Journey to Yau Ma Tei: Hong Kong student artist’s detailed ink-wash painting tells the stories of 54 shops, landmarks

  • Inspired by an old man fishing by the West Kowloon promenade, 21-year-old Lam Suet-ying wanted to depict Yau Tsim Mong district as a tribute to its craftspeople
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Kelly Fung |

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Hong Kong artist Lam Suet-ying created an ink-wash painting that features 54 stores and landmarks in Yau Tsim Mong district. Photo: Kelly Fung

While roaming Hong Kong’s Yau Tsim Mong district last year, Lam Suet-ying saw an old man fishing against the backdrop of a glittering sea at sunset.

This scene spurred the artist to pick up a brush. After observing the district, Lam painted 54 shops and landmarks in the areas of Jordan, Yau Ma Tei and West Kowloon as a tribute to the city’s unsung craftspeople.

“People often set their eyes on the glamorous side of the city ... Who notices a lone fisherman when most care only about places to check in?” said the student, 21, at The Education University of Hong Kong (EdU).

“I hope people can pay more attention to the old shops that are often overlooked, instead of just the newly-opened stores or places to eat.”

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Earlier this year, Lam’s ink-wash painting titled Journey to Yau Ma Tei – though it also includes other parts of Yau Tsim Mong district – was displayed at the Arts Pavilion in West Kowloon, as part of the Community Art Exhibition organised by EdU and the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Lam’s artwork combines the traditional Chinese ink-wash technique with a modern cartoon style to visualise the community’s unique character. For example, the artist illustrated a knight in armour to represent Chan Wah Kee Cutlery Store in Jordan.

“The suit of armour embodies the shop’s resilient and hard-working spirit,” she explained.

“Journey to Yau Ma Tei” by Lam Suet-ying. Photo: Handout

Painting memories of Yau Tsim Mong

“I hope when people look at my painting, it inspires them to observe the community and thus evokes their memories of the district,” said Lam.

One corner depicts the deified Chinese military general Guan Yu wielding a blade to repel cockroaches. This scene is a nod to two shops: pesticide store Ming Kee Seeds, which has images of pests on its storefront, and Kwok Kee Wood Ware Sculpture, a shop decorated with small statues of Chinese deities.

“When I was young, the storefronts of these two shops often scared me ... but now, I find them visually stunning,” the artist shared.

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Having lived in Jordan for most of her life, Lam did not realise how the area had changed until starting her quest to explore every street in Yau Tsim Mong.

A few landmarks that have already disappeared in real life can still be found in Lam’s painting. One example is the now-demolished Yau Ma Tei Car Park Building, which was known for its spectacular view and for having a flyover that passed through its “belly”.

“Some of the stores [and landmarks] in the painting have already gone ... it really is a shame that many of these traditional shops are disappearing,” Lam said.

The Gascoigne Road Flyover, part of the West Kowloon Corridor, passed through the Yau Ma Tei Car Park Building, which was built in 1957 and demolished in 2021. Photo: Nathan Tsui

Community scavenger hunt

Lam’s artwork is also meant to be a scavenger hunt.

Emulating the British series of puzzle books, Where’s Wally?, the artist created an illustrated list that explains all 54 locations in the painting and encourages viewers to find them. “Where’s Wally? is also part of the inspiration for sparking interaction in my art ... it’s a game I used to play a lot in the library,” she shared.

Besides telling the community’s stories, Lam has also hidden in the painting two cartoon cats – White Sugar and Brown Sugar symbolise her joy and sorrow.

“The cats represent something I recalled when I arrived at the places where they are located in the painting,” the artist explained.

White Sugar’s location brings back memories of walking with her Form Four class teacher to school in the mornings – this teacher had encouraged Lam to open up about her feelings and pursue art. Brown Sugar is placed near the home of an old friend as Lam had lost contact with her after primary school.

Lam Suet-ying has created an illustrated guide to her painting of shops and landmarks in Yau Tsim Mong district. Photo: Handout

Tradition revived with innovation

With a penchant for art since she was young, it was only last year that Lam ventured into ink-wash painting following her art teacher’s encouragement.

Though Lam had been bubbly in her primary school years, she became quite shy after being cyberbullied in secondary school. It was art that motivated the pupil to express herself by creating her own world.

“I did not have much faith in people, so I wanted to draw the world I see ... I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to people except for teachers because they would not hurt me,” she said, adding that her teachers inspired her to study art education to help others like herself.

Lam shared that her next piece would feature Haw Par Mansion in Tai Hang. The current tenants of the grade one historic building are set to return it to the government in December.

The young artist said she would continue making art to safeguard Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.

“Even some shops I did not know existed until they were about to close,” Lam added, wishing she could have included a few more closed shops in the painting.

“I hope these traditional old shops and buildings can survive or perhaps revive their business through incorporating new elements ... just like this traditional ink wash painting has innovative elements.”

Click here for a printable worksheet and interactive exercises about this story.

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