Hong Kong’s tiny understairs shops: the locksmith squeezed next to Sogo and his 30-plus years in less than 30 sq ft of space
Tiny stores found under the city’s staircases are slowly disappearing as urban development progresses. In this new series of portraits, we meet the people behind these remaining stores who steadfastly provide their essential services
Standing under a staircase between the looming Sogo shopping mall in Causeway Bay and a chain pharmacy, 68-year-old Chan Wai-tong carefully transforms what looks like a metal cupboard into a fully kitted-out locksmith store.
First he removes the metal doors, then he takes several machines out of the cupboard. Next he pulls out a counter top, fastens it in place and puts the machines on top.
Chi Shun Locksmiths occupies less than 30 square feet of space underneath a staircase on Lockhart Road. These “understairs shops” were prominent in Hong Kong back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when tenement houses or shop houses were built as residential buildings with the entryways converted into tiny stores. Many Hong Kong people ran such small businesses to support their families at the time.
Chi Shun Locksmiths was no different. The owner, Mr Lee, who prefers not to give his full name or age, took over the space from a household appliance store in 1977 and has been there ever since.
Chan was hired by Lee in 1985 after they met in church. He had worked in a metal goods factory in the ’70s but had to find another way to make a living after the factories started moving to mainland China. Luckily for him, Lee offered a locksmith apprenticeship at just the right time.
Chan is now the only employee left at Chi Shun Locksmiths as his previous colleagues left to set up their own businesses elsewhere.
He remembers what it was like on Lockhart Road back in the ’80s when he started at the locksmiths.
“There was another residential building on the other side of the shop, and the pharmacy on the left was a bank,” he says, adding that a grocery store and a bakery stood opposite the shop.
Chi Shun Locksmiths used to occupy the entrance to two residential blocks but number 526 Lockhart Road was knocked down to make way for Sogo, the largest Japanese-style department store in Hong Kong. Lee says it was the landlord’s refusal to sell the building that secured the survival of his shop.
Having worked as a locksmith for more than three decades, Chan can duplicate a key in less than 10 minutes. First, he needs to find the correct key template out of more than a hundred, then he skilfully shaves away at the metal with a filing tool.
Using the original key as a guideline and with the help of the heavy duty key cutting machine, the basic outline of the new key emerges. Chan then sands the key down with the utmost precision.
Chi Shun Locksmiths also offers round the clock service for opening locks. “This is my favourite part of the job – helping people to solve their problems, especially when they are locked out,” Chan says.
A mahjong-tile maker with an understairs shop a few hundred metres down the road was forced to close down in 2012, because the landlord wanted to increase his rent fourfold. If the same thing happens to his place, Chan knows what he will do. “I am going to retire if the store closes down. There is nothing much I can do about it.”
Above the shop used to be residential flats; now there is a trendy cafe. Both Lee and Chan have witnessed many changes in Causeway Bay but, for now at least, Chi Shun Locksmiths continues to hold on to its humble craft.