Traditional Hong Kong crafts in Sai Ying Pun celebrated by pop-up museum and app guide: we take a tour
Old-school craftsmanship and colourful characters still exist amid the hipster cafes and high-end restaurants of changing Sai Ying Pun, and a new pop-up museum and app show visitors the best of the area’s surviving past
Sai Ying Pun on the northwest part of Hong Kong Island has become more gentrified over the past few years, with hipster bars, cafes and high-end restaurants taking root after the MTR opened a station there in 2014 as a part of its Island Line extension.
Striking a balance between old and new is a constant battle across similar areas in the city, and conservationists have expressed fears that Sai Ying Pun’s old-style charm will fade as urban renewal increasingly knocks at its doors.
But two organisations are making sure people don’t forget the vital role that traditional crafts businesses play in the area.
iDiscover, an organisation with a mission to keep local heritage alive through stories shared via online guides and apps, and Sai Ying Pun community group Magic Lanes have launched the SYP Neighbourhood Museum, a two-week pop-up that started on June 30 on Sheung Fung Lane. An app-based neighbourhood guide has also been launched, and a colourful foldable map illustrated by local artist Carmen Ng, featuring 26 sites highlighting local cultural heritage – all hand-picked by locals – is available to buy.
Among the featured sites are Tuck Chong Sum Kee, a company that makes food steamers from single pieces of bamboo; Kwong Lam Kee, a homewares store selling items including hand-painted enamel pots and vases; and a tailor shop run by Lee Zam-kee, who still repairs clothes with his reliable vintage Singer sewing machine.
Last week the Post joined iDiscover’s project manager Stephanie Cheung for a stroll around the neighbourhood to visit four of the sites featured on the map. We met the faces behind the places, hearing stories about how they fear their crafts will disappear in a hi-tech age, and the changes they have witnessed in their neighbourhood.
Tin Bo Lau
Walking into this colourful joss-paper workshop off Eastern Street is something of a spiritual experience, with the red glow from the traditional envelopes and paper creations lighting up the room and everything in it.
The workshop is filled with paper offerings, bamboo frames and sheets of paper, with a giant paper boat offering commissioned for a funeral taking up most of the centre space.
“I’ve been offered HK$25 million [US$3.2 million] for this 800 sq ft [74 sq m] space,” says owner Ha Chung-kin, who has been practising paper craft-making for 30 years. “Not many people can turn that down, which is why a lot of joss-paper shops on Queen’s Road West are selling out. I’m staying put because my children are in the business and we are proud of what we do.”
Ha’s boundless creative energy is evident as he flicks through his camera phone filled with images of sculptures as diverse as Ferraris to a roasted pigeon on a plate. And no project is too big. In 2017, he and his crew created the world’s largest hanging lantern (more than five metres wide and nine metres high), breaking the previous Guinness World Record.
Shop C, Basement, Tung Cheung Building, 1-11 Second Street
Pak Kee Bakery
The lunch crowd happily fill their trays at this favourite neighbourhood bakery, lured as they have been by the smell of freshly baked bread and pastries.
“Customers come from as far as Yuen Long [in northern Hong Kong] just for my goods,” says Master Liu, a baker for more than 45 years, about his popular tuna buns, preserved egg pastries, pineapple buns and mochi.
“A lot of domestic helpers shop here. They fill up their luggage with my pineapple buns to take back to the Philippines.”
The bakery moved to the neighbourhood in 1990 but has been forced to move to different locations because of rising rents.
“When I was in Centre Street the rent for a 1,300 sq ft space was HK$15,000 a month. Now it’s HK$60,000.”
G/F, Yee Fung Court, 101 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun
Kwan Hing Kee
Organised chaos is the best way to describe Mrs Kwan’s bean curd store on Third Street. Bags of grain sit next to trays of eggs in the back of the store, while the shelves are stacked with tinned food. Turtles and cats casually stroll around.
Mrs Kwan’s family store has been in Sai Ying Pun for 90 years. “I aim to keep prices low and quality high,” says the 65-year-old.
Its signature product is tofu pudding (it makes its own ginger juice) and it also stocks produce including fermented tofu paste and soy milk. As we leave the shop she passes me a bottle of soy milk – it’s so fresh, light and smooth. I will be back.
65 Third St, Sai Ying Pun. Tel: 2549 8625
Yu Kwen Yick
Shelves of brightly coloured bottles of Yu Kwen Yick’s famous chilli sauce line the walls of its shop on Third Street. Framed photos of the family business, which has been around for almost 100 years, hang proudly on the wall.
“Everyone has a connection with our sauce,” says Antony Yu about the product that is a fixture on the tables of restaurants and homes throughout the city.
Yu’s grandfather founded the company in 1922 after migrating from the city of Shunde in China’s Guangdong province. He started selling the sauce from baskets hanging from a bamboo pole he carried around the neighbourhood.
“We don’t add preservatives to our sauces – my grandfather didn’t have it in the recipe and we like to keep it that way,” Yu says about the brand’s products that also include chilli oil, classic chilli bean paste and chilli soy sauce.
G/F, 66a Third Street, Sai Ying Pun. Tel: 2568 8007