Talking shop

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am

Edith Cheung Sai-may's procession of colourful fabrics, looms and old furniture drew plenty of curious glances when she moved into the ground-floor shop of an old Sheung Wan building four years ago. Now her textile studio-gallery, Cloth Haven, has become a neighbourhood haunt where people drop by for a natter.

A costume and textile consultant, Cheung made an effort to get to know people living on her street. 'If you keep your door open on cooler days, people tend to pop in, but if they have to push open the door they feel they may be disturbing you,' she says.

Cheung's approach is unusual in the increasingly anonymous culture of Hong Kong. The rapid pace of life, frequent home moves and reluctance to infringe on others' privacy means many people don't even have a nodding acquaintance with their neighbours, especially in private developments. The elderly still gather at parks and in their local tea shops, but many younger people seem to believe good fences make good neighbours.

'I wouldn't say the neighbourhood spirit has died, but it's decreasing,' says Rebecca Chiu Lai-har, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Hong Kong. 'When people become more self-sufficient, they tend to close up.'

Even public housing estates aren't as close-knit as they used to be, she says. 'In the past residents used to help each other make goodies for festivals and keep their doors open to let in fresh air, but since more people have air conditioning, the doors are shut.'

In a few corners of the city, however, community-minded enterprises such as Cloth Haven are providing opportunities for residents to strike up casual conversations and build a sense of neighbourliness.

To break the ice, Cheung put up a doll in her shop window inviting passers-by to guess its weight for a prize. 'It was great fun watching people size it up, including the suspicious old ladies who were sure there was some catch.'

Soon she had a steady stream of visitors: elderly residents in the mornings, youngsters back from school in the afternoons and young professionals at weekends. 'I love it when neighbours who I don't know too well feel comfortable enough to ask for something,' Cheung says. 'In Hong Kong, we're so independent that it takes courage to ask for a favour.'

And when a sharp rise in rents threatened the venture earlier this year, Cheung was touched to find neighbours rallying around her, including a schoolboy who began dropping in after he won the doll quiz. 'One day he told me he understood my problem and if I could wait a couple of years, he could do something about it.'

A solution came sooner: another neighbour offered a more affordable alternative space on nearby Square Street, which she now shares with an antique dealer.

In Tai Po, retiree Chiu Yu-chu has also found a sense of community at Veggie Soul, an organic food store located near the old street market. 'If you live in a tall building, it tends to be impersonal,' she says.

Concern with a healthier diet first drew her to the shop, but its inviting atmosphere and couches had her dropping in several times a week.

'It's not just a place to buy things, but also a space to make friends,' Chiu says. 'A few months ago when I began knitting woollies for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, the regulars donated so much wool I couldn't keep up. We talk about everything from the government's housing policy to how we can recycle things.'

Despite occupying first-floor premises in a building in Tin Hau, Les Artistes cafe has also evolved into a community hangout. Manager Mona Wong Lap-yi says many residents in the block were resentful when it opened. 'They thought there would be a lot of noise and strangers going in and out.'

The residents eventually came round and were soon popping by for a chat or to compare notes when facing plumbing or wiring problems. The cafe is also a bookstore and gallery for young artists, so Wong is happy to have people come in to browse. Being in a friendly area made it easier to establish roots, she says. 'The other shops here are not fiercely competitive and sometimes send customers to us.'

But it was the children in the building who sealed the cafe's role as a community centre. 'Many mothers tend to leave kids here when they go to the market because they feel it's safe,' says Wong. Meanwhile, the youngsters have a chance to get to know each other, and they're not shy to invite each other for a game even if they haven't met before. Many mothers from nearby buildings also meet over coffee at Les Artistes while their children go for table tennis lessons.

Pat Lee Yin-ping, who lives several floors above the cafe, enjoys the company. 'I can spend a whole afternoon here chatting. The crowd keeps me young and it's a peaceful atmosphere to sit with a book.'

'Research shows areas with many old people or young children tend to have strong neighbourhood ties,' says Yip Ngai-ming, an associate professor of public administration at City University.

Children are an important agent for cultivating a sense of community because mothers often meet when dropping them off for activities and get talking about other matters. But with falling birth rates and the elderly clustered in a few areas, the conditions for building social networks are weakening, Yip says.

The middle class are less reliant than low-income families on neighbours for support during difficult times, but this doesn't mean that such ties aren't important, says Chiu, adding that a loss of neighbourhood can lead to depression and family tragedies.

'We not only need people during crises, but social interaction makes our lives more enjoyable.'

Housing Authority architects are now more aware of the need to sustain social ties, and public estates are better planned than those in the 60s and include space for social interaction, she says. For instance, elderly people need space to do morning exercises together, play chess or chat, and youngsters need football fields or badminton courts.

But Yip says the tide may be turning against self-contained anonymity. 'After 1997 and Sars, people realised financial wealth can be unreal and that mutual help and a sense of cohesion are worthwhile goals,' he says. 'I am optimistic, but it will need some effort.'

Places such as Cloth Haven attract people because they're 'messy enough to be inviting', says Cheung, adding that the mix of older people and a creative young crowd made it easier for her to build ties.

The quaint decor at Veggie Soul also attracts the curious. Owners Begin Au Chi-wai and Jacqueline Chea Siu-ling have furnished the space with bric-a-brac from the streets, transforming items such as the glass front of a washing machine into a bowl for lotus plants. A cable spool was turned into a revolving rack, with shelves from drawers salvaged from a rubbish collection point.

'It doesn't matter if people come in just to look at the decor,' says Au. 'I like visitors to be curious about why we're doing this.'

More than curiosity, spaces such as Veggie Soul maintain a friendly environment that encourage people to mingle. Chea has provided books and crayons for children in one corner of the shop, and customers often bring their children with packed lunches for a doodle. Last year she also began organising talks on subjects ranging from personality development to healthy living, and is delighted that participants are staying afterwards to chat. 'Sometimes, the chatting goes on longer than the talk itself,' she says.

At Cloth Haven, the weaving workshops and exhibitions on topics ranging from natural dyeing to the history of handkerchiefs are a draw, but Cheung also recognises an underlying need. 'Some people want quiet time with the looms, but others are tired of being alone and come here to socialise.'