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.
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.
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.