Nicholas Gordon talks to Lindsay Varty, author of Sunset Survivors: Meet The People Who Are Keeping Hong Kong’s Traditional Industries Alive.
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Which industries are you referring to?
It’s the small family-run businesses that are overlooked, and perhaps have been made somewhat redundant, in modern Hong Kong. These are the shoeshiners in Central, face-threaders, herbal-medicine doctors, and others. Something has come along and overshadowed them, or factories have taken over their business, or high rents have kicked them out, or cultural values have changed.
You’ve mentioned in other talks that you deliberately chose to call these people “survivors”. Could you explain why?
I wanted to be positive. I didn’t want to think: “Oh how sad, these are the last remaining dregs of old Hong Kong.” I wanted to portray them positively, the way I think Hong Kong culture should be portrayed. I wanted to call them survivors because, despite everything that has changed in modern Hong Kong, they have outlived everyone all the other people in these industries. They have persisted through everything and held on to their family businesses. They’ve survived all these things.
What motivated you to write the book?
I used to see these people around growing up in Hong Kong, but I noticed them disappearing as I got older. There was one man in particular: the “white flower man”. At the bottom of Lan Kwai Fong, with all these businessesmen and women walking around, he stood there selling little white flowers. People walked by him as they were on their way to their meetings, not knowing what he was doing or selling. But despite all that, he just stood there going about his work.
Then one day he was gone. So many of these people disappear, and no one replaces them. It’s that last little slice of old Hong Kong.
I started researching more, not just people but also industries, which helped open my eyes to it. Once you’re looking for them, you see them everywhere: at the bottom of a huge shiny building, you might find someone down an alleyway cutting keys.
Tell me about one or two stories that are in the book.
I always mention the letter-writer. Many years ago, there were people who helped illiterate people in Hong Kong correspond with their relatives in Mainland China or overseas. Family friends of my parents’ generation would remember them on the side-streets and street-corners with their little stalls, helping people to write things. I researched to see if any were left in Hong Kong, and I learned that there were one or two in the Yau Ma Tei Jade Market.
I found the letter-writer fascinating: he’s in this quite touristy jade market. Tourists see all the jade and jewelry and completely neglect the last seven remaining letter-writers in Hong Kong on the side, all sitting there with very old typewriters.
The letter-writer in the book has never used a computer in his life, instead using the same typewriter for around 45 years. He came from Vietnam, working as a bartender when he first arrived. People recognized that he could speak English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin and said “You’re far too educated to be a bartender. Why don’t you be a letter-writer?”
But once compulsory education started in the Seventies and everyone could read and write, the job of letter-writing became unnecessary. Nowadays, he helps people with their tax forms.
He’s very kind, very nice and extremely helpful. I went there on a walking tour, and he was a little embarrassed because people asked him to sign the book! The letter-writers sit there, they read the newspaper and chat with friends, and don’t really expect anybody to stop by. He’s aware that computers and technology have taken over, but he doesn’t really mind. He does it because it’s his job, and gives him a purpose in life. His family told him that he could retire, and they would look after him, but he enjoys having this role in society. When I gave him the book, he thanked me and read every single page.
Did other people see the decline of their industries with more regret?
Most were happy that their children did not have to take over their jobs. Their kids had gone to university, and they were proud of the fact that their children did not have to do the same work they did.
The bird cage maker in the market in Prince Edward was sad: not so much over the potential loss of his shop but rather that his skill in making birdcages would die out. He was proud of the masters that taught him the craft, and of the many years he put into learning them. He started when he was thirteen years old, and it took 5-10 years to master the craft. He seemed desperate to be able to pass it down. But nobody with a school education wants to learn these skills: perhaps as a hobby, but certainly not as a job.
Did some try to change with the times?
The traditional Chinese chop makers—you might recognize them from tourists having their names put on them in Stanley Market—are one industry that’s kept their future alive. Traditionally, people used these stamps as their signature before people could read and write. It was an official thing: bankers, lawyers, everyone would use these stamps. Obviously, now people just sign their names. But these guys argue that the stamp is more secure: unless someone has your stamp, it cannot be recreated. These stampmakers have done well to market them to tourists.
