Neighbourhood Sounds

Sai Ying Pun: A walk among the heritage holdouts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am

Home to some of Hong Kong's oldest shops, Sai Ying Pun is a holdout of Hong Kong heritage. This small, resourceful neighbourhood west of Central was built by a close-knit community of traders and residents whose families have existed side by side for more than 130 years.

Drastic changes have been afoot there in the past two years, however, with a subway link in the works. No one feels the sudden acceleration of change as strongly as the area's old-time trades.

They include shops specialising in salted fish, a delicacy long seen as an icon for the district.

Hop Lee Ho Sea Products, an importer of salted fish, is among those feeling the pinch as rents and prices rise, old families move out and new firms move in. Hop Lee Ho has been an institution in Des Voeux Road West for 41 years.

Its owner, Au Chun-pang, says shop owners used to gather at his store to bid for the best shipments several times a week in the 1970s and '80s. These days, auctions are held irregularly, perhaps once every few weeks.

'The supply has decreased, making [salted fish] more and more expensive,' he said after a recent auction, which was as lively as in the heyday of the trade. 'It's no longer a common food for the mass public; only well-off folks can afford it now.'

Au's children will not be taking over the business that he inherited from his father, Au said. 'This is too bad, as this is one of the oldest traditional trades in Hong Kong.'

It is another example of how 20th-century neighbourhood values are giving way to 21st-century developers' ambitions, creating predicaments for many residents of Sai Ying Pun.

The news that an MTR station will open by 2014 has sent rents soaring and lured developers hoping to strike gold by turning the area's old-style tenements into gleaming apartment blocks.

'[The new developments] are often bought by speculators,' said a Mr Ho, whose noodle shop is just three minutes' walk from a future MTR station exit. Speculators did not contribute to the local community, he said, yet they drive away his old customers, who sell out and move away.

Although he hopes to keep the business going, he said there was a 50 per cent chance that he may need to sell the property and move out. (He declined to reveal his full name because of possible complications if he sells.)

'It'll be hard for our [old-style] businesses to survive,' said Ho, whose firm began in 1967 as a herbal tea house. Restaurant chains have been moving into the area, eating into his business.

A shop owned by a Mrs Kwong has similar problems. Founded by her mother-in-law, it sells everything from ceramic pots to plastic stools; toothpicks to gardening tools. But her shop, which sits right across from a planned MTR exit, is now bordered by a frozen-food supermarket and a real estate agency. Many store owners will sell their shops for redevelopment, she said, partly because few young people want to take over the businesses.

'The younger generation prefers cash to running an old store. Businesses like ours are about relationships and patience,' she said.

Others find it impossible to preserve the knowledge and skill that went with traditional trades. Raymond Lam Ying-hung's family has made and sold traditional bamboo steamers for five generations, but they no longer take apprentices. 'No one can afford to house an apprentice for three years for them to learn the skill,' he said. 'And, frankly speaking, no one today would be willing to learn something that is outdated.'

Lau Kwok-wai, executive director of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe), says Sai Ying Pun will lose its old buildings, skills and trades if there is no concerted effort to preserve the heritage.

'We are in a race against time,' said Lau. 'Once these traditional trades and skills, and the way of life are gone, they're gone forever.'

Sai Ying Pun was one of the earliest settlements in colonial Hong Kong, dating to the 1880s. In those days, streets above High Street were for Westerners only, while below - First, Second and Third Streets - were for the Chinese and spawned a hub of shops, homes and hawkers.

Redevelopment in the area began in the 1970s, and in 2005 the government started to revamp 14 buildings in Yu Lok Lane. It is tucked high up between Third Street and High Street and home to printing presses - a rare remnant of buildings built right after the second world war.

Most of it has since been torn down to make way for a 1,309 sq ft park and 255 flats, due to be completed by 2014.

'Yu Lok Lane could have been preserved and revitalised for the local community, and for the sake of preserving Hong Kong's historical heritage,' said Lau, whose centre used to lead walking tours of buildings and alleyways unique to Sai Ying Pun.

For the locals, it is the communal spirit that is crucial to life in the area.

'There are fewer people [in Sai Ying Pun] now, but I think there is still that human touch,' said rice merchant Cheng Chun-yuen, 70. At Tak Cheong Thai, the shop he inherited from his father, he still stores his rice in big wooden tubs and sifts his own rice.

'People need to keep on working. Work is good - keeps us healthy and in touch with the world,' said Cheng.

'Some families have been buying [rice] from me for generations,' said Cheng. 'The older generation used to bring their children here. Now many of those grown-up children will drive here just to buy rice, bringing their own children.'

Although his is the only rice shop in Sai Ying Pun, Cheng admits it is hard to live off rice these days. He would not encourage his children to follow in his footsteps, he said, because they 'wouldn't be able to make enough to feed themselves'.

The old stores, like Cheng's, bear witness to the living history of Hong Kong.

They stayed in place long enough to form social relationships, sow the seeds of a community and watch it grow.

'These old stores represent a way of life, a different way of relating to one's neighbours and community. It is something worth thinking about, and bringing back,' said Lau.

CACHe is hosting an exhibition on the history and architecture of Sai Ying Pun's shops at its Western Street office.

Next week: Peng Chau