Creative young entrepreneurs help revitalise ageing Sham Shui Po district

Working-class area gives creative entrepreneurs a chance to turn their ideas into reality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 November, 2014, 5:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 November, 2014, 5:57pm

For a run-down, working-class neighbourhood, Sham Shui Po attracts more people than you'd expect because of its specialised market streets devoted to items ranging from haberdashery and cheap bric-a-brac to toys and electronics. A cool vibe was never part of its appeal. But the district has acquired a patina of hipster chic after a clutch of trendy entrepreneurs moved in over the past year.

Leading this revitalisation in the old district are designers Rex Yam Wing-cheong and Joey Ku Cho-yiu. Renting a three-storey tong lau on Nam Cheong Street, the pair have turned it into a stylish haunt called 22 Degrees North. A boutique showcasing independent designers, local and overseas, occupies the ground floor; the middle level is used for DIY workshops and wine tastings, and the top floor is rented out to pop-up stores.

They initially eyed premises in the PMQ compound in Central or on Star Street in Wan Chai, but the rents were too expensive, Yam says.

By contrast, the threshold for setting up shop in Sham Shui Po is low. Moreover, creative types come all the time to buy raw materials, including fabric, leather and accessories, so they thought it would be a good place to showcase their products, Yam says.

Yam and Ku view their venture as a cultural as well as a business enterprise, and have held jazz parties, photo exhibitions, movie nights, fashion shows and even tango workshops at the premises.

They have taken pains to retain the interior structure of the pre-war building that once housed a textiles store. The low-ceilinged first floor was originally the mezzanine level where the fabric was stored, with a gap cut into the floorboards so cloth could be rolled out easily for customers to inspect.

"To retain the structure, we surrounded the gap with glass so that workshop participants on the first floor could look down and see the goings-on on the ground floor," says Yam, a bag designer.

Keen to celebrate the culture and history of Sham Shui Po, they also recruited a dozen neighbourhood shops and cafes to collaborate in an outreach programme that encourages people to explore the different shops.

Visitors are given a pamphlet and receive a stamp for every shop they drop into. Those who collect 12 stamps can receive a free gift from 22 Degrees North.

"In the past, cloth shops lined the area around Tai Nan and Shek Kip Mei streets. But after garment factories relocated to the mainland, many shops fell vacant. In their place came local designers and shops selling handmade items," says Ku.

"The old and new co-exist in Sham Shui Po. You can still find some age-old pawn shops here, while visitors associate Sham Shui Po only with computer malls and flea market stalls on Apliu Street. But the district now includes trendy shops, each of which has its own story."

Participants in the outreach drive include a leather shop that has been operating for about 40 years and the new YHA Mei Ho House Youth Hostel, converted from the blocks of a resettlement estate in Shek Kip Mei. They hope to get more shops to join the programme, Yam says.

Tattoo artist Jayers Ko Tsz-mei, who signed up for the scheme, enjoys the energy in the neighbourhood.

Having worked in Chicago and Atlanta for several months, Ko says Sham Shui Po stands out for its compactness.

"In Chicago, the rents are only a quarter of those in Hong Kong, but shops are situated far from each other. In Sham Shui Po, they are clustered together, with small businesses filling every nook and cranny."

What's more, rents are lower there than in other districts, Ko says. She pays HK$10,000 per month for her salon, Lovinkit Tattoo, on Fuk Wa Street.

"Exorbitant rents in Hong Kong make it difficult for designers like me to set up shop. I want to inspire other young designers to follow in my footsteps to set up their own businesses here," she says. "All the tattoo designs are my own. Those who are not keen to ink their bodies can buy T-shirts featuring my designs."

Having several cultural institutions in the vicinity - the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, the Savannah College of Art and Design and Jao Tsung-I Academy - adds the creative vibe. Design students often like to drop by after class to pick up raw material for their work, Ku adds.

"We hope that our shop can serve as a DIY hub, where up-and-coming designers and young people can hang out together," he says.

