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CHU WING KEE: HOMEWARES FROM THE MOUNTAINS (朱榮記山貨), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

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.

Chu Wing Kee is located at Possession Street, the spot where the British first landed on Hong Kong Island in 1841.
Like many traditional homeware and “shan for” stores, many merchandises at Chu Wing Kee are hung above the shopfront.
The chaotic shopfront of a traditional homeware store has become a rarity nowadays. The rattan drying plates remind visitors an old style of living, when people would sundry vegetables, spices or seafood at home.
Made in Hong Kong, the eye-catching plastic piggy banks were extremely popular in the 1980’s when banks and some big companies would give out these red piggies as gifts to customers. In fact, these piggies were byproducts from the era of blooming plastic and toy manufacturing industry in Hong Kong.
Today, the red piggies greet customers from the pedestrian curb.
We ended up buying a rattan / bamboo chair from Mr. Chu, perhaps out of admiration of a fading handicraft tradition and a nostalgic considerations.
Simple plastic balls have brightened up the childhood for kids growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Peeking into the shop, we could see a wide range of rattan containers or baskets hung from the ceiling.
Given the popularity of laundry machines and coin laundry shops, traditional wood washboard is quite hard to find these days.
Ceramic rice storage container is another rarity these days.
Ceramic pots were common for making Chinese soup and braised meat.
Vintage enamel basin can be a colourful addition to the minimalist decor of contemporary interiors.
Before the emergence of plastic piggy banks, ceramic piggy banks were popular gifts for kids.
Vintage thermal flasks and thermal containers were widely used at homes or for getting takeouts in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Handmade metal mailboxes are mostly associated with tenement apartments (唐樓). Now the old apartments are being torn down across the city rapidly, and many mailbox makers are in their twilight age, the mailboxes have become been revived as a local handicraft popular among designers and the young generation.
Referring to the red plastic piggy banks, the sign “not for sale, legendary merchandise” reveals its significance to the history of Hong Kong manufacturing industry and collective memories of a generation.
Before the emergence of fancy Japanese ceramics and the affordable ones made in China swamped the market, there were once locally made ceramic housewares in Hong Kong. The most iconic one was the “chicken bowl”, a bowl decorated with brush drawn chickens.
Rattan baskets and containers come in all sides and shapes.
Products made of natural materials are making a strong comeback in recent years.
Apart from practical homewares, we can also find vintage toys in Chu Wing Kee.

ZOOLOGICAL & BOTANICAL GARDENS (兵頭花園), Central (中環), Hong Kong

Famous for its restless and often stressful urban living, sparing the time to take a walk in the park can be a luxury for many Hong Kongers. In fact, many may not even notice the existence of parks and gardens in the business district of Hong Kong. Behind the towering skyscrapers of Central (中環), a rather hidden 5.6 hectares area on the slope of Victoria Peak stands the oldest public park in Hong Kong. Long before the city was promoted as a shopping paradise, or a foodie haven of Michelin star restaurants, or a recreational hub of amusement parks and vibrant nightlife, or an exotic destination of subtropical beaches and seaside hiking trails, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens (香港植物公園) was one of the primary tourist attractions in the Victoria City. Founded in 1864 and completely opened to the public in 1871, the gardens was established in times when botanical gardens were founded by colonial powers in different locations around the world. The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was used by the British as a regional hub to study plant species collected from the Far East before transferring back to the Kew Gardens in England, or before planting at other areas in Hong Kong.

