “shan for”, and other vintage housewares dated back to the 1960’s. For many, checking out Chu Wing Kee might be a nostalgic journey to hunt for childhood memories from a treasure trove. Apart from rattan items, ceramic and plastic piggy banks are two of the most popular merchandises Mr. Chu is offering Hongkongers. Other notable vintage products include plastic toys, traditional thermal bottles, metal mailboxes, ceramic chicken bowls, ceramic cooking pots and rice storage, wood laundry washboard, etc. For us living in the area, Mr. Chu’s shop offers some handy products that even supermarkets or department stores no longer carry. In early spring this year, we couldn’t resist but picked up a handmade rattan/bamboo chair. Touching the pencil marks on the bamboo chair arms reminded us how the chair was made by the chair maker, who had soaked, bend and tied the pieces together with his dexterous hands.
In 2014, local film Dot 2 Dot (點對點) was screened in the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film was often described as low key, low budget and slow paced love story to the city. Amos Wong’s film explores the history and identity of Hong Kong through the encounter of a graffiti artist and a Mandarin teacher. It begins with the Mandarin teacher, newly arrived from Mainland China, discovering mysterious graffiti composed of dots at every metro station in Hong Kong. She is able to decode the graffiti by connecting the dots into meaningful imagery related to the local history of the particular neighborhood. She then comes up with her own graffiti and engages the unknown graffiti artist in a battle of graffiti riddles. It turns out that the graffiti artist is actually one of her students, who himself is a professional designer returned to Hong Kong from Canada. The movie follows both characters to explore different neighborhoods, including the quest to check out the boundary stones of the former Victoria City (維多利亞城). At the end of the film, the teacher finally realizes the true identity of the graffiti artist after visiting the westernmost boundary stone in Kennedy Town (堅尼地城). The story ends with them enjoying the peaceful sunset together at Kennedy Town ‘s praya.
Considered the capital of the former British Colony, Victoria City at the northern shore of Hong Kong island was the city’s first urban settlement. Victoria City was defined by the four “wans” (四環) or districts: Sai Wan (西環), Sheung Wan (上環), Chung Wan (中環), and Ha Wan (下環) or present’s day Wanchai. In 1903, the government erected seven stones to mark the boundary of Victoria City. The city soon expanded beyond the boundary limits and the stones became obsolete. Measured 98cm in height, tapered at the top and marked with the inscription “City Boundary 1903”, these historical boundary stones are mostly forgotten, except for history buffs who occasionally check on these urban artifacts and share their photos on the Internet. Six out of seven boundary stones survive to the present day, except the one at Magazine Gap Road in the Mid-Levels that was negligently removed by retaining wall contractors in 2007. For the remaining six boundary stones, it is possible to visit them all in a 5-6 hour hike. The hike offers hikers an interesting opportunity to walk around the old city centre, from the waterfront of Kennedy Town, halfway up the Victoria Peak and down to the Happy Valley Racecourses to the east.
A few years ago, Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen published a beautiful photo book Hong Kong Shop Cats. The book was an instant hit and captured the heart of people both in Hong Kong and abroad. Lovely images of cats and shop owners with backdrops of traditional shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun manifest a certain universal charm even for non cat lovers. It is the affection between shop cats and their owners that truly touch people, revealing a kind of human-animal bonding enrooted in the old shopping streets of Hong Kong. In the old neighborhoods, shop cats that linger at shopfront often become magnets that draw people from close and afar. Thanks to the social media, some celebrated shop cats (and owners) are even appear in foreign magazines or websites. While the need of mouse catching fades, the role of shop cats have shifted to sunbathing at shopfront, napping on cashier counter, patrolling the back alleys, and serving as social ambassadors to promote the business.