Another cluster of lively ventures is growing up around an 11-storey tong lau owned by interior designer Patricia Choi Pui-yee. She gave the building on Lai Chi Kok Road a makeover last year, dividing the ground floor into three shop spaces - one occupied by Holicycle, a concept store promoting bicycling; another by a gallery; and the third space is a common area decorated with vintage furniture.

"Every Tuesday we host a movie club there, and there are design-themed talks every Sunday," Choi says. "I will open a youth hostel on the first floor soon, and the common area will be used as the entrance. Being a designer myself, I want to support creative businesses."

Besides seeking out innovative ventures as tenants, Choi gives them a boost by keeping rents low - under HK$10,000 even for a street-level space.

Holicycle, which opened early this year, is among the beneficiaries. Besides selling a range of stylish bikes and bicycle accessories, the shop rents out vintage Shanghai-brand bicycles (the type often used for delivering gas cylinders) to encourage visitors to further explore the neighbourhood - a 24-hour rental costs just HK$120.

On weekends, they organise cycling tours around Sham Shui Po, which have proved popular with locals and tourists alike, says Tom Ma Che-yin, who set up Holicycle with six friends.

"Besides selling stylish bikes, we want to promote a cycling culture in the city," Ma says. "There aren't many places in the urban areas that are cycling-friendly. There aren't many cars travelling in the inner alleys in Sham Shui Po, so cyclists can feel safe and relaxed.

"We have also teamed up with a local illustrator to organise tours for people to make drawings of landmarks like Mei Ho House and Lui Sang Chun, the Baptist University's traditional Chinese medicine and health care centre."

Chan Chi-on, who opened Brothers Leather Craft on Tai Nan Street last year, says Holicycle has helped catalyse the vibrant cycling culture that has emerged in the district during the past two years.

A keen cyclist himself, Chan usually cycles to work from his Prince Edward home every day.

The old and the new co-exist in Sham Shui Po. You can still find age-old pawn shops here
Joey Ku, designer

"Many clients cycle to my shop to buy material, some from as far away as Sha Tin," he says. "There are now eight bicycle businesses near my shop. One specialises in vintage bicycles, another sells cross-country bikes. The Lockon Bike Workshop specialises in small-wheel and collapsible bikes. The traditional shops are closed on holidays; those that stay open are set up by young people. So there's a tranquil atmosphere in Sham Shi Po during public holidays, which is conducive for cycling. After [Holicycle] opened, people on bikes came here in groups, visiting the landmarks and sampling the food."

Victor Yuen Chi-yan, founder of the Living In Kwun Tong concern group, argues that the way young people have helped revitalise Sham Shui Po shows there are other ways of urban redevelopment besides demolishing old buildings to make way for fancy shopping malls and high-end housing.

"Bopiliao district in Taipei used to be an old grass-roots area filled with industries and butcheries," Yuen says. "But after the old businesses were phased out, the government refurbished the old structures, and it soon attracted trendy businesses and eateries.

"There's no need to set aside HK$100 million to transform an ageing district into glossy landmarks as the Hong Kong government has been doing.

"The government doesn't promote Sham Shui Po to visitors, but it has a lot of tourism potential. Scenes from Transformers 4 were filmed here. It's the birthplace of Chinese University's United College, set up by famed scholar Ch'ien Mu; his memorial park still stands. Wing Chun master Ip Man opened his martial arts school there, and those set up by his followers are still there."

From the 1930s to the '70s, Sham Shui Po was made up of clusters of family-run cottage industries, making plastic flowers and other items. Areas such as Yu Chau Street came to be dominated by shops specialising in fabric and jewellery parts - wonderful for DIY enthusiasts, Yuen says. Recently, speciality shops such as those selling vinyl records and vintage cameras have joined the mix. It has become a mecca for hobbyists, and it's not just a local happening.

"Revitalising poor districts by attracting young artists to set up businesses is a trend round the world," Yuen says.