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10 intangible Hong Kong cultural heritages to see before they vanish

By David Yeung 15 July 2020

Header image courtesy of CL3

Hong Kong, a city full of shimmering and flashing skyscrapers built right on top of each other, spanning the sky and placed right by a picturesque harbour; the neon signs that illuminate shops and buildings fill a one-way street, luring your senses towards them; iconic ruby red taxis zooming up and down streets, full of life and buzz. These are just some of the things that make this city so unique and inspirational. Hong Kong is a labyrinth of wonders but there is more to it than just its superficial sights and sounds.

Hong Kong is sweet, from the milky gustation of its local-style milk tea. Hong Kong is loud, with its dozens of drums beating in pulsating rhythm and chants piercing the sky as boats race towards the finish line during the Dragon Boat Festival. Hong Kong is serene, where skilled tai chi masters sway in coordination with branches and leaves in an emerald green park nestled within the urban jungle. These are some of the intangible things that Hong Kong has to offer, drawing people in day after day, time after time.

Unlike the buildings that are stacked on top of one another, designed to withstand the ravages of time, it is very difficult for culture and intangible objects to be preserved. Without proficient and continuous effort, Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage could be lost forever. Here are 10 intangible heritages you should check out and see while you still can, as they may one day disappear from Hong Kong society. 

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Photo credit: West Kowloon Cultural District (Facebook)
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Cantonese opera

Cantonese opera is one of the major and distinct categories of Chinese opera. It is a topic of speculation when this art form started its course, but many consider it to be a product of migration that can be traced back to the late Southern Song dynasty, during which opera was brought from the northern part of China to the southern province of Guangdong. It is also generally thought that Cantonese opera had evolved from Nanxi, a “Southern Drama” that was performed in public theatres in Hangzhou in the twelfth century. This traditional Chinese art form involves painstaking routines of singing, dancing, martial arts, acrobats, and acting, and is a fascinating spectacle of elaborate costumes, movement, and music.

In the 1950s and beyond, immigrants from Shanghai found refuge in Hong Kong, most notably in neighbourhoods such as North Point. With their arrival, the Cantonese opera fan-base experienced a boost in popularity, as Shanghai then boasted a well-developed Cantonese opera culture (the direct result of a programme established by prominent Guangdong businessmen and clansmen associations to sponsor different activities). New platforms were created to promote Cantonese opera releases and theatrical shows, creating an interest among the Hong Kong audience. Gradually, Cantonese opera became a well-loved daily entertainment activity and theatres were formed, including the notable Lee Theatre and stages such as Tai Ping Theatre, Ko Shing Theatre, Palladium Theatre, Astor Theatre (or former Po Hing Theatre), Kai Tak Amusement Park, and Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park.

However, as Hong Kong’s film and television industry began its meteoric rise in the 1960s, the popularity of Cantonese opera began to decline. Today this once-beloved entertainment genre is slowly fading away, having fallen out of favour amongst the younger generation. Hong Kong’s Sunbeam Theatre is one of the last facilities that is still standing to exhibit this Cantonese opera, and one of the few places left in Hong Kong to have the ultimate Cantonese opera experience. Newer facilities tasked with the objective of preserving this art form include Xiqu Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Ko Shan Theatre.

Learn more about the history, culture, and meanings behind Chinese opera here.

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Bamboo theatre & scaffolding

Hong Kong’s skyline may be famous for its endless concrete and glass, but have you ever seen one made entirely out of bamboo? On the birthdays of Chun Kwun and Tin Hau in the third and fourth month of the lunar calendar, dozens of places around Hong Kong will play host to entire theatres made out of bamboo scaffolding, where fleeting Cantonese opera shows are waiting to happen. Days later, these theatres are completely deconstructed, leaving no trace.

As a cheap, highly durable, and light material compared to metal scaffolding, bamboo has always been a valued commodity in Hong Kong and parts of Asia. Bamboo is also important to Chinese culture, as it is a symbol of strength and peacefulness. Such scaffolding was mainly used to help build smaller buildings before the colonial era. However, as the city developed, bamboo scaffolding did as well, making its mark as an indelible part of Hong Kong. For example, did you know that the first racecourse pavilion in Happy Valley was made of bamboo until it burned down in 1918? Aside from being used to construct stages, there is also a tradition for using such structures for things like banquets and venues for various purposes.

These days, you can still spot temporary bamboo theatres in rural villages across Hong Kong during the Tin Hau Festival, usually around coastal settlements. Sai Kung, Po Toi, High Island, and Peng Chau are notable locales where you can glimpse these bamboo giants rise.

Photo credit: Richard Mortel (Wikimedia Commons)
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Ancestral worship of clans

Scattered all throughout the New Territories are families and lineages that run deep in Hong Kong history. Long before Hong Kong became a colony of Great Britain, it was a small fishing village and a lot of Hongkongers can trace their family roots back to ancestors who moved down from mainland China. Among them, there are five clans that settled early, whose genealogies still run strong in the New Territories: the Tang, the Man, the Hau, the Pang, and the Liu clans.

Kinship and family lineage is a very strong value in southern Chinese culture. Collectively referred to as the Five Great Clans of the New Territories, each family clan has its own heritage and history, making them very distinctive from one another, but one thing that unites them is their tradition of ancestral reverence. Worshipping is done in the clans’ ancestral halls, and all five clans share a deep-seated belief that practising these rites will bestow blessings.

