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Eclectic old shops serve as time capsules of Hong Kong's past

Photographer, researcher document disappearing businesses to maintain cultural, historical links

By Oasis Hu in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-12 07:18
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The owner of She Wong Lam snake products shop in Hong Kong is seen with a serpent. TSUI PIU/FOR CHINA DAILY

Underestimated value

Ma Kei-lok, a 42-year-old who works in finance, is also trying to keep the old shops and their cultural significance alive.

In 2018, Ma founded Hong Kong Historical Shops, a nonprofit team dedicated to the preservation of the city's old shops, which today has about 15 volunteer workers.

There are over 1,500 shops in Hong Kong with a history of more than 50 years, and about 120 shops that have been in business for over a century, Ma discovered through his research. The old shops are mainly concentrated in the districts of Sheung Wan, Central, Yau Ma Tei, Tai Po, Yuen Long Kau Hui and Sham Shui Po.

The cultural value of old shops manifests itself in various ways, Ma said. A rich heritage might be evident in the architecture, signage, interior decorations, unique products or packaging business.

However, old shops might also possess a valuable intangible heritage such as manufacturing techniques with historical and cultural significance, he said.

Hong Kong soy sauce brand "I-Ho-Yuan Food Products" is an example of this. The 50-year-old shop is the sole one in China that uses the Fujian method to produce soy sauce, Ma said. With a history of over 2,000 years, Fujian soy sauce is renowned for its robust bean flavor but is now at risk of vanishing.

Ma said the shop stands as the remaining guardian of this soy sauce production method.

The old shops and businesses have also added context and color to many Hong Kong movies and TV shows, Tsui said. Jumbo Kingdom, for example, a well-known floating restaurant which shut its doors in 2020 provided a backdrop for numerous movies, including Enter the Dragon (1973) starring Bruce Lee, and the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

However, in recent years, Hong Kong has witnessed a significant decline in the number of its old shops with the situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ma said the owners said the main reason they closed was the lack of a successor, or the unwillingness of inheritors to keep the business open.

Tsui identified other factors, such as competition from large chains, supermarkets, and online shops. Mass production of traditionally handmade products like matches, umbrellas, and mahjong tiles has also contributed to the closures.

Changes to policies and regulations relating to certain goods, such as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government implementing a law banning the sale of ivory, have also forced shops to shut.

In addition, urban renewal and redevelopment driving up property prices and rent, has made it unprofitable for some old shops to continue doing business.

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