Shoeshining has long been a tradition in the Central business district. But in recent years four shoeshiners in Theatre Lane have been prosecuted for obstructing the road. They faced being shut down by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. But after their situation drew widespread sympathy in the community, the government decided to issue them licences, allowing them to practise their trade legally for the first time. CityChat talks to two of them.
Yeung Siu-ying has worked in the area for a decade: 'I used to work on construction sites. But I got too old for that kind of work. So I was jobless for a while until I heard from a friend he was shining shoes. So I started doing the same. I shine shoes here every day except rainy days and holidays. The peak hours are lunchtime and after work. I shine about 13 pairs of shoes a day and charge about HK$25 per pair.
'As an old man, I am not able to find a regular job. But with this shoe brush and shoeshining skills, I can still earn my daily bread. My big worry is being arrested by hawker-control officers, and I have to run away if they come. I was arrested once and have paid several hundreds of dollars in fines over the past decade. My working tools were also confiscated and I could not get them back. I lost a lot of money.
'I wonder why the officers arrested me. I am not doing illegal things. I do not steal and rob. I just want to make a living. However, I am happy that many customers support us, so we can survive here. They like us to shine shoes for them. I am happy to hear that a prosecution against me has been dropped and licences will soon be issued. I will be happy if I can do my business without worrying about getting arrested.
'At first I felt bad about having to do this job and felt uncomfortable sitting in the street shining shoes. It was embarrassing. Even if my relatives on the mainland asked me what I did, I would not tell them I was a shoeshiner. Later, I overcame those unpleasant feelings, and have continued to shine shoes every day. I have shined shoes for famous people such as Maria Tam Wai-chu and local artist Ray Lui Leung-wai. I got used to being a shoeshiner.
'In the past decade, I have had many interesting encounters. Some customers were nice and some very odd. I recall a Filipino man who only wanted the soles of his shoes shined, not the uppers. That was interesting. Another was a man who only wanted one shoe shined. Some did not pay me after I had shined their shoes. A customer even lost his temper.
'I have seen this area change over the past 10 years. There were about seven shoeshiners in this area years ago and the customers were mostly businessmen. Business was good when the property market was strong. But there has been a drop of 30 per cent amid the economic downturn. Some offices have moved to other areas, and there are fewer customers now. I suggest the government can develop this area and turn it into a tourist spot, keeping shoeshining as a feature of Hong Kong.
'I use my own hands to earn money and I do not get Comprehensive Social Security Assistance from the government. I make my own living. I will keep polishing shoes until the day I can no longer do it.'
Sitting next to Mr Yeung is Lau Wing-ming, who has been shining shoes in the area for 16 years: 'I used to be a bar bender on construction sites. It was very hard work. I quit the job and was jobless for half a year. Later, I heard of a friend who was shining shoes, so I started, and have been doing it ever since.
'I could not accept being a shoeshiner at the beginning. One day I was shining shoes when a mother and a child passed by me. I heard the mother tell her son to study hard otherwise he would end up as a shoeshiner. I was sad and felt uncomfortable. But there were no other jobs suitable for me because of my age. Later, I became satisfied with the job, as I am my own boss. I make all my own decisions.
'My customers have been mostly male. Sixty per cent are foreigners and 40 per cent are Hongkongers. I have to be patient when I am shining shoes. Some customers are not nice and complain. It is easy to have a quarrel with the customers. But I am patient with them as I want to earn money. Shining shoes sometimes gives me the chance to meet rich people. Other careers cannot offer such chances.'