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.
Out of the many ladder streets in Central and Sheung Wan (中上環), the roughly 350m Ladder Street (樓梯街) in Tai Ping Shan is the longest and one of the oldest. While “ladder street” is a general term for all pedestrian stair streets in Hong Kong, “Ladder Street” is also the name of a specific 316-steps stair street running from Caine Road (堅道) in the Mid Levels (半山) down to Queen’s Street Central (皇后大道中) in Sheung Wan. On its way, Ladder Street intersects with Bridges Street (必列者士街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), and several smaller pedestrian lanes. It also passes by a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions, including the Museum of Medical Sciences (香港醫學博物館), Chinese YMCA (中華基督教青年會), Man Mo Temple (文武廟) and Upper Lascar Row Antique Street Market / Cat Street Market (摩羅上街). Construction began in 1841 in the same year when the city was founded, Ladder Street is an iconic urban artefact of Hong Kong.
For many, Ladder Street is an iconic backdrop that represents a bygone Hong Kong. Throughout the years, Ladder Street has featured in uncounted films, TV shows (often involves chasing scenes), advertisements, photographs, etc. For foreigners, Ladder Street may be best known as one of the main filming locations of The World of Suzie Wong, a 1960 American/ British movie that tells the story of a American painter Robert Lomax (WilliamHolden) falling in love with a Hong Kong prostitute Mei Ling (Nancy Kwan). For filming, the section of Ladder Street around Hollywood Road was converted into the set of Nam Kok Hotel, a fictional hotel where the two main protagonists stay hang around. The streetscapes of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road in the movie were “enriched” with extra street vendors, Chinese signage, pulled rickshaws, and lots and lots of people.
Walking down the Ladder Street to Sheung Wan Station every morning is a pleasant start to our daily routine. Away from rush hour traffic, Ladder Street offers us a moment of relaxing air before diving ourselves into the bustling dynamics of the city. Singing birds, shadows of swaying trees, rustic balustrades, old brick walls, incense smoke from Man Mo Temple, and scenes of vendors setting up their antique market stalls, every little detail of Ladder Street come together in a poetic picture. In the past two decades, many low rise tenement buildings in the area have been torn down for new apartment towers. Many vendors have retired, and old shops being replaced by new ones. No matter how much has changed, the intimate and tranquil scenery of Ladder Street remains as an icon of an old Hong Kong. Late poet Yesi (也斯), Leung Ping Kwan, in his 1990 poem Ladder Street, imagines himself on a pair of wooden clogs wandering in Ladder Street like a flaneur, mourning for the loss of the old days and yearning for a re-connection to bygone voices. Who knows, we probably would share a similar sense of loss in a few years’ time.
For a whole year we walked by the junction of Ladder Street (樓梯街) and Circular Pathway (弓弦巷) every morning and never did we notice Nhau, a new contemporary Vietnamese restaurant just 30m down Circular Pathway, until one Saturday morning when we decided to give it a try after reading about it on the Internet. We ended up enjoying the lovely food by Chef Que Vinh Dang and the relaxing ambience of the restaurant. But what truly amazed us was the fact that we have never noticed the restaurant’s existence despite it is just 3 minute walk away from our apartment and we passed by the junction almost everyday. In fact, Nhau was not the only pleasant surprise we have encountered during our strolls in Tai Ping Shan. Be it a hidden restaurant, or a tiny vintage shop, or a new hand-drip coffee house, or an alleyway full of street art, the labyrinth network of ladder streets in our neighborhood are full of hidden treasures. Every spontaneous detour we make may end up a journey of discoveries. Being a flaneur in our own neighborhood has become our weekend pastimes, as if a recurring treasure hunt that brings us delightful surprises from time to time.
Tai Ping Shan in Sheung Wan has been a treasure trove for several generations. The area around Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) have long been the largest antique market in Hong Kong. Today, the area still host a large concentration of antique stores. Apart from traditional antique shops, new vintage shops have emerged in recent years, attracting nostalgic vintage lovers across the city coming over to test their luck. Film directors and designers in particular love to linger in the area to search for inspirations and film production props. Select 18 at Tung Street has an impressive collection of vintage objects from jewellery, posters, photos, vinyls, toys, housewares to furniture. We can easily spend hours just to go through every single items that might have appeared somewhere in our childhood memories. Recently, it is Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person at Water Lane that has captured our attention. Housed in a metal shed measured no more than 1.5 x 2.5m in a 3m wide alleyway, Chenmiji truly epitomizes the tiny living conditions in Hong Kong, where the average living space per capita is 160 sq.ft (compared to 220 in Japan, 323 in Singapore, and 800 in the United States. Space is intimate at Chenmiji, and the atmosphere is cozy and the collection personal but charming, especially attractive for people who adores the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong. Checking out these vintage shops have become another hobby of ours recently. Just a gentle touch of an old toy or movie ticket would trigger distant memories that we haven’t recalled for years, reminding us how we used to live in an era without smartphones, computers, and the internet.
Treasures for All
Checking out the vintage store You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) would bring us to a popular community gathering spot at Shing Wong Street (城皇街), another famous ladder street between Hollywood Road and Caine Road. In the midst of “30 House” (卅間), an old community of tenement buildings, or tong lau (唐樓) in Chinese, a series of pedestrian landings and steps have become a causal meeting place for the community, as if a small piazza in Europe. Surrounded by two coffee shops and the vintage store You Wu Studio, these landings can be considered as the community’s “third place”, which sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes as a relaxing mingling place away from our home and office. Every weekend, You Yu Studio would set up chairs and tables outside their store, encourage members of the community to sit down for a causal chat, or a cup of locally made ice cream, or a handicraft workshop. Such breathing space just a stone throw away from the business district is truly a treasure for Tai Ping Shan community, and a valuable open space for all pedestrians to enjoy. As a dense and vertical city, Hong Kongers are unfortunately enjoying far less open spaces than residents in many other Asian cities. A study in 2017 reveals the average open space per capita in Hong Kong is about 2.8 sq.m, way behind Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore (ranging from 5.8 to 7.6 sq.m). Without adequate outdoor spaces for social activities, Hong Kongers have long been using the streets creatively for both commercial and social purposes. This is the case for You Yu Studio at Shing Wong Street, and so as the tiny Chenmiji at Water Lane.