Published: 15:53, May 24, 2024
Time Capsules
By Oasis Hu in Hong Kong

Heritage lovers seek to record memories of Hong Kong’s eclectic old shops in pictures, words


For well over a decade, photographer Tsui Piu has devoted untold hours every week to capturing images of Hong Kong’s disappearing old shops.

The disparate collection of cultural snapshots includes a shop selling snake products that was over a century old, whose eccentric female owner hung serpents around her neck. Tsui has also taken photos of the city’s last movable-type printing company and a glass-blower for neon signs.

Over the past 14 years, he has documented more than 1,000 old shops, including small businesses and manufacturing operations, for an online library that serves as a witness to Hong Kong’s history.

Born on the Chinese mainland, Tsui moved to the bustling metropolis at a young age and has lived there for over three decades.

“These shops have been witnesses to my growth and are keepers of my cherished memories like eating, playing and shopping,” he said.

When Tsui saw that some of these businesses were closing, “it felt as if the city was disconnecting from its past and its history was fading away”.

A shop owner displays a bamboo steamer at a craft shop in Hong Kong. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Although he could not save the old shops, he decided to try and preserve the culture they embodied, through his photography.

Since 2010, Tsui has extensively explored the city to discover and document the old shops. Convincing shop owners to let him take their photograph was not easy, but most finally said yes after seeing his passion for the project. Sometimes, he would revisit a shop with unique craftsmanship multiple times, spending months documenting the entire production process.

To take photos empathetic to his subjects, Tsui talked at length with the shop owners about the beginnings and histories of their businesses.

In an old umbrella shop, he discovered that the renowned martial arts master, Wong Fei-hung, had once wielded one of its products. In a curd shop that had been in one family for four generations, he learned that the undistinguished owner hankered for the life of a musician. During the day the shop owner wore a white T-shirt and dished up curd, but at night he donned a tuxedo to play the flute on stage.

Tsui found a workshop where mahjong sets were made by hand, and an owner who refused to succumb to the tide of mass manufacturing, carving the tiles until his fingers swelled.

“He told me he wouldn’t give up his business,” Tsui said.

“Through conversations at these old shops, I came to realize it is not easy for them to resist the passage of time,” he said, adding that the situation is getting worse.

A cook works at Cheung Fat Noodles, one of the most famous dai pai dongs in Hong Kong. The 70-year-old shop closed in October 2023. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

To promote the culture of the old shops, Tsui has published two photo collections, and has an online account featuring his photographs and magazine stories about the owners.

“Sometimes I feel like I am racing against time, but I have to. Old shops are part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity and should be preserved,” he said.

Ma Kei-lok, a 42-year-old who works in finance, is also trying to keep the old shops and their cultural significance alive.

In 2018, Ma founded Hong Kong Historical Shops, a nonprofit team dedicated to the preservation of the city’s old shops, which today has about 15 volunteer workers.

There are over 1,500 shops in Hong Kong with a history of more than 50 years, and about 120 shops that have been in business for over a century, Ma discovered through his research. The old shops are mainly concentrated in the districts of Sheung Wan, Central, Yau Ma Tei, Tai Po, Yuen Long Kau Hui and Sham Shui Po.

The cultural value of old shops manifests itself in various ways, Ma said. Rich heritage might be evident in the architecture, signage, interior decorations, unique products or packaging.

The owner of She Wong Lam snake products shop in Hong Kong is seen with a serpent. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

However, old shops might also possess a valuable intangible heritage such as manufacturing techniques with historical and cultural significance, Ma said.

Hong Kong soy sauce brand “I-Ho-Yuan Food Products” is an example of this. The 50-year-old shop is the sole one in China that uses the Fujian method to produce soy sauce, Ma said. With a history of over 2,000 years, Fujian soy sauce is renowned for its robust bean flavor but is now at risk of vanishing.

Ma said the shop stands as the remaining guardian of this soy sauce production method.

The old shops and businesses have also added context and color to many Hong Kong movies and TV shows, Tsui said. Jumbo Kingdom, for example, a well-known floating restaurant which shut its doors in 2020 provided a back-drop for numerous movies, including Enter the Dragon (1973) starring Bruce Lee, and the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

However, in recent years, Hong Kong has witnessed a significant decline in the number of its old shops, with the situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The owners said the main reason they closed was the lack of a successor, or the unwillingness of inheritors to keep the business open, Ma noted.

Tsui identified other factors, such as competition from large chains, supermarkets, and online shops. Mass production of traditionally handmade products like matches, umbrellas, and mahjong tiles has also contributed to the closures.

Changes to policies and regulations relating to certain goods, such as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government implementing a law banning the sale of ivory, have also forced shops to shut.

The owner of the factory tests a wooden rocking horse at Chi Kee Sawmill and Timber, one of the few remaining woodwork factories in Hong Kong. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

In addition, urban renewal and redevelopment driving up property prices and rent, has made it unprofitable for some old shops to continue doing business.

