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City Weekend

Hong Kong illustrator Or Wai-wai draws on love affair with Yau Ma Tei area for inspiration

Having spent her whole life in the neighbourhood, Or Wai-wai knows every alley like the back of her hand and couldn’t live without the area’s famed wholesale fruit market

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 3:03pm

Hong Kong’s gritty Yau Ma Tei area, more known for its gang fights than arts, is also a place illustrator Or Wai-wai calls home.

Having spent her whole life there, she knows every alley like the back of her hand. Or and her parents have lived on the fifth floor of a building overlooking Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market for as long as she can remember.

“Yau Ma Tei is so much more than some kind of ghetto. I was born and raised here, it has shaped me into the person I am today so I feel like I owe her a favour, ” the 20-something-year-old says.

Last year, she put her fondness for the neighbourhood into a compilation of artworks and published a book called A Love Letter to Yau Ma Tei, which consists of 60 drawings and descriptions.

Known for her ability to render visuals into paintings, the former graphic designer quit her job at an in-house project management company in 2016 because she didn’t see a future in her career.

“The old job limited my creativity because of the constant need to oblige clients’ requests. I didn’t want to work on someone else’s demands any more.”

She spent the next year exploring her neighbourhood, from the cluttered understairs shops to her favourite stationery stores.

“It made me realise that we are so busy with our lives, we overlook the importance of our surroundings, including taking the time to chat with one another or having the urge to speak to the owners of your go-to pharmacy, bakery and locksmith store.”

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Over the year, she hung around seven different stores, including a bike repair shop and a portrait studio, observing their operations and listening to their owners’ backstories.

“I used to spend the whole afternoon sitting in the shops as the owners would tell me the stories of their lives,” she says.

“Unlike the chain department stores and supermarkets, their businesses don’t run on profit-oriented objectives. The humanity among these stores is eye-opening and it is also fascinating to see how they have all managed to survive all these years even with the increase in rents and competition.”

Through the years, Or has seen the area develop but one thing that hasn’t changed is the famed and historical fruit market.

The wholesale market, known as a fruit vendors’ heaven, is tucked into a corner of Waterloo Road and Reclamation Street. Every night at around 11, the work day is just beginning for fruit retailers as the rest of the city goes to sleep.

“I am so used to the sound of movers unloading boxes from the trucks onto the side of the street to sellers yelling and buyers haggling for high-quality fruits at the lowest possible price. It has been putting me to sleep since I was a baby.”

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Shirtless men dragging pallet jacks stacked with fruit boxes to their own stalls is another common sight.

“On nights when I come home late, walking through the neighbourhood is like an obstacle course. The streets are narrow because boxes tower over the pavement, leaving only a little room for pedestrians. And we also have to watch out for trucks and trolleys of boxes coming through the alleyways,” Or says as she elaborates on the usual routine.

Although she has never worked a day in the market, her proximity has turned her into somewhat of a fruit expert.

“Mangos are currently in season, but during the winter, it was cherries. And as the weather gets warmer, that is when durians will be perfectly ripe.”

As an observer of the market, the artist is pessimistic about its uncertain future.

As long ago as 1969 the government proposed to relocate the market, which was established in 1913, to Tsing Yi, because of its all-night operations and accusations of obstruction of roads and environmental nuisance. About two years ago a big fire broke out in the market and a number of stalls were burned.

“My house is right above the market. If the market goes, I go with it. I don’t see the need to move the market elsewhere when the whole community has already made its peace with it.”