Other than old dried seafood or herbal medicine shops, cats also fit in well with all sort of businesses in the younger generation. Recent TV shows “Cat Shopkeepers” reveal that shops cats have become quite a phenomenon spreading to many businesses: bookstores, cafes, gyms, music schools, nail polishers, design shops, dance studios, musical instrument workshops, you name it. The cool yet lovely character of cats somehow become a perfect compliment to the warm-hearted and neighbourhood friendly identity of local small business. For returning customers or chance pedestrians, surprised encounters of shop cats may feel like discovering some sort of momentary antidotes to their otherwise stressful and monotonous daily life.
In a spring Saturday afternoon, we went to a familiar stall at Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市集) to pick up some fruits. While the male owner gathered the fruits we wanted, his wife was busy feeding a big cat tuna-like snacks with a small spoon. The cat sat gratefully on the table to chew on its snacks with its eyes closed. The lady gently stroked the cat’s back and proudly praised about its silky fur. We soon found out that the cat actually didn’t belong to the fruit stall owners. It was a guest from the adjacent dried goods stall. Like many other cats in the open street market, the lucky one we encountered that day would roam freely and welcomed by different stall owners in the area everyday.
Such beautiful human-cat relationship is not uncommon in the old neighbourhoods of Central-Sheung Wan (中上環) and adjacent Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), where decades old shops and market stalls provide the perfect havens for cats to linger. In return for all the food and love from shop owners, the cats would catch mice, attract pedestrian’s attention, and most importantly, keep the shop owners company during the day. Similar to Japan, where the belief of maneki-neko or “beckoning cat” (招き猫) has been around since the Edo Period, shop cats in Hong Kong are often regarded as an integral member of the business. In recent years, these shop cats are often referred to as “feline shopkeepers” (貓店長). These cute shopkeepers have become beloved mascots of the old neighbourhoods, where shop doors are always kept open to the street from morning till dusk.
For 50 years, lampposts, electrical boxes, concrete pillars, pavements, benches, planters, and retaining walls on the streets of Hong Kong could be seen as one large canvas for the “King of Kowloon” (九龍皇帝) to leave his unique calligraphy works. Sometimes, he wrote to proclaim his ancestral land ownership of the Kowloon Peninsula before the British rule, while at other times he would write about his family. Seen by many as acts of a crazy man, the “King of Kowloon” or Tsang Tsou Choi (曾灶財) was probably the most well known graffiti artist the city had seen in the 20th century. Fined by the government numerous times, insulted by neighbours, and even disowned by his own family, Tsang Tsou Choi was mocked by Hong Kong for decades. Whenever his calligraphy was washed or painted over by the authorities, he would restore the works right after. His works were largely seen as public nuisance until the 1990’s, when local artists, fashion designers, art directors, interior designers, furniture makers, graphic designers, musicians began to use Tsang’s unique calligraphy on design products. In his final years, Tsang’s works finally began to gain public recognition with successful shows both in Hong Kong and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2003, and even went for auctions at the Sotheby’s.
A decade after Tsang’s death (2007), street art in Hong Kong has already entered a new chapter. Far from the vibrancy and sophistication of London’s or New York’s, street art is nonetheless much widely accepted and welcomed by the public in Hong Kong nowadays. In recent years, the city has been frequented by international street artists, such as Invader from France, who has secretly put up his iconic pixelated 8-bit video game images all over the city. In December 2019, the popular show “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” arrived in Hong Kong and created quite a stir on the social media. The free spirit, unique artistic expression, cool character, coupled with satirical imagery, political controversy, and social criticism of street art have been welcomed by the young generations, especially in the era of social media when everybody has something to say and share.
In Hong Kong, one of the most popular areas to see interesting street art is Central-Sheung Wan (中上環). Thanks to HKwalls, the non-profit organization who has been organizing annual street art festival since 2014, several neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have already become hotspots showcasing the talents of local and international artists. In their debut year of 2014, HKwalls paired artists with properties owners in Sheung Wan and successfully added 17 street murals in the neighborhood, then another 50+ works in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market in the following year. The event moved to Sham Shui Po in 2016, Wong Chuk Hang in 2017, then returned to Central and Western District in 2018 before moving on to Wanchai (2019) and Sai Kung (2021). HKwalls has successfully brought in great artistic talents from all over the world to Hong Kong, transformed the urban scenery of old neighborhoods, and raised public appreciation of street art to a whole new level.
