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Posts tagged “Ladder Street

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.

FELINE SHOPKEEPERS (貓店長) 2, Hong Kong

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.

Tin Yin Coconut Co. (天然椰子號) has been around in North Point (北角) since 1964, from just a coconut supplier to selling all sort of Indonesian spices, condiments and snacks. Three cats (“Black Pepper”, “Turmeric”, “Satay”) accompany Amy, the lady shop-owner daily in the shop. But only “Black Pepper” would linger at the front desk to greet customers. [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2020]
Tin Yin Coconut Co. (天然椰子號) has moved to a new store on the same street recently. “Black Pepper” still sleeps through most of the day while customers picking spices and snacks around him. [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2021]
Ming Kee Southern Goods (銘記南貨店) at Sai Ying Pun is a traditional condiment store that we frequently visited. This is where we get our local cooking wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean curd, etc. Another reason is to check out the their big and friendly cat. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
A bowl of grass is often available as a special snacks for the cat to clear its stomach. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
As a “southern goods” store (南貨店), Ming Kee sells all sort of traditional condiments and food products that are originated from south of Yangtze River. The cat is guarding one of the most popular seasonal merchandises: the Chinese Mitten Crabs (大閘蟹) from Shanghai that are available in the autumn. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun are known for the dried seafood shops that have been around for decades, when the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭) served as a main trading port in Hong Kong. Hundreds of trading companies were situated around the pier, including many dried seafood shops. Today this area is known as the Dried Seafood Street (海味街). Dried Seafood Street (海味街) has become a popular place to spot some of the more well known shop cats whose images have gone viral on the Internet. [Ko Shing Street (高陞街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
In many occasions, visitors would find a rather sleepy shop cat at the Dried Seafood Street (海味街). [Des Voeux Road (德輔道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Near the junction of Sutherland Street and Des Voeux Road West, Dai Lee Hong (大利行) dried seafood shop also has its celebrity cat known as “Fat Boy” (肥仔). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Apart from Apart from dried seafood, herbal medicine, nuts, spices and condiments are also popular in the Dried Seafood Street (海味街), such as Wing Shun Lei (永順利) dried herb shop. The beautiful cat Gum Gum (金金) of Wing Shun Lei is one of the many neighbours of “Fat Boy” (肥仔). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Another cat Ting Ting (丁丁) sometimes takes the night shift to “guard” the back door of Wing Shun Lei (永順利). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
The cat at Guang Chong Hong (廣昌行), another herbal medicine in the area, loves to nap at the shopfront no matter how busy the street gets. [Queen’s Road West (皇后大道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Sometimes, it would be waken by curious pedestrians who couldn’t resist petting its head. [Queen’s Road West (皇后大道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
A little further uphill from Sheung Wan, a beautiful cat is waiting for its owner at a hair salon window. [Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), Sheung Wan (上環)]
The top of Ladder Street is home to a shy shop cat belonged to the street eatery Glorious Fast Food (輝煌快餐店). [Junction of Caine Road (堅道) and Ladder Street (樓梯街), Sheung Wan (上環), 2020]
Old restaurants and eateries are also good places to find shop cats, whose mice catching instinct is a big asset for the business. [Luen Wah Cafe (聯華茶餐廳), Centre Street (正街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Even household hardware shops are cat friendly these days. [Lockhart Road (駱克道), Wanchai (灣仔), 2020]
And so as household appliance shop… [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2021]
Sam Kee Bookstore (森記圖書) at Fortress Hill (炮台山) is a peaceful bookstore at the basement of a small shopping arcade. Apart from its good selection of books, Sam Kee is also well known as a sanctuary for a dozen or so stray cats. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]
The lady shop owner adopted the cats one by one simply because they have no where to go. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]
These cats are used to be left alone. A sign saying “Sorry, please don’t play with cats” remind customers not to play with the cats. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]