Bounded by Garden Road (花園道), Robinson Road (羅便臣道), Glenealy (己連拿利) and Upper Albert Road (上亞厘畢道) in the Mid-Levels (半山), Hong Kong Botanical Gardens is often referred to as Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) by the locals. Literally means “Head of Soldiers” Garden, “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” references to the former Governor’s House built at the Garden’s location. In 1975, the official name of the Gardens was changed to Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens (香港動植物公園), as a result to the growing collection of display animals. Despite initial researches of botanical science (which led to the founding of Hong Kong Herbarium in 1878) at the Gardens, most people would remember the Gardens as a place to check out animals and floral displays. Though the history of how the Gardens had played a role in botanic research for tree planting on the Hong Kong Island shall always be remembered. After all, transforming Hong Kong Island from a barren and rocky island with no forests, no trees and only grass in the 19th century (resulted from centuries of reckless deforestation) into the relatively lush green metropolis that we see today was no small feat.

Situated right across from my primary school, Bing Tau Fa Yuen is an essential part of my childhood memories. Going to Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) to check out the howler monkeys, orangutans, peacocks and even jaguars was a small after-school treat for me as a child. Every spring, Azalea (杜鵑花) would flourish across the park, attracting a large crowd to take selfies. Many years have gone by and the neighborhood has significantly transformed since my childhood’s time. Though the annual blossom at Bing Tau Fa Yuen is one of the few things that could remain unchanged throughout the years.

Hong Kong Botanical Garden and the slope of Victoria Peak in the 19th century. [Album of Hongkong Canton Macao Amoy Foochow, photograph by George Ernest Morrison, 1870’s, Public Domain]
Today, behind Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Victoria Peak is almost completely concealed by highrise residential towers. [Junction of Garden Road and Upper Albert Road, 2021]
The subtropical climate of Hong Kong is suitable for a wide range of trees and plants to flourish. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens near Glenealy, 2020]
At the Glenealy entrance, the roughly 100 year old White Jade Orchid Tree (Michelia x alba 白蘭樹) is about 34m tall. It is one of the tallest trees in Hong Kong. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens near Glenealy Entrance, 2021]
Beyond the Gardens and Upper Albert Road, the business district of Central is just a stone throw away. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens at Upper Albert Road, 2021]
Renamed as Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the park is also well known for its animals, including monkeys, apes, birds, and reptiles. The renowned Siu Fa, a jaguar who lived in the Gardens for 20 years until her death in 2008, was the last big cat kept at the park. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2020]
With the spatial limitation of the Gardens, keeping large mammals such as the Bornean Orangutans is controversial. As awareness of animal welfare has risen in recent years, let’s hope the authority and zookeepers would soon shift their efforts from confining exotic animals to conserving local wildlife and natural ecosystem. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2020]
There are also a number of cages of birds on display, including a small group of American Flamingo. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Apart from animals and birds, the Gardens is much more popular for its seasonal flower blossoms. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Different types of Azalea (杜鵑) blossoms transform the Gardens into a colourful paradise in March. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Different species of Hibiscus (大红花) can be found all over the Gardens. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Commonly known as pinkball, Scarlet Dombeya (吊芙蓉) is a highlight at the Gardens in early April. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
It’s just flowers everywhere in spring at the botanical garden. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Native to South America, the Red-veined Abutilon or Red-vein Chinese-lantern is commonly used in horticulture. The flowers are also edible, raw or cooked. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Every visitors love the Scarlet Flame Bean or Brownea coccinea. Native to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, Scarlet Flame Beans are now cultivated in many tropical countries. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Late March and early April is the best time to check out the Scarlet Flame Bean. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Away from the flower beds and bird cages, an old stone wall tree stands quietly near Robinson Road. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Built in 1866, the Pavilion between the Fountain and the bird cages is the oldest structure in the Gardens. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2020]
Even if one is not after the flowers or animals, Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) is a great place to just sit down, relax, and do nothing. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
The centerpiece of the Gardens is undoubtedly the Fountain. The fountain that we see today is the 5th generation that was erected in 2010. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Built in 1868, the first generation fountain was a landmark and a well known tourist attraction of Colonial Hong Kong. The Victoria Harbour and Governor House once dominated the view behind the fountain of the Botanical Garden. [Photo by Lai Afong, 1860-1880, public domain]
The Fountain was once a well known landmark of Hong Kong frequented by tourists. [Old postcard of the Fountain, copyright expired, 1900’s]
Sometimes, art installations would be set up at the Fountain Terrace, such as this bamboo structure designed by architects Impromptu Projects from Macau [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
The Fountain has become a peaceful landmark in the Mid Levels. Original fountain was built in 1864, and has been altered subsequently with the last renovation in 2010. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2020]
Spring is the best season to visit the Gardens due to the annual blossoms of Azalea (杜鵑花). [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
At the heart of the Gardens, a grand stair lead visitors from the fountain to the statue of King George VI. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Sculpted by Gilbert Ledward, the bronze statue of King George VI, father of the Queen Elizabeth II, was constructed to commemorate the centennial of the British Colonial Hong Kong. The statue was commissioned in 1939 and erected at the Gardens in 1958 after disruption from WWII. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
A greenhouse near Garden Road is home to a number of dedicated plants. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
Erected in 1928, the Memorial Arch was dedicated to the Chinese who lost their lives during WWI. [Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
The 100-year-old Stone pillars mark the entrance of the Gardens. [Upper Albert Road entrance, Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
The same old stone pillars marked the park entrance 120 years ago in this photo. [Old postcard, copyright expired, 1900’s]
Across from the entrance stone pillars stands the former Governor’s House and the skyline of Central. [Upper Albert Road entrance, Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]
The former Govrenor House now stands silently across the street from the Gardens. [Upper Albert Road, Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, 2021]