Ashley Ma’s grandfather opened Cheung Fat Noodles in 1953 after he obtained a license to open a dai pai dong, which means “hawkers with large licenses”.

The licenses were originally issued by the Hong Kong government in the 1950s to help civil servants’ families affected by the Japanese wartime occupation, allowing them to operate stalls to earn income. To distinguish these hawkers from other ones, the government required them to prominently display their licenses in their shop fronts.

Ashley Ma, 27, who works in finance, said her grandfather sold Hong Kong specialties like fish balls, wonton noodles, dumplings, pig trotters, cuttlefish balls and soy sauce noodles in the narrow alleys of Sham Shui Po district.

After both grandparents passed away, the shop was inherited by three brothers: Ma Siu-chor, Ma Siuhong and Ashley Ma’s father, Ma Kam-por.

Thanks to the efforts of the three brothers, Cheung Fat Noodles withstood the test of time despite the rapid growth of the city. It welcomed many famous actors including Cheung Ka-fai, Koo Tin-lok, and Sheh Sze-man, and often served as a backdrop for films such as the award-winning crime thriller Port of Call (2015).

However, on Oct 30 last year, Cheung Fat Noodles ceased operations because of the construction of new buildings in the area and the redistribution of dai pai dong licenses, with only 20 now remaining in the city.

A flower board with exquisite craftsmanship is seen in a Hong Kong street. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Ma Siu-chor said on the noodle shop’s final day, crowds had formed before the dai pai dong opened at 10:30 am, including some diners who had returned from abroad to enjoy a last meal.

For the sake of her family, and local residents, Ashley Ma is determined to revive the shop. She has been searching for a new location and creating multiple social media accounts under the eatery’s name. However, it will not be easy to reopen the store without the concessionary rent available through a dai pai dong license, she conceded.

Despite the overwhelming customer support on Cheung Fat Noodles’ last day, Ma Kei-lok from Hong Kong Historical Shops believes it was probably not indicative of a greater awareness about the cultural significance of protecting such businesses.

Many Hong Kong residents do not regularly frequent old shops, but when a closure happens there is often a “novelty value” surge in interest. Ma Kei-lok describes this behavior as “funeral ceremony conservation”, which fails to inspire true efforts to preserve the culture associated with old shops. There is also scant research or action being taken on old businesses by official organizations in Hong Kong, he added.

To raise public awareness, Ma Kei-lok established the “Hong Kong Historical Shops” Facebook account, where he shares stories about such establishments.

Ma Kei-lok begins his research by looking into the industry related to each shop, and sometimes buys books containing relevant information out of his own pocket. He then interviews the shop owners about their experiences. The stories, along with accompanying photos and videos, are compiled into articles and shared on the Facebook account.

He said he prioritizes shops offering products or skills that are scarce in the city, and those with vanishing crafts or on the verge of closure.

A craftsman makes guqin (sevenstringed plucked instrument) at an old shop in Hong Kong. (TSUI PIU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

For instance, Hang Cheong Ivory Factory, with a 75-year history of producing hand-carved ivory items, was documented before it closed in 2021 under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants (Amendment) Ordinance.

The Facebook account has conducted interviews with the owners and operators of more than 120 old shops. She Wong Lam in Sheung Wan, a shop founded in 1900 that sold snake-related products, Pui Kee Shipyard in Shau Kei Wan, with a 70-year history, and the Ho Ching Kee Lee knife shop, which is over 200 years old, are among the stories.

Yip Tak-ping, a senior lecturer at the Education University of Hong Kong and president of the Hong Kong History and Culture Society, said the city’s old shops can learn from Japan’s approach to preserving its heritage.

Japan is renowned for its vast number of old shops, with over 50,000 surviving more than 100 years.

In Hong Kong, old shops are typically inherited by sons. However, in Japan owners prioritize industry relationships over blood ties and may pass on their shops to their apprentices.

In Japan, old shops are known for their reliability and high-quality services, but similar businesses in Hong Kong may have issues with cleanliness and services.

From a business perspective, whether a shop is old or new is of secondary importance to the customers, Yip said. What matters is the satisfaction customers derive from the services and products offered. Ultimately, an old shop’s success relies on its ability to provide excellent services and high-quality products, he said.

When it comes to operating and preserving an old shop, the primary responsibility always falls on the old shop, Yip said. But from a cultural perspective, Hong Kong society should recognize the significance of preserving such businesses.

The Hong Kong government and social organizations can take the lead by conducting studies to understand the current state of old shops and the challenges they face. After rating them based on their cultural value, assistance can be provided to the most important ones. Schools can also offer courses that raise students’ awareness about the issues, while residents can use social media to promote neighborhood old shops.

“Hong Kong’s abundance of local stories, including its colonial history and traditional Chinese culture, presents an opportunity for cultural advancement. As travel trends focus on in-depth experiences and cultural industries gain prominence, exploring and developing old shops can be a vital component of this progress,” Yip said.