Book review: Street Life Hong Kong, by Nicole Chabot and Michael Perini

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

Street Life Hong Kong

by Nicole Chabot and Michael Perini

Blacksmith Books


Street Life Hong Kong is timely: many readers may hope someone slips a copy of this book under Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's Christmas tree, given the fears he has recently expressed about allowing certain sections of society a say in how our city is run.

The book gives a voice to - and puts a human face on - 25 citizens who work outdoors and mostly go unnoticed in the daily hustle of our bustling city. Hong Kong's ruling elite should also do themselves a favour, given the past month or so has shown the majority (if not all) of them to be so far removed from the realities of daily life as they are for the majority of Hongkongers.

Here, we get a first-hand look at how life is for so many in our city. We are presented with richly evocative tales of normal, everyday life and of the common concerns that surround it - for the subjects, their families and, in some cases, for the city they call home.

But it's not fair to the authors to label Street Life Hong Kong as "political". And it's also unfair to the subjects to label them as "grass roots", to borrow that commonly used and condescending phrase favoured by our leaders. These are regular people with regular stories.

Author Nicole Chabot's previous effort, 2012's Kowloon: Unknown Territory, took a street-level look at that part of town and the characters who inhabit it, and came with the same stripped-back honesty we are presented with here.

The characters are made more accessible through the photographs of Michael Perini. You see the subjects as they work, and the scenes that surround them, and the effect is an authentic feel for the streets many of us pass every day. Presented in the book are people we may brush past almost without notice, such as Dai Xiao-qin, who shines shoes in Central and is worried about the rate she is paid and the competition she faces from others plying the same trade. Or Lai Siu-fan, who holds up a sign and enjoys the banter she shares with lost tourists to whom she offers directions daily.

The city's cultural mix is also reflected by those chosen, as is the transient nature of society and of employment here as some of those featured have changed jobs or even left town since publication.

One of the more illuminating aspects of the stories is the matter-of-fact way these people approach the situations in which they have found themselves - when your choices are limited, you play the cards fate deals you - and they share the moments of joy and of pride that they feel as they go about their daily lives.

It's that sense of commonality that makes Street Life Hong Kong by its end a celebration of our city and the spirit of the people who inhabit it.