DAY 3 (2/8): NYAUNG-U MARKET, Nyaung-U, Myanmar, 2017.12.25

After watching the sunrise over Old Bagan, we returned to Oasis Hotel for breakfast.  Soon, our guide Win Thu came to join us and we headed off once again to explore the Bagan area.  Before another series of pagoda hopping, our day’s first destination was the local market of Nyaung-U.  As the main transportation and commercial hub of Bagan, the market of the river town Nyaung-U is a gathering point for the locals.  Many locals from the surrounding villages would come for grocery and daily needs.  Nyaung-U market offers travelers a great spot to learn about the daily lives of the locals.

DSC_4263We started our market stroll at the open wet market section.

DSC_4265It was great to see all the fresh produces from the area, as well as the smiles and laughter of the vendors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from produces, colourful flowers were also available.

DSC_4271Our eyes were overwhelmed by all shades of green.

DSC_4285Several kids were enjoying themselves behind the vendor stalls.

DSC_4292There were several vendors selling thanaka powder, a yellowish-white paste made from ground tree bark of thanaka trees.  Thanaka powder is a very popular cosmetic paste which the local Burmese women put on their faces.

DSC_4304Moving away from the open area, we walked into the covered aisles.

DSC_4307The aisles were narrow and busy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso for sale included betel leaves, which the locals used to make paan shots with Areca nut and/or tobacco.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABamboo shoots is a common ingredients for local cuisine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA quiet corner of the covered market.

DSC_4316.JPGSome vendors had to attend to their stall and baby at the same time.

DSC_4322Many vendors were also having their meals at the stalls.

DSC_4326This shop had all kinds of dried fish.

DSC_4331In the dry goods area, merchandise such as clothing and slippers were sold along with spices.

DSC_4345In the covered area, there was also a small eatery.

DSC_4348Heading out to the open area where we arrived, we passed by more stalls selling local produces and spices.

DSC_4351Apart from temple and pagoda hopping, the Nyaung-U market certainly added an unique experience to our visit of Bagan.