Another is the letterpress printer. He has this giant machine, and before the age of digital printing, they would hand-select stamps with characters or letters on them, put them into place, and stamp them with the machine. Now, he still runs his machine because he loves it, but he’s also the middle-man for people that need digital printing. He’s in a great location, so people come to him saying “I need business cards made, I need them by tomorrow,” and then he goes and sources them. He knows he needs to make money to keep the machine running, because once the machine dies, he’ll have to put it in a museum.
Are those people in your book doing things to preserve these techniques? What can other people do to ensure these skills aren’t lost forever?
What can be done? The Jockey Club Creative Arts Center is good at trying to promote and preserve some these industries. When some of these people are kicked out of their shops because of high rents, the Jockey Club provides them with an area to run a workshop.
But I think more can be done, and that’s what I’m trying to help with now. The book is one thing, but I wanted to make what could be seen as a boring subject more appealing to Hong Kong’s youth. So I’m giving talks at primary and secondary schools and universities, to spread the word that Hong Kong’s cultural identity really gives people a sense of belonging. I think that’s what’s important, and we won’t realize we’ve lost it until it’s gone.
Do you think we undervalue the kind of work these people are doing, or the products they make? I assume the income’s not great, and the work is tiring, which is probably why people don’t want their sons or daughters to go into the business.
I think we undervalue how they contribute to Hong Kong’s cultural identity, but I think it’s easy for us to say “Protect these wonderful industries”. In reality, they don’t want their children to go into the business. The important thing is to appreciate it: not necessarily to keep it going, but to recognize the skill and appreciate them while they’re still there.
Something has also changed in that we have more of a throwaway culture now. When a pair of shoes gets worn out or the heel falls off, you throw them away and get a new pair. When your knife gets blunt, you get a new one at Park ‘N’ Shop. Whereas in the Fifties and Sixties, if your shoes got worn down, you went to a streetside cobbler to get them fixed. When your knife got blunt, you found a knife sharpener: why buy a new one when you can get the one you have fixed? This love and respect for the things you own has diminished because of the convenience of getting something new.
Forty or even fifty years ago, these people would have been talked about in the context of “The Lion Rock Spirit”: working hard, making a business, improving the lives of their children. Has this spirit changed?
I think the social context is different. We’re no longer a developing country, we’re not struggling to start-up businesses and develop Hong Kong into a strong economic center. It’s more that this spirit can be attributed to the hard work that people put into everyday life, getting through busy days, getting through Hong Kong’s political turmoil.
It’s not just people working hard, it’s the same values we all have: family-driven, boisterous, fun-loving charm of Hong Kongers new and old. It’s a charming character, and that’s what makes the city so vibrant.
The number of dai pai dongs has diminished drastically after the government stopped giving licenses. How much is the decline of these industries changing due to changing tastes, and how much is due to government regulation?
They’re connected. There used to be thousands of dai pai dongs, but now just twenty-five remain. And that’s because of two things. One: the government wants to develop the land the dai pai dongs are on. But also, many people complained about them being unhygienic. People’s tastes changed: they would rather sit inside an air-conditioned restaurant.
But now you go to the dai pai dongs and they’re absolutely packed now, because people love that Hong Kong spirit.
How does your background affect how you look at Hong Kong, and its culture and identity?
My parents helped me to get to know the “real” Hong Kong, so I fell in love with all the little side streets. I missed that when I was away for university.
When I take people on the walking tours, Hong Kong people will tell me that they never realized something so interesting was in the wet market. But because I had a different upbringing, I was able to find the “extraordinary in the ordinary”: I could walk down a street and say “That stall? You can’t find that anywhere else other than Hong Kong.”
These practices, these ancient skills, they don’t exist outside of Hong Kong. I was able to see them from a different vantage point.
Hong Kong is my home. But getting to know the language, getting to know the culture, has really solidified my love for Hong Kong and my sense of belonging here.