16 Jun So Long, Neighbourhood Stores: Capturing Two Years’ Worth of Change in Sai Ying Pun
The opening of the SYP Neighbourhood Museum. Featuring 16 of the local community’s most beloved tradesmen and businesses, the pride and joy of their fellow neighbours, in a storytelling app, map and a pop-up exhibition. These people and places were handpicked amongst many to be shared with an international audience worldwide, with all 16 of them a true indicator of Sai Ying Pun’s history and authentic community spirit. Among these local gems are Kwong Lam Kee, your friendly neighbourhood homeware store, and Chi Loy Heung, a household choice for freshly baked egg rolls; both have a history spanning over half a decade.
Now, barely two years later, when you search for these two places on Google, you’ll find a ‘Permanently closed’ page standing between you and an authentic, local experience. Disappointment hits as you realize that you won’t get to try Chi Loy Heung’s freshly baked pastries, or find treasures in a vast array of traditional homewares at Kwong Lam Kee. Standing at the place where these beloved stores still should have been, you are left staring at new storefronts, struggling to identify traces of any familiar faces. Welcome to Hong Kong, the city of change.
1. Immortalized in Memory: Kwong Lam Kee
Kwong Lam Kee was a go-to store for everyday dinnerware and last-minute wedding gifts. When walking into the dimly-lit, cramped store, you’d find yourself surrounded by China and porcelain, iconic fixtures at every traditional dinner table.
The last shopkeeper of Kwong Lam Kee, Mrs Kwong, took over the store in 1997, the very year Hong Kong assumed its autonomous status. It can very well be said that this is truly a store that has witnessed the ever-changing state of Hong Kong.
Kwong Lam Kee, one of the last of its kind in Hong Kong, closed for good in November 2018, a few short months after the Sai Ying Pun App x Map community mapping project was launched. In the stead of the traditional homeware store is now Bargain Mart, a wholesale store sourcing international goods.
2. Lost in Transition: Chi Loy Heung Egg Rolls
locate the small bakery amidst the array of stores huddled together on Third Street, Sai Ying Pun. Chi Loy Heung was one of the few businesses that stayed true to the old method of working with a grill. The shop’s bakers perfected each individual egg roll to a crunch by hand, instead of adopting large-scale manufacturing methods.
Every Chinese New Year or festive season, crowds used to line up around the block since the early morning, scrambling to get their hands on the local delicacy. Alas, with the continuous development of Sai Ying Pun, Chi Loy Heung succumbed to the increasing rental prices in the area and closed down in late 2018.
In late 2019, Chi Loy Heung relocated to its new location at the end of Third Street. However, its signature storefront and familiarity are a thing of the past.
Finding The Balance: Cultural Displacement X Urban Revitalisation
Tucked away amongst Hong Kong’s ever-developing infrastructure and towering skyline are the city’s authentic local trades; hidden gems loved by locals and visitors alike. Sai Ying Pun, a fishing port in the colonial days, is home to some of the last few remnants of the previous era. Cramped tenement buildings and traditional brick-and-mortar stores built in the last century are still well and alive in this small Sai Wan neighbourhood; storeowners of ground-level properties earn a living in the daytime and walk upstairs to retire for the night. For many kai fong (people of the same neighbourhood), their entire lives revolve around the same few streets and familiar faces.
Sai Ying Pun only got an MTR station in 2015. The inconvenience of it being not as easy to reach has allowed the area to retain much of its character and identity for a relatively long time. Alas, newfound accessibility comes with change. Even though Sai Ying Pun used to be relatively undeveloped compared to some of its counterparts, the neighbourhood’s heartwarming and familiar sceneries are increasingly becoming a rarity.
The community spirit in today’s Sai Ying Pun is no longer as prevalent as it was a decade or two ago: animated, leisurely conversations between kai fong have made way for brisk footsteps to accommodate the fast pace Hong Kong is notorious for. In the mere two years since iDiscover’s Sai Ying Pun project was launched to document the local community’s most treasured living heritage sites and traditional storefronts, much of Sai Ying Pun has already become unrecognisable to the older community.
