Cat Street

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 1999, 12:00am

Aka Thieves' Market, Bargain Street, Catchee Street, Paddy's Markets, Samshu Corner, Mor Lor Gai and, officially, Upper Lascar Row, for the past 150 years, this has been a gathering point for people ... and vice.

Cat Street started out as an Indian community, clustered around Hong Kong's first mosque built nearby in 1843. Most were sailors who lived in boarding houses during stopovers in Hong Kong. In English, the sailors were known as Lascars, a Persian term for 'army', originally used for Indian soldiers in the British army. In Chinese, they were referred to as 'mor lor', probably derived from the English term 'Moor' and applied to Pakistanis, Indians and Arabs.

It was a street of vice. Mr Big was Sz Man-king, who ran the gambling dens and brothels patronised by the sailors and had close ties to triads and pirates. He also rebuilt the Man Mo Temple in 1847.

Apart from drunken sailors, gamblers, prostitutes and opium addicts, turn-of-the-century Cat Street was also a haven for thieves and pirates - 'cat burglars' - who went there to sell stolen antiques. Their pidgin English cry 'catchee', meaning to buy, is another possible source of the street's popular name.

Gradually, the brothels, gambling dens and fences moved out, but the antiques stayed. By the early 1970s, Cat Street's chaotic mixture of shops, stalls and hawkers selling antiques and junk, had become an tourist attraction. It was a time warp, selling the everyday goods of ancient China and the more recent past.

Then, five years ago, the Urban Services Department stepped in, moving the unlicenced vendors out. Complaints from residents and antique-shop owners, unhappy about the rubbish left by hawkers, blocked access and competition, seem to have been the catalyst. The USD had a plan to relocate the vendors in a covered market on Circular Pathway. It was dark, unventilated and surrounded by high rises, and no one bothered moving in.

Lined by shops selling expensive antiques, Cat Street no longer bustles. The hawkers are gone. Urban Services officers regularly patrol the area and fine shop owners and stallholders who spill out from their allotted spaces. The Government plans to issue no more licences for stalls on the street: when the existing stallholders retire, what is left of the spirit of Cat Street will go with them.

Mr Chan may grumble about the lack of business these days, but his (licenced) stall seems to attract more customers than the others. His is the closest to Man Mo Temple, which probably helps. 'After Hollywood Road and the temple, most tourists would stroll over to Cat Street. They'd have a glance at the first few stores but, nowadays, they don't bother with the rest of the street anymore because they've seen it all on Hollywood Road,' he says.

Chan Bat, and his shop Fook Kee and the antiques: Tucked away in a courtyard on Circular Pathway, a short walk from Cat Street, is Fook Kee. Its shopfront resembles an old Chinese rice shop, but its interior is similar to a Portobello Road bric-a-brac shop. Opened 20 years ago by 'Uncle' Chan Bat, now 75, the shop specialises in European antiques and is one of the few to retain its original character. Uncle Chan is famous for his rare antique clocks and watches, most of which are kept out of sight and only brought out for genuine customers. He also has a large collection of antique pens and glasses.

French tourist, Luigi Di-Capua: Frenchman Luigi Di-Capua, on his fifth business trip to Hong Kong, visited Cat Street for the first time recently. He was hoping to find an eclectic flea market. So he was disappointed to find the same touristy stuff sold in the jade market and expensive antiques like those available on Hollywood Road. But he said he preferred it to the jade market because vendors 'don't try to force you to buy'.

P.Y. Cheung's shop, Tsap Ka Tsei Lau: Cheung Pak-yu's shop name, Tsap Ka Tsei Lau, is as incomprehensible to most Cantonese-speakers as it is to those won't don't speak the dialect. 'Tsap ka tsei' is an old Chinese literary term for an artist who is talented in many disciplines, explains Cheung; 'lau' means league. Cheung is proud to be a member, thanks to his talents in the Chinese arts of carving wood, bamboo, stone and clay. He began training more than 50 years ago, when he was eight. Of all the works on display in his tiny shop-cum-workshop, his intricate bamboo birdcages are most eye-catching. Each is a labour of love. They are made from a certain type of bamboo that has to be picked at the right age and in the right season. The twisted cage rods alone can take up to year to make because they must be reshaped many times. Because of the workmanship involved, a simple palm-size cricket cage costs $5,000, and the birdcages from $50,000 to $150,000. The one in the picture costs $100,000.

China Art: Established 20 years ago, antiques shop China Art is happy about the clean-up. Access to the store is easier, although William Chiang, son of the owner, says business has not changed significantly. 'People who are interested in our antiques aren't interested in junk,' he says, adding that 'outsiders' might miss the flea market, but 'insiders' regard it as 'not a shame at all'.

Lee with his guitar Kenny Lee's tiny Goki Discovery Shop is crammed with music memorabilia and more than 6,000 second-hand LPs from the 1920s - '70s. These days, business is so slow he plays the guitar to pass the time. He blames the Government clean-up, claiming it 'has killed the street'. By living in the shop and moonlighting, Lee is just managing to pay the rent. But he says the shop is here to stay.

Cat Street with hawkers: Unlicensed hawkers display their 'treasures' on the ground.