City Weekend

The small family businesses keeping the collective memory of Hong Kong alive

From corner grocery stores to medicinal halls and bicycle repair shops, these are the sunset trades fighting to remain relevant amid the changing times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 6:54pm

In an old dusty Hong Kong neighbourhood in Sai Ying Pun, one can catch a whiff of dried seafood and Chinese herbs in the air. Scattered along Queen’s Road West are some traditional stores, and among them is Chan Fun Kee, a pharmacy with wooden drawers stocked with herbal tonics and soup bases.

One of the oldest of its kind in the city, the place is now run by fifth-generation owner Chan Bing-him, 37, who took over the business from his father only three years ago. “It’s mostly about family,” he says.

Chan migrated to New Zealand with his mother and brother in 1997, where he finished his studies and worked as a civil servant. But when his father decided to retire, he quit his job and came back to Hong Kong.

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Chan’s father and grandparents had insisted he return to inherit the family business.

Not every traditional family trade in Hong Kong, a land-starved city with sky-high property prices and a creeping urban sprawl of malls and high-rises, can count on continuity like the Chans.

Changing eras and consumer tastes have led to small family businesses in the former British colony being caught in a balancing act for survival – adapting to modern times and yet retaining some of that old-world charm that is part of the collective memory of Hongkongers.

In March this year, the Urban Renewal Authority announced a development scheme in Sai Ying Pun aiming to provide about 189 flats and a commercial block, which is expected to be finished by 2029.

Chan Fun Kee, which has already moved three times in the past, is among the 12 buildings on the government’s list that will be affected by the scheme.

“We will need to move out for sure, maybe within several years,” Chan says. “I am already looking for a new address, but for now I still don’t know where we can go.”

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Although Chan hopes to stay in Sai Ying Pun, he says it is unlikely because of the lack of places with affordable rent in the district and the sharp increase of overall rents in recent years. He currently pays HK$50,000 (US$6,400) a month for his shop.

A grandchild’s promise

Despite the challenges, Chan intends to stick to his guns with his family’s 155-year-old pharmacy. “After all, Hong Kong is my birthplace so that’s why I came back home,” he says. His mother, 68-year-old Teng Shu-yen, describes her son’s choice as “a big sacrifice”.

“I told him: you’ve promised your grandma ever since you were a kid. It’s the kind of promise you just can’t break!” Teng says, laughing.

Chan Fun Kee’s golden era was when Chan’s grandfather was in charge, the period before China’s policy to reform and open up in 1978, because Hong Kong was the trade hub for herbs being imported and exported out of the region.

[Visiting our store] is also a family thing for customers. I really wish we can remain in the area
Chan Bing-him, Chan Fun Kee pharmacy

Teng recalls that they once had as many as 45 employees during that period, and her husband constantly made trips to the mainland in search of the best supplies. Nowadays, they can only afford to hire three helpers, with Teng staying in the store to help her son.

According to her, a lot of Chinese medicinal stores in the city now focus on wholesale rather than retail to survive, which inevitably leads to price competition. “Some new customers would come and complain about how expensive our products are. Then I usually say, it’s OK if you don’t buy them,” Teng says.

“We stick to our values: serve the right and the best medicine to our customers.”

Chan says local demand for herbal medicine has been declining in recent years. “Hong Kong people nowadays are very keen on saving money. When it comes to purchasing tonics, they tend to count their money first,” he says.

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Most of the pharmacy’s frequent visitors are those who are living or have lived in the neighbourhood. Some came to the store with their parents in their childhood, Chan says.

“[Visiting our store] is also a family thing for customers. I really wish we can remain in the area.”

YouTube plus a human touch

Meanwhile, in Yau Ma Tei, Chung Hon-keung, the owner of a bicycle repair shop has witnessed changes in his neighbourhood over the past five decades. The 70-something Chung logs on to YouTube to keep up with the latest bike brands, gear and functions.

Wing Hing Bike Repair is a modest 200 sq ft store packed with all manner of hardware and bicycle parts. Chung’s hands are calloused and greasy from his work, but business is still healthy – Wing Hing has a top reputation in the area.

“There have been times when a client would come in with a bike put together in ways I have never seen before. I will go online to learn the repair methods,” he says.

“Because if you don’t gain more knowledge, other businesses will get ahead of you.

“I started out with some basic repairs and maintenance at the store my dad owned when I was just a teenager, and I haven’t stopped since.”

Chung recalls the early days when he would sleep at the back of his shop and sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning, there would be incessant banging on the shutters.

It’s not about profitability but having that human touch
Chung Hon-keung, Wing Hing Bike Repair

“They were delivery workers who needed their bikes fixed before heading to work for the day,” he says.

“Of course we would get up to help – for everyone who comes to our door, we will do our best, and, sometimes for free too.”

Amid evolving bike-sharing services and big chain stores, it may not be such a bad idea to stay vintage in terms of services, according to Chung.

“Hospitality is the key. It’s not about profitability but having that human touch.”

Corner shop charm

Over in Sham Shui Po, Kwan Kee Si-do, a 34-year-old shop in the neighbourhood, is one of the last old-school grocery-and-drinks stalls in the city. Called si do in Cantonese – a loanword from English that phonetically sounds like “store” – such shops used to be ubiquitous and are remembered fondly by older Hongkongers.

Usually located on street corners or roadsides, they are crammed with snacks, daily necessities and fridges stocked with drinks.

Perhaps a reason Kwan Kee Si-do has kept up with the times is because it sells home-made puddings in flavours such as red bean and sesame. It has become a cult favourite among foodies.

“[Puddings] are our main selling point now. The money we make from groceries is only a supplement that can barely cover the electricity bill,” owner Fu Wing-cheung, 63, says.

Located near bustling crossroads next to the MTR station, Fu’s corner shop sports two storefronts facing different streets – one for selling the famed puddings in bamboo baskets, and the other hawking the usual si do fare of beers, soft drinks and cigarettes.

While the pudding side is usually filled with customers, the other storefront is much quieter.

“Had we depended solely on groceries, this shop would have closed ages ago,” Fu says.

Si do shops were a common sight throughout Hong Kong from the 1960s to 1970s, until supermarket chains rolled in.

Fu says previous residents who have moved out will still come back to visit his shop just for old times’ sake. “We are pretty much the only si do left in this district.”

Its future, however, remains uncertain.

Fu says his children are not keen to take over the business, “because they are too educated to do this kind of toiling work”.

“If the day comes when I reach a certain age, and my children have all grown up, then I will simply retire,” he says. “Don’t say I’m shutting this place down; I’m just letting it retire too.”