For a city well known of its quick, dramatic and relentless urban changes, the impermanent and transient beauty of street art suit perfectly to echo the ephemeral spirit of Hong Kong. Here if you see an interesting street art, you better document it right away. Next time around, the mural may be gone forever.
Entangling roots stretch across the surface of granite walls might remind people of the Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat instead of the city of Hong Kong. Commonly known as “Stone Wall Trees” (石牆樹), the urban scenery of Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa 細葉榕) enrooted on historical granite walls is a unique scene in Hong Kong, especially in Central-Western District where the heart of the old Victoria City was located. In 1841 when the British first landed in Hong Kong, the bare, rocky and hilly terrain of the island posed a huge challenge for establishing a settlement. Apart from land reclamation along the coast, the British also create habitable land by constructing flat terraces on the slope of Victoria Peak (Tai Ping Shan 太平山). From the mid 19th century onwards, local granite was used to construct retaining walls for the terrace constructions. To make the relatively bare island more habitable, trees were planted across the city to provide shade and visual interest. Many foreign tree species from other British colonies such as India and Australia were brought to Hong Kong. Due to its suitability to the local climate and ability to grow rapidly, Chinese Banyan (細葉榕) were widely planted. From these banyan trees, birds and bats ate the figs and spread the seeds all over the city, and into stone joints of the retaining walls. This led to the birth of the stone wall trees.
In 1996, scholar C.Y. Jim found 1275 trees with 30 or so species on about 505 stone walls. Ficus Microcarpa or Chinese Banyan is the most common type of stone wall trees. With hardly any soil to clinch into, these banyans take the wall as their host and spread their intertwining roots on the stone surfaces. After 50 to 100 years, these banyans gradually mature into shading crowns that we see today. Many of these old stone wall trees have survived to the present day, especially in Central – Western District which contains the city’s largest concentration of stone wall trees. The emergence of stone wall trees in Hong Kong, however, was no coincidence. Perfect climate conditions, suitable stone wall surface, and some good fortune of surviving the WWII when many old trees were cut down by the Japanese for timber, all played a part in the story of stone wall trees. After WWII, stone was soon replaced by concrete for retaining wall construction. Concrete walls left little room for new trees to enroot themselves by chance. After a few generations, the resilient stone wall trees have become iconic features for various old neighbourhoods.
Despite over a century serving to improve the micro-climate of the city, cultural and ecological significance of the stone wall trees have gone unnoticed until the recent two decades. In light of the government’s intention to demolish the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) and its iconic stone wall trees in 2005, the local resident group “Central and Western Concern Group” was formed to fight for preserving the stone wall trees as well as the heritage building. Not only has their effort succeeded in convincing the government to preserve the PMQ, they have also increased the public awareness of the stone wall trees. In 2007, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) decided to relocate a proposed exit for the new Kennedy Town Station in order to preserve the stone wall trees at Forbes Street. The admirable effort decisively preserved the largest concentration of stone wall trees in Hong Kong. Though not all cases were success stories. In 2015, five 150-year old stone wall banyans at Bonham Road were fell sneakily overnight, just because one of their neighbouring trees toppled some time ago due to heavy rain. In name of public safety, the five healthy trees were cut down before the arrival of a potential typhoon. No detailed study was made before the decision, and that particular typhoon didn’t even come close enough to pose any thread. The hasty action of the government led to a huge loss for the community and sparked public outcry. More and more people become aware that there is an urgent need to develop a strategic plan for protecting these unique urban stone wall trees before it is too late.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.