Yau On Pawn Shop Owners Talk Gangsters and Scams
Hung Hin-kong and his grandson, 23-year-old Jeffrey Hung Ling-yu, divulge the secrets of the pawn shop business.
Why a pawn shop? Isn’t the pawn industry on the decline?
Hung Hin-kong: When I was 40, I opened a pawn shop in Yuen Long with a few friends and worked there for five years. Then I quit and became a taxi driver for 10 years. A chance meeting with my old friends brought me back into the pawn business: I sold my car and started Yau On Pawn Shop in the 80s, during the golden age of pawn shops. We earned five times of what we do now. Now, we have an average of 20 customers each day. In the past, it was 80 a day. But the number of pawnbrokers has been increasing too. There are two to three hundred of us now. Competition is getting fiercer by the minute.
It’s rare to see a young man working at a pawn shop. What’s it like?
Jeffrey Hung: The biggest downside of working here is not being able to meet new friends. The people I see the most are my grandfather and uncle. I once felt like I was working in a cage, but not anymore—every job imprisons you in some way. Now, the job is starting to grow on me. I’ve learned more about jewelry and watches. It’s not something you learn in the classroom.
You must have had some interesting encounters working here.
Hung Hin-kong: Lots of parents come to us with valuables like goldand other precious stones, to scrape together an education fund for their kids. Customers are also getting younger these days. Some parents can’t afford to give their kids lunch money, so it’s not uncommon to see 12-year-olds trying to pawn their phones. About 20 years ago, a man tried to rob us. He charged into our store with a hammer and tried to break the display cabinet where we put our jewelry. He went at it for a while but he just couldn’t break it. He ran away, but came back a minute later for a second attempt. He didn’t stop until we threatened to call the police. In the end, we had to buy a new cabinet because he’d cracked the surface.
Wow! What are some other customers like?
Jeffrey Hung: Some customers pop in because they’re in urgent need of cash. But then there are those who want to rip us off. They try to distract us by flooding us with unrelated questions, so we cannot focus on judging the authenticity of what they’re pawning. One time, I was tricked into pawning a fake diamond for thousands of dollars: It turned out to be crystal. We also get lots of gangsters and druggies. Maybe that has something to do with this district. Sometimes, they’ll try our patience with badly made fake watches. We pretend to examine them before sending them away. One time, a triad member who didn’t seem to be doing well framed us for damaging his bracelet. We knew it wasn’t our fault, but we helped him repair it anyway just to stay out of trouble. In this business, we try our best to steer clear of complications.
There must be some good news too!
Jeffrey Hung: A few weeks ago, an ex-druggie who had been a customer came in and started telling us the story of how he had quit drugs and how supportive his family was. He just wanted to update us on his condition, because he was glad that we never looked down on him.
Are you going to inherit the shop, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Hung: If I can, yes. After all, with all the effort I’ve put into this business, it’s only natural that I want to stay here. It’s hard to make big bucks, but it’s a stable job.