Editor’s Note: Lindsay Varty is a Hong Kong-based journalist and professional rugby player. The following is an edited excerpt from her book “Sunset Survivors,” accompanied by photos by Gary Jones.
From fortune tellers to professional letter writers, many of Hong Kong’s street-savvy, traditional entrepreneurs have devoted their entire lives to ancient and increasingly forgotten practices.
These tenacious tradesmen and women – however clandestine against the city’s frantic urban backdrop – are essential ingredients in Hong Kong’s cultural identity.
But with almost no willing successors, skyrocketing rents and little chance of competing with larger companies, simply surviving has proven almost impossible. Along with photographer Gary Jones, I captured a glimpse of the hardy few who have battled the odds and continue to run their businesses today.
Mak Ping Lam, traditional seal maker
Despite having been in the seal-making business for half a century, Mak Ping Lam keeps his tools simple: a few rusty knives, a small wooden vice, one scrap of sandpaper and the bottom half of a soda can, which he uses as an ink tray.
Chinese seals, or ‘chops,’ were used as a form of identification for legal papers, bank transfers and documents requiring authorship. In mainland China and Taiwan, they are still used on checks in lieu of a signature, though not in Hong Kong.
To make a seal, Mak drafts a 2-square-centimeter (0.6-square-inch) design, and draws a mirror image of it onto the base of the seal. Only then can he begin to etch it into stone.
“Some fortune tellers tell people to come here, make a chop to put on their desk and they will get good luck,” he said. “I don’t know if it works or not.”
Au-yeung Ping-chi, paper effigy maker
Burning paper effigies as offerings to the deceased is a common religious practice in Hong Kong. Artists carefully bend thin strips of bamboo into various shapes, before coating them with joss paper and paint.
For ten hours every day, effigy maker Au-yeung Ping-chi hand-makes some of the most detailed and often bizarre paper designs found in Hong Kong. From food, clothes and houses, to laptops and even full-sized massage chairs, he produces replicas of items that customers hope will join their loved ones in the afterlife.
Over the years, Au-yeung has seen people’s requests change, from simpler pleasures like shoes to more modern items, like Nintendo Gameboys.
“People in the past were simpler – they didn’t need much even when they were alive,” he said.
“When I die, I would like some cars, houses and a hi-fi system … A super deluxe seven-foot-long Mercedes-Benz and Porsche will do.”
Luk Shu Choi and Luk Keung Choi, copperware craftsmen
In the 1950s and 1960s, most Hong Kong families used copperware pots, pans and kettles. But the material was gradually replaced by stainless steel, which is easier to clean and less reactive to acid.
Chinese herbal tea shops still choose copper over steel – as do some chefs, because of its ability to heat quickly and evenly. However, very few places in Hong Kong continue to make these products.
The Luk brothers learned the trade from their father, and they still work in the family’s old shop. It takes a full day to finish one pot, which they sell for about 700 Hong Kong dollars ($89). Their shop is brimming with handcrafted kitchenware, urns, door knockers and other trinkets.
“I cook with copper utensils,” older brother Luk Shu Choi said. “But I also like to use an electronic rice cooker as it’s really convenient. You can’t just stick with the old things; we also have to follow trends and the development of the world.”
Chan Lok Hoi, bamboo birdcage maker
Chan Lok Choi has been making birdcages since he was just 13 years old. Taught by his uncle and another famous cage-maker, Chan’s craft sees him bending bamboo rods into place, carving patterns or scriptures onto them and then painting the cage.
Taking caged birds to parks in the morning was once a common practice in Hong Kong. You would often see the cages hanging from trees, while owners read newspapers or played mahjong.
A handful of these bird-lovers can still be found today, either in the city’s parks or at the Yuen Po Bird Market, where Chan’s shop is located. But criticism from animal rights groups and the arrival of avian flu in 2012 – which led to caged birds being banned on public transport – have dampened this tradition.
“I would love to have an apprentice,” Chan said. “But no-one with a school education seems to be interested in learning these handicraft skills any more.”
William Kam, fortune teller
William Kam is a self-proclaimed, 100%-accurate face and palm reader. Located at the end of the Hong Kong’s famous Temple Street night market, Kam’s brightly-lit stall proudly displays his accreditation and 25 years of experience.
Soothsayers first set up shop on Temple Street the 1970s, offering everything from palm and tarot card readings to “bird fortune telling,” where a small wing-clipped bird would peck out your future from a deck of cards.
