Ink dries on historic Hong Kong shop's final chapter

Nam Wah Company has served printing companies for eight decades, but its store will be bulldozed despite pleas from conservationists

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 4:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 4:05am

Cans of printing ink line the teak shelves of the Nam Wah Company shop, which has been supplying local and mainland printers since before the second world war.

But its long history comes to a full stop tomorrow when the three-storey building on Wellington Street reverts to the government to make way for an Urban Renewal Authority redevelopment along Peel Street and Graham Street in Central.

Conservationists had called on the government to save the building and allow 76-year-old owner Tsui Pak-kim and his family to continue the business, which was founded by Tsui's father.

Campaigners have praised its unusual architectural style and cultural significance: the name of the company was written on the second-floor balcony by calligrapher Su Shijie, a revolutionary ally of Dr Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China. While the Nam Wah shop will be demolished, the building next door, home to Wing Woo Grocery for 80 years, will have its façade preserved.

Tsui, who took over the business from his father when he was about 30, said the business moved from nearby Cochrane Street in the 1950s because it needed more space. The ground floor of the new shop, a former bakery built before the war, was for sales; upper floors for storage.

"In the old days, the volume of work meant we could barely meet deadlines," he said of the days before personal computers, when companies relied on his clients to print all of their documents. "Now business must have dropped more than 80 per cent.

With deteriorating eyesight, he produces a business card, on which the shop's phone number features only seven figures, reflecting the fact it dated to before the mid-1990s when a No2 was added to all landline numbers. Most of its clients are on the mainland now, he adds.

He has not decided whether to revive the business at a new location, but is not optimistic.

"It's difficult because we own this shop and we don't have to pay rents. If we moved somewhere, we wouldn't be able to afford the high rents," he said. "Whenever a person has to leave a place where he has spent decades, he can only sigh."

Lau Kwok-wai, executive director of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, said the open balconies in the building were rare and became rarer still in the 1960s and '70s, when many owners closed them off for residential use.

The shop was featured in a book published by the centre and the Central and Western District Council, and Lau believed the building should be preserved.

Katty Law Ngar-ning, of the Central and Western Concern Group, said the building should be preserved with the grocery.

"They go together very well," said Law, who criticised the URA's approach to heritage and said it had not encouraged businesses to carry on at their present locations.

The URA said it had worked with the community to develop a master plan for the site and carried out a heritage report. The decision not to preserve the shop was accepted by the Town Planning Board and the Antiquities and Monuments Office, it said.

It will build hotels, flats, offices and shops on three sites totalling 5,000 square metres, connected by public open space.

The authority has often been criticised for clearing locally owned businesses and long-term residents out of areas to make way for chain stores and luxury flats.