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Old Hong Kong

Hong Kong photographer records the old shops falling prey to gentrification on one man’s daily commute through Western

Seeing the long-established small businesses he passed daily closing, Howard Bilton commissioned a book of photos of every shop along Queen’s Road West – a quirky Hong Kong time capsule

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 12:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 4:58pm

Hong Kong can count on so few constants that even the removal of a neon sign can cause quite a ruckus.

Last year, the dismantling of the 37-year-old cow sign outside Sammy’s Kitchen, a Hong Kong-style Western restaurant, became a cause célèbre for the protection of street heritage.

It also galvanised Howard Bilton into commissioning a book that documents every single old shop along Queen’s Road West, the quirky time capsule to the west of Central where the cow sign used to hang.

When I heard [the Sammy’s Kitchen cow] was being dismantled as an illegal structure, my brain exploded
William Furniss

“I drive along Queen’s Road West a lot because I work in Central and I live in Pok Fu Lam. Five years ago, I started to talk about getting large-scale photographs done of the shops there but I left it. Then, I noticed shops starting to disappear and replaced by coffee shops.

“The urgency was realised when the Sammy’s Kitchen cow disappeared. Progress is getting faster and if I don’t do this soon, there won’t be anything left to photograph,” says Bilton, founder of tax-advisory firm Sovereign Group and art charity the Sovereign Art Foundation.

The resulting book, Queen’s Road West: The Vanishing Neighbourhood, has about 100 photographs, taken by William Furniss with a Pentax 645Z, together with fascinating captions that tell the stories behind the proud faces he captured.

These are scenes so quintessentially Hong Kong that it is difficult to imagine the city denuded of them: The oddly cheerful paper offerings shops with their bang up-to-date fashion items and gadgets for the dead; the dried herb and pickle sellers whose smells you love or hate; the traditional bedding shops which still sell kapok pillow stuffing; the Chinese bonesetters’ clinics with the acupuncture models.

But gentrification in the western part of Hong Kong island is roaring ahead as property developers have knocked down older buildings to make way for luxury apartments near the new MTR stations.

West Island MTR line has led to the rapid gentrification of Kennedy Town

Furniss, who has lived in Hong Kong for 24 years, says he didn’t think twice before agreeing to shoot for the book.

“I used to live in Kennedy Town and the Sammy’s Kitchen cow had always been a pivot for the neighbourhood. When I heard it was being dismantled as an illegal structure, my brain exploded,” he says.

Furniss says unique shops run by sole proprietors are the social fabric that makes a good neighbourhood, rather than a nostalgic symbol for an outdated economic system.

“Some of the shops are very busy, such as the mui choi pickle maker at 30 Eastern Street that exports to North America. So are the paper offerings shops. Mr Kwan, who runs one of them, says since everyone will pass through death, it is a sustainable business,” the photographer says.

“I seriously think that Hong Kong is the world’s best city. Sprawl is disaster but Hong Kong’s geography has created an ideal urban environment. People here are a bit depressed at the moment but it’s important for me to document and celebrate its urban qualities, to say Hong Kong is a really, really cool place and please cast off this funk,” he adds.

Queen’s Road West: The Vanishing Neighbourhood is now available for HK$325 through the Sovereign Art Foundation. Proceeds will go towards funding the Sovereign Art Foundation’s work in helping disadvantaged children around the region through art. Prints of images in the book can also be purchased through the foundation by e-mailing art@sovereignartfoundation.com – 50 per cent of the proceeds will go to charity.