Kam expresses optimism about the future of his trade – perhaps he knows something we don’t.
“Twenty-two years ago, most of my customers were locals or people from (mainland) China, but now that this street is famous, I get people from all over the world. Tourists love it here. Hopefully that helps conserve this place.”
“I tell people the whole truth according to what I see, even if it’s bad news.”
Cheung Shun King, mahjong tile maker
Mahjong, a four-player game of skill and strategy, has been popular in Hong Kong for hundreds of years. It involves drawing and discarding tiles, each with a different character on it, to form winning hands.
Today, most people opt for factory-made tiles, but Cheung Shun King continues to carve and sell them from his family shop. He mostly replaces lost or damaged tiles, though he occasionally engraves and paints entire sets from scratch. These sets cost about 4,000 Hong Kong dollars ($510) and take months to complete.
Ironically, between work and his personal life, Cheung has never learned the game. “I would rather rest than learn how to play mahjong,” he said. “But my children love to play.”
“We can’t do anything to help the industry, as mechanic production is replacing us,” he added. “I foresee that all mahjong shops in Hong Kong will disappear (within) ten years.”
Kan Hon Wing, tailor
Established in the 1920s, Mei Wah Fashion is the oldest and last remaining tailor of its kind, specializing in traditional qipaos and cheongsams. Master tailor Kan Hon Wing grew up in the store, which was originally opened by his grandfather.
The qipao, or “Mandarin gown,” was once everyday attire in Hong Kong. They were worn by almost all women, regardless of social class, so tailors were in high demand. But nowadays, the garment is reserved for more formal occasions, such as banquets or weddings.
Every piece must meet Kan’s exacting standards, so it takes him more than a week to make one qipao. But with shrinking trade comes exclusivity: While a qipao in the 1920s could cost as little as one Hong Kong Dollar (13 cents), Kan’s dresses today sell for up to 20,000 Hong Kong dollars ($2,549).
“Every qipao is unique,” he said. “Tailors need to be very detail-minded. I will give people suggestions if their ‘dream qipao’ is too ugly.”
Leung Lo Yik (Chen Kau), letter writer
Letter writing was a profitable business in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, when the city’s literacy rate was as low as 60%. Professional letter writers would help people contact relatives overseas, write legal documents and fill out forms or applications.
But with the introduction of compulsory education, and the rapid evolution of technology, demand has fallen. There may now be fewer than 10 professional letter writers in the city.
One of them, Chen Kau, has a handful of regular customers who he helps with tax forms, welfare applications or visas. Most days, he has none at all, so sits reading the newspaper or chatting.
“The development of technology like smartphones and computers is the biggest enemy of our industry,” he said. “But at the same time, it is essential for a city or any society to improve with time. There must be some jobs that are replaced or even eliminated.”
Wu Ding Keung, stencil maker
Stencil making is among Hong Kong’s oldest trades and was once a thriving industry. The delicate process requires a sharp eye, a steady hand and expert calligraphy skills.
Craftsmen first draw the Chinese characters onto thin iron sheets, then very carefully cut them out with a hammer and chisel. These hand-cut stencils were used for advertising, wall notices and shop signs, though they’ve have been largely replaced by digital or laser-cut alternatives.
Wu Ding Keung is among Hong Kong’s last stencil makers. Stooped over a small table with only a hammer and bag of chisels, the 82-year-old can go for days without seeing a single customer, but he continues working to keep himself busy.
“I’ve forgotten how long I’ve been working here, but I know I started before the handover of Hong Kong,” Wu said.
“I once helped a couple make a stencil for their wedding party. I liked that.”
Lo Sai Keung, photofinisher
In the 1990s, there were about 1,000 shops developing film around Hong Kong. Now, there are fewer than 50. Most shop owners responded to the demise of film by switching to digital cameras, lenses, photo processing or printing, but a few hardy shops still sell film and analog camera equipment to passionate enthusiasts.
Lo Sai Keung’s shop, Sunrise Professional Photofinishing, is packed with new and second-hand cameras dating as far back as the 1930s.
Nowadays, he develops about 20 to 30 rolls of film a day; however, in the 1970s and 1980s, he would process about 200 a day. Most of Lo’s customers are young, curious photography students looking to try their hand at analog photography.
“Hong Kong people love selfies,” he said. “You can still do them with film cameras although it’s harder and you would probably need a mirror.”
“Sunset Survivors,” published by Blacksmith Books, is available now.