The unique local custom of ancestral worship usually takes place during the first few days of the lunar calendar and is considered an important village activity. Among the five clans, some still follow the practices of cooking and eating the offered food after the worshipping ceremony and speaking in wai tau (walled village) dialects during the rituals. For example, within the Liu clan, the first day of spring worship sees a tableful of offerings placed before the ancestral shrine. Gifts include tea, wine, rice, soup, and all manners of seafood and other vegetarian food, as well as “five raw and five cooked ingredients”—usually various cuts of chicken and pork carved out in specific shapes to symbolise different wishes, such as the hope for a good harvest.

Click here to find out more about these interesting clans that settled in the New Territories.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

4

The Seven Sisters Festival

The Seven Sisters Festival, also known as Qixi or Double Seventh Festival, is the equivalent to Valentine’s Day in Western culture. This festival happens every seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which is usually in August on the Western calendar. This festival originates from the ancient love story of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, which dates back to the Zhou dynasty (from 1046 BC to 256 BC).

There are different versions and variations of the story all throughout east Asia, but all go along the lines of this: A cowherd and weaver goddess falls in love with each other. The gods were not pleased with their decision, therefore they separated the lovers across the milky way. Thankfully, a flock of magpies were touched by their unfortunate love story thus the magpies would come every year to form a bridge across the Milky Way, allowing the two to meet on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

Traditionally, in the past, many women worshipped the weaver goddess in hopes that they could become more skilful at knitting and needlecraft and find their Mr Right. However, the importance of the festival has been in steep decline over the years as many occupations are no longer focused on sewing and handiwork. Instead, the Seven Sisters Festival has now evolved into a festival of wish-making in broader terms, where pious young men and women continue to make offerings to the gods and goddesses. Today, Peng Chau, an outlying island of Hong Kong, and its Seven Sisters Temple is one of the few places that still honour this festival. Young romantics have been known to make the pilgrimage to Lovers’ Rock on Bowen Road in Wan Chai to make additional offerings.

Learn more about traditional Chinese festivals in Hong Kong here.

Photo credit: Artur Kornakov (Unsplash)
5

Neon lights

As dusk settles, Hong Kong begins to glow and illuminate like a sci-fi film. This is the landscape that inspired the dystopian backdrop of Blade Runner (1982), where director Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece Chungking Express (1994) is set. One aspect that is highly synonymous with Hong Kong’s nightscape is its neon-coloured sea of signage.

These cyber-punk advertisements started appearing all over Hong Kong during the 1920s but really exploded in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s when consumerism was boundless and there were no governmental restrictions on sizes for such advertising formats. All shops that could afford them wanted an eye-catching neon ad hanging out over the street to lure in visitors, and the craftsmen simply made them as big as their clients requested. Getting ever taller and bigger, these chaotically beautiful signs loudly and proudly announced all types of businesses, from restaurants, pawnshops, and nightclubs to hotels, pharmacies, and mahjong parlours.

However, due to safety reasons and the rise of LED lighting, the Hong Kong government has been removing more and more of these beloved neon signs every year. This indelible part of local history is being eradicated at an alarming rate due to safety regulations and the resulting government crackdown on outdoor structures, so neon is increasingly being replaced by more energy-efficient LED signs. According to the M+ exhibition on neon signs, the government has removed 3,000 noncompliant signboards a year since 2006.

Read more about Hong Kong’s neon signs here before the lights are dimmed on them forever.

6

Cheongsam & kwan kwa sewing techniques

Cheongsam, also known as a qipao, became popular during the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. This garment is a symbol and rejection of Chinese traditional values, as it insinuates a more democratic and egalitarian society based on Western standards. The cheongsam originated in Shanghai, which was derived from the men’s changpao, and throughout the twentieth century, the cheongsam has constantly evolved and changed to adapt to the times.

In 1949, the Communist government considered the cheongsam as bourgeois, and it slowly began to disappear from mainland China. However, the cheongsam made its way to Hong Kong due to the influx of Shanghainese tailors who were fleeing from the Cultural Revolution. This made it very popular and the cheongsam continued to be in popular fashion until the 1950s.

By the end of the 1960s, the popularity of the cheongsam declined and as Western fashion styles became more popular and easier to manufacture. Mostly all cheongsam dresses are handmade, making their production process a laborious and expensive ordeal. Today, the cheongsam is no longer worn in everyday life but may be worn in special festive occasions such as Chinese New Year. However, it remains a significant garment in the history of Chinese women’s fashion. TenOne TenThree, while modern, is one of a small number of shops in Hong Kong that carry on the cheongsam-making tradition, and Linva Tailor, which has been around since 1965, is another such destination, famous for crafting Maggie Cheung’s dresses in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love.

Similarly, the traditional red Chinese wedding costume—also known as a kwan kwa—is an arduous sewing project, consisting of a long blouse and skirt. What used to be a privilege specifically reserved for members of the Chinese imperial family is now available to all, and since the Yuan dynasty, the luxurious kwa has become a mainstream wedding costume. Heavily beaded and embroidered, with phoenixes and dragons as popular motifs, richly decorated kwas owned by older generations were considered heirlooms to be passed on to daughters in the family. Nowadays, many people opt to rent them instead.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

7

Paper crafting for festivals and funerals

Papercrafting is very significant in Hong Kong’s religious customs and traditions. With simple materials such as bamboo splints, rice paper strips, coloured papers, fabrics, and a lot of learned skills and secret techniques, papercraft artists are able to create astounding structures and items. Common papercrafts that can be found in Hong Kong include the fa pau (paper floral tributes), effigies of the Ghost King, lanterns, dragons, lions, and Chinese unicorns, as well as joss paper effigies for burning at grave-sweeping holidays.

Over the years, offerings have become increasingly aspirational and personalised: sports cars, luxury yachts, electronic appliances, whole mansions, and designer