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Staying In a Dead-End Job: Meet the Last Lady of Mahjong

The Nerdy Travelholic

Staying in a dead-end job that pays lower than minimum wage might seem like madness to most of us, but not to the last Mahjong-carving lady in Hong Kong. We take a trip with guest blogger The Nerdy Travelholic to meet the mysterious lady behind one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most traditional arts, to find out why.

I visited the soon-to-be-redeveloped Hung Hom old town district and stopped at a tiny shop under the staircase of a Tong Lau, which means a tenement building in Cantonese. These were commonly built in Hong Kong in the 1960s and this is where I met Sister Mei, the last Mahjong-carving lady in Hong Kong.

Craving the Chinese character, 萬, on a Mahjong Tile

Sister Mei (or Ho Sau-Mei in Cantonese) runs an ultra-tiny under stair shop in the neighbourhood where she sells and repairs handcraft Mahjong tiles. She is one of the three remaining Mahjong carvers in town and the only female carver among her male counterparts.

The shop is owned by her family and Mei has been working there since she was 13 years old, but the past fifty years of advanced technology development, which has introduced automated carving machines and laser cutting machines, has meant that demand for handcarved Mahjong tiles has plummeted like a one-way roller coaster.

But this tiny place is more than just a workplace for Mei. “I could have changed my career in the 90s, but I decided to stay,” she told me. “All my childhood memories are here and I feel the need to preserve this traditional art. I also can’t imagine what it would feel like to be retired. It sounds boring as hell!”

Currently the shop can’t make her a living as her average monthly income is just $4,000, which is even lower than the minimum wage in Hong Kong. She receives media invitations for paid-appearances from time to time, including some big names from Mainland China, but she kindly rejects the invitations if travel is required.

 Any difference between a handcarved tile and a machine-carved(laser-cut) one? Look at the detail and smoothness of stokes.

“Why?” I screamed a bit inside, but maintained my monotone voice.

“I prefer to stay in my neighbourhood,” she said. “I could make some quick cash out of those TV shows, but I would lose the chance to talk to my customers. They are like my old friends instead.”

“I will give my honest insight to young people who are fascinated by this art and who want to get into this industry as their career. This is not the career that can make them money, and young people have the right to learn this fact before getting into this industry,” she added. “Instead, I don’t recommend young people to join. I have to be honest, this job has no future as a money-making career. Hong Kong is a place where money can talk.”

Sister Mei’s shop will have to close down when the urban redevelopment scheme is brought in by the Government and just two streets away, shops are already closing down and residents are moving out.

“Will you stay? Like … until the very last day of this shop?” I asked.

“Why not! There are many reasons for a person to leave a career. Salary is usually not the main reason unless a person is facing an extreme financial hardship, which is not my case. Salary is just an excuse people nowadays love to use (when they have been asked the reason why they would leave their job). If you have the passion, you can overcome a lot of difficulties. Of course, it takes extra courage to stay in a dead-end career like mine,” Mei laughed.

Sister Mei occasionally helps local NGOs for cultural workshops and shares this dying art with the public. She has my deepest respect. I always have a feeling that striking a balance between urban development and conservation isn’t that impossible.

Visit Sister Mei herself at Shop Address: 2 Bulkeley Street, Hung Hom, Kowloon.

Please note, there are no official business hours, but visitors should have a good chance to see Sister Mei there from 11:30am – 6pm daily.

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