Snapshots of old town

Mabel Sieh

A trio of young designers are preserving the fast-fading visual memories of Tai Tok Tsui

Mabel Sieh |

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Designer Jino Yeung Yuet-yan (right) and her colleague Kelly Lam Ka-yi with their project on Tai Kwok Tsui.
An elderly woman is picking up styrofoam waste to sell for recycling. This image has become a focus for a group of young artists wanting to capture the elusive essence of Tai Kok Tsui, one of Hong Kong's poorest and oldest areas.

Most residents in the area, on the west side of Kowloon Peninsula, are senior citizens. They live among the jumble of shops and light industry, where a warehouse stands right next to dim sum shops, a photographer's studio and a funeral home.

It's this curious blend of the timeless and the transient that captivates graphic artist Jino Yeung Yuet-yan. She wants to preserve the area's unique culture for future generations - on postcards and in calendars.

"All the shops are so old and random there," says the 29-year-old art director. "It's like going back in time. The people relate to each other in a very personal way."

Her Cheers Design studio's "I Discover You in Tai Kok Tsui" project is part of the government-funded DesignSmart Initiative. The initiative provides funding for young designers' innovative projects.

Yeung launched her small graphic design company in 2008 at some rented space in an old factory in Tai Kok Tsui. She became attached. "Every day I'd pass by the same streets and meet the same people living their lives or running their businesses," she recalls. "One day it suddenly dawned on me that I should record as much as I could about Tai Kok Tsui before it's too late."

She and the other two young graphic designers at her company set about taking snapshots of people and documenting their daily activities. They drew sketches and listened to old shopkeepers telling stories and reminiscing.

Then one day, an elderly woman collecting stacks of styrofoam blocks turned up. She sells them for her meagre daily income.

"I began taking pictures of her," says 20-year-old Kelly Lam Ka-yi, a fresh graduate with a diploma in graphic design now working at Yeung's company. "I felt so sad seeing her having to do this for a living. This little old woman was pushing her cart with all those blocks that towered above her."

The neighbourhood offers a myriad of such sights.

A middle-aged couple has been running a traditional photo studio in the area for three decades. "They're happy just chatting to their customers," Yeung says. "For them, it's not about making money."

A local street hawker, meanwhile, sells fish balls in a full chef's outfit. Like a chef in a five-star restaurant, he takes great pride in his food. "The area is simply fascinating," Yeung says.

The old woman scavenging for recyclable styrofoam, the couple in the old photo shop, the pavement fish-ball chef - they have all become mainstays of Yeung's designs for her products.

Each of her postcards carries some interesting details about the person featured in it. "We're working on a book to be published next year," she says. "It will contain aspects of Tai Kok Tsui that are at risk of disappearing forever."

Because of the planned Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail, the area is bound to lose some of its old-world charm, she says. "With my project, I hope to make a record, to keep alive memories. I want to remind people of what Tai Kok Tsui used to be like - of what Hong Kong used to be like."

Her work is far from done yet. Once work on Tai Kok Tsui has been wrapped up, the designer will take on another grand project.

"I want to document life in another old district, probably To Kwa Wan," she says.