Along with Hong Kong’s progress to becoming an international hub and financial centre came the tragic loss of culture and heritage. ‘Modernity’ and ‘convenience’ are largely favoured over rustic, weathered buildings. Reliable old neighbourhood joints are replaced by fleeting illusions of businesses that are there one second and gone the next; along with their elderly clientele, the last generation that can tell stories of what the community was like in the days before technology and development. Ever since Sai Ying Pun’s MTR stop opened, rental and property prices have been on the upsurge, drastically altering the familiar front of the place.
Under the financial strain of rising rent and influx of visitors, traditional Chinese storefronts and signs are slowly replaced by hipster cafes and bars catering to middle-class locals and international immigrants. To these new residents and visitors, Sai Ying Pun is the perfect blend of traditional and modern, a quiet enough getaway from Hong Kong’s busy, central business districts that still retains its attractive authenticity of local culture and human touch.
One day a storefront, a memory, a person is there – and the next it’s not. In today’s ever-changing world, where cultural permanence has become somewhat of a luxury, there is a growing emphasis on heritage preservation and cultural awareness. We strive to prolong a sense of familiarity to strengthen our identity and take pride in it. For Hong Kong, this familiarity exists in the streets, stores and neighbourhoods that have managed to hide away from real estate development and the continuously rising market prices, and hold on to remnants of the olden days.
To the majority of today’s younger generation, discovering old neighbourhoods is an adventure. Si6 do1 (士多), traditional Hong Kong convenience stores, are foreign compared to the omnipresent 7-11’s and Circle K’s. Handmade pastries and food are exotic to eyes used to seeing mass-produced goods. Surprisingly, it is the young that are more hesitant to let go of tradition than the elderly – perhaps because they are likely to be the last generation to witness the shared identity of this side of Hong Kong.
“To us, this isn’t anything new or extraordinary; it’s just a way of life. All we want is a simple, authentic life. And as ordinary citizens, it’s not up to us to control what the future holds,” says a shop associate at Chi Loy Heung, who has lived in Sai Ying Pun her entire life. Faced with the rapid progression of society, the older generation takes each day as it is — the legacy of historic Hong Kong lives on in their memories.
Today, it is no longer a matter of if, but when the last few remnants of old Hong Kong becomes but a distant memory. As even Sai Ying Pun begins to succumb to urban development and societal progression, it won’t be long before the last traditional craftsmen are replaced by large-scale industrial manufacturers, and more skyscrapers will dot the landscape, each taller than the last.
Words and visuals by Lena Huang
Lena is a student in the field of Media and Communications and a summer intern at iDiscover. She is a digital media artist passionate about telling stories that matter, and an advocate for wielding media influence as a tool for change. Discover more about her projects on LinkedIn.
iDiscover Neighbourhood Mapping & Storytelling Internship Project
This story is part of a 2-week iDiscover Internship Project. Under our mentorship, a group of recent high school graduates and undergraduate students unveiled the historical layers in three old Hong Kong neighbourhoods: Kennedy Town, Shek Tong Tsui and Sai Ying Pun. They learnt the stories of old streets, long-time residents and popular shopkeepers, and dived deep into the local culture and living heritage. Zooming in to neighbourhood level, the student interns set out to discover and analyse what makes this city unique, and published their observations in the form of blogs, vlogs, an app route, and a place identity report.
Want to do this at your school, university, or in your community?
You can with iDiscover Academy! We now offer tailored toolkits for school teachers, university educators, community leaders, planners and place-makers. We want to enable you to map what matters in your neighbourhood together with your students/community members, and help you share it on our digital publishing platform. Consolidating what we have learnt mapping over 50 neighbourhoods across Asia in the past six years, we have designed a streamlined 6-step methodology that is inclusive, fast and fun, with easy-to-use templates, a clean interface and instructional videos. Our hope is to share our experiences and learnings, empower like-minded organisations and individuals to #keepheritagealive. Head to the iDiscover Academy website to have a look at the different packages available and check out case studies across Asia.
Find out what Discover Academy is all about, and be one of the first to receive the free, 50-page toolkit.
Featuring hidden gems, popular local hotspots and surprising sites in neighbourhoods across Asia, our locally curated and free app & map are designed for you to #getlostwithoutgettinglost. More than that, they help you to ‘travel good’ by spending your money locally and responsibly.