Neighbourhood Sounds

Artists inspired by old-world charm of Yau Ma Tei

A creative breed has moved in to Yau Ma Tei to tap into the spirit of a close-knit community amid bustling streets and relatively low rents

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:05pm

In the early 1900s, Yau Ma Tei was a port and major food distribution point for all of Hong Kong.

Since then, the old neighbourhood could have become decayed and succumbed to redevelopment, as has Jordan to its south, or a tourist haunt with jacked-up rents like Mong Kok to the north.

Instead, the historic area has in recent years seen a creative breed moving into its streets - budding artists and designers lured by its loyal and close-knit local community, bustling streets and relatively low rents. It has also retained its old-world charm.

Yau Ma Tei Theatre, a graded historic building, still sits in Waterloo Road as it has for the past 82 years, although it has been refurbished as a new venue for Chinese opera.

A stone's throw away is the century-old fruit market, still at the heart of the entire city's wholesale distribution network. More than 200 fruit importers ship in - then truck out - thousands of fragrant, fruit-filled boxes to the rest of the city every night.

A hodge-podge of old shops, scattered along Reclamation Road and Shanghai Street, still sell tin, wood and other construction materials. Meanwhile, hosts of old artisans and experts in hand-made trades continue to do business on Portland Street.

Designer and beekeeper Michael Leung says he is never bored walking down these streets. "So many inspirational things are here," he says.

Leung, together with photographer and pinhole- camera maker Martin Cheung, rented a 1950s-60s-style space in Shanghai Street and called it the Shanghai Street Studios.

The retro space has colourful floor tiles, carved wooden room partitions, old furniture and even a ceramic tea set (which a landlady gave them). It hosts workshops on using beeswax, pinhole camera classes, and sometimes serves as Leung's sleeping quarters.

Leung and Cheung are in the process of turning the space into a living Hong Kong museum, collecting old "made in Hong Kong" items on eBay and in second-hand shops. Cheung also wanders around the neighbourhood to document life with a camera.

"I love the communal spirit of this place. People have been there for a long time, and so much of that old Hong Kong spirit has been retained," said Cheung. "Everything is so close by."

Artists find Yau Ma Tei convenient for one-stop visits because they can find raw materials everywhere, as well as older experts who can offer advice. "I believe many are drawn to this area by its colour and history, and its quintessential Hong Kong-ness," Cheung said.

In the past two years, Leung and Cheung have made friends with locals.

"If I walk down Shanghai Street for two blocks, there are at least four stores where I will stop and chat for a bit," said Leung.

Cheung mentions Wooferten, an exhibition and community space at 404 Shanghai Street, as a "bridge between Yau Ma Tei locals, traditional artisans and the art community".

Wooferten - a phonetic translation of "heritage renewal and conservation room" - has been running a space provided by the Arts Development Council since 2009. It holds regular exhibitions and workshops so popular that they often run out of room for everyone.

"I think people are drawn here mainly for the low rent," said Lee Chun-fung of Wooferten.

The space also has an artisan-in-residence, Wong Nai-chung, who makes large floral plaques that are often seen at Chinese religious festivals.

"There needs to be more time for the local community to blend with the art community, but I think we are getting there," said Wong.

He was taken in by Wooferten after being kicked out of his Sham Shui Po studio because of redevelopment projects two years ago.

Lee said there was chemistry between art and the old, local culture of Yau Ma Tei. "We want to bridge the gap between art and the local community." Exhibitions are often inspired by people living in the neighbourhood.

"Getting the community involved isn't just painting a mural with local primary school students," Lee said. "It means being in an actual dialogue with them. We want to have artisans share their expertise, to have artists really get into the grit of local life."

Leung Mui-wing, a 77-year-old resident and owner of a games parlour, says Wooferten has added to the community. "These young people are providing an alternative to the dancing and drinking down in Tsim Sha Tsui," he said.

"This is value-adding. People learn something [when they take part in an art workshop or talk]."

Wooferten has installed a wooden bench against the street railing directly opposite its front door, tied to a street sign. All kinds of people sit on the bench throughout the day, said Lee.

In the space of a short time, a scantily clad woman in high-heeled boots sat down at the bench to have a smoke. She was followed by a couple of Western tourists with their paper cups of milk tea, followed by a man in a T-shirt soaked in sweat, and then by a couple of elderly folks having a mid-morning natter.

Maybe art could become Yau Ma Tei's ticket to warding off redevelopment pressure and creating a discussion in the community on how better to preserve the neighbourhood's cultural values.

Art can be, as Lee said, a platform for reaching and building a community - functioning just like the bench opposite the entrance to Wooferten.

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