Join the queue
It's a memorable image: a man in a suit talking into his mobile phone but sporting a Qing-dynasty queue walks down busy Des Veoux Road in Central, drawing bemused stares from passersby. The recent TV commercial touting a brand of accounting software has grabbed the attention of many viewers.
Most people acquainted with Aixingero Hing-tong assumed he was the star in the ad. Not so. 'You're all mistaken, that man isn't me,' he says, frowning. 'I kept getting phone calls from friends and relatives congratulating me for becoming a model.
'There's no resemblance except for the hairdo,' says the 59-year-old, who is of Manchu descent. 'I'm a lot more agile despite my age. The actor in the ad is very stiff and his movement is slow.'
The photo studio owner decided to highlight his heritage four years ago by adopting traditional Manchu customs and dress - including a Qing-dynasty hairstyle with a shaved forehead and queue down the back, and bowing to ancestral altars daily.
Aixingero also formally resumed the use of his Manchurian surname, registering it with mainland and Hong Kong authorities. His two children - daughter Pansy, 29, and son Enoch, 20 - have done the same, and he's eager to show doubters his Hong Kong identity card bearing the name.
His great-grandfather changed their family name to Chow in the 1930s because of political sensitivity, he says. After all, they bear the same surname as Puyi, the last Qing emperor. 'Imagine what life would have been like in the New China era if the family still carried the surname of Qing emperors,' says Aixingero, adding that friends know him better as Chow-tong.
Restoring their name was a long process that took more than 10 years. 'My brother had to return to our ancestral home in Shenyang to collect proof of family history from tombstones and documents before the mainland government finally approved our surname in 2002. Then we used that document to resume our family name in Hong Kong the following year.'
Originally from the northeast, his family settled in Guangzhou but fled to Hong Kong in 1962 when he was 14. Aixingero attended secondary school here and worked in different trades before discovering an abiding interest and career in photography.
MK2, the advertising agency behind the 15-second TV clip, says it wasn't aware of Aixingero when making the software commercial.
Rather than take the usual route of hiring a celebrity, the agency decided it could convey a powerful message using an unknown actor, says MK2 managing director Maurice Chan Yu-kee. Its creative team hit on the idea of a Qing-dynasty man and produced the ad within a month.
'We wanted to point out that some companies are still using old-fashioned [accounting] systems,' says Chan.
'A Manchurian man in a queue epitomises people from the last century. By using Des Voeux Road Central as the background, it sends a very strong message that someone so outdated still exists in today's commercial world.'
The agency also wanted to ensure it was sufficiently entertaining to retain audience interest, so some of the footage featured pedestrians' candid response to the pig-tailed actor. 'We're pleased that the feedback is good,' says Chan. 'We've done our job when the audience can get the message and recall the ad.'
Although there are no statistics on the Manchu population in Hong Kong, Aixingero estimates there are several dozen residents in Hong Kong of similar ethnicity. Few, however, are as passionate in promoting their heritage as he is.
On formal occasions and celebrations, the family dresses in Manchu-style costume. Aixingero and his son don the ma gua robe, while his wife, Ava Wong, wears the qi pao, which originated from the Manchus. 'When we walk down the street in traditional costume, some people, including tourists, think we're actors shooting a movie. When we travel abroad, passengers who spot my queue sometimes joke that it's an honour to share a flight with a traditional Chinese family.'
Wearing traditional clothing isn't such a big deal, Aixingero says. The qi pao, for instance, is as much a national costume to China as the kimono is to Japan. Friends and neighbours, including shop owners in the Hankow Road shopping arcade where he has his photo studio, have been receptive to their image. 'Hong Kong is a multi-cultural community, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui where you regularly come across different cultures and ethnic groups,' he says.
Aixingero is also emphasising his heritage at the studio. Last year, he renovated his 400-sq ft studio to give it a nostalgic aura, filling it with antique furniture from his home and collectors' items such as a box camera and water pipe. The shelves are filled with books about the culture and history of his ancestors, and traditional Manchu music plays on the sound system.
Once mundanely named the D & P Service Shop, a new sign above the studio door now proclaims it as Aixingero Studio in Chinese characters and the squiggly Manchurian script.
Customers who spend more than HK$100 at the shop get a crack at a lucky dip which includes prizes such as a cup of green tea with longan and rose buds, or a piece of sachima sweet pastry, both of which are favoured by the Manchus.
Aixingero insists the makeover is designed to promote Manchu culture rather than a business ploy.
'I'd make more money by leasing out the shop space rather than keeping it as a photo studio,' he says. 'It was my father's unfulfilled wish to resume our Manchu identity before he passed away in 1988, but I was too tied up with my photography business.'
But when his film developing business shrank following the spread of digital cameras, Aixingero found more time to trace his genealogy. He now professes to have blue blood, tracing his lineage to the same clan as the Qing imperial family, although Chinese University historian Ho Pui-yin says more proof is needed to substantiate such a claim.
In the meantime, Aixingero is content to learn more about his heritage. 'I just know enough Manchurian to write my name,' he says. 'When I retire, I might hire a teacher and learn the language.'