* * *

Blog posts on Myanmar 2017:

Day 1: Yangon, Myanmar
DAY 1: A PLACE FOR PEOPLE, Shwedagon Pagoda

Day 2: Bagan

Day 3: Bagan
DAY 3: SUNSET No. 2, Old Bagan

Day 4: Farewell Myanmar


DAY 3 (3/7): NANZENIN (南禅院) & TENJUAN (天授庵), Nanzenji (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan, 2016.12.05

There are about a dozen of sub-temples in the Nanzenji compound.  After visiting the Hojo, we headed back to the Suiro-kaku Aqueduct.  A flight of steps behind the aqueduct led us to the upper platform of Nanzenji.  There we arrived at the entrance of Nanzenin (南禅院), one of the sub-temples of Nanzenji with a tranquil pond garden surrounded by lush-green forest.  Visitors were not allowed to enter the building, but we were able to tour the garden.  Centered at a small water pond, Nanzenin’s garden was designed in Chisen Kaiyu, or the pond strolling style.  A stone path led us around the pond.  Left of the pond, there was a elegant pavilion inside an enclosure wall.  It was the royal mausoleum of Emperor Kameyama (亀山天皇), the founding emperor of Nanzenji who converted his retirement villa into a Zen Buddhist temple in the 13th century.  According to a 15th century account, cherry trees from Yoshino, reed plants from Nanba, and maple trees from Tatsuta were transplanted, and frogs from Ide were released for the making of the garden.  The autumn foliage had just past its peak.  Most of the vivid red leaves had fallen into the pond, or scattered on the moss covered rocks around the pond.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe temple hall of Nanzenin (南禅院) was not open to the public.

02The water pond in Nanzenin’s garden was created in a heart shape.

03Much of the red leaves around the pond had fallen into the water.

04A sense of deep autumn on the moss-covered ground.

06Most of the stone path was damp and peaceful.

05The mausoleum of Emperor Kameyama (亀山天皇) elegantly stood at the left side of the pond.

07Moss covered a large area of the ground around the pond.

08_Outside Nanzenin, the remaining autumn foliage, dark timber structures and blue-grey roof tiles evoked a sense of solitude and serenity for the otherwise historical setting.


Lastly we came to Tenjuan Temple (天授庵), another sub-temple of Nanzenji dedicated to the Zen master who served Emperor Kameyama.  Constructed in 1337, Tenjuan contained both a dry rock garden and a wet pond garden.  We stepped into the complex of Tenjuan as the sun had climbed above the Higashiyama Mountains (Eastern Mountains), casting a touch of warmth into the gardens.  Similar to Nanzenin, we were not allowed to enter the building interior.  Instead, the main focus was again the two gardens.  In the dry rock garden, moss seemed grew naturally around stepping stones, creating a romantic ground cover on the gravel pool.  We sat at the veranda for a few minutes to admire the dry landscape. At the back, there was the Chisen Kaiyu or pond strolling garden.  Just like the garden at Nanzenin, we circled the pond at Tenjuan.  The stroll was quite interesting, especially at the part walking on the zigzag stepping stones across the water.  A school of koi or nishikigoi fish (錦鯉) swam freely in the pond.  When we stopped at the shore, the fish would swim over and gather right in front of us, perhaps hoping that we might feed them?  It was almost 10am by the time we finished with Tenjuan.  We decided to leave the compound of Nanzenji and found our way to the Philosopher’s Path.

09We bought our admission tickets at the entrance courtyard of Tenjuan (天授庵).  The main building was not open to the public.  We followed a side path into the gardens at the back to start our visit.

10The dry landscape of Tenjuan was dominant by the moss and paver patterns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a pleasant morning strolling around the naturalistic pond.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe zigzag stepping stones was a neat feature in the journey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPart of the journey brought us closer to the Tenjuan buildings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother feature was a timber bridge.  At this tie of the year the bridge was covered with autumn leaves.

14Maple and bamboo were two prominent natural features in the garden.

15The moss, fallen leaves and pond reflections offered a serene atmosphere around us.

16As we stood by the water to take photos, the koi fish approached us from afar.

17The koi fish gathered in front of us.

19Before leaving Nanzenji, the maples at the entrance court reminded us once again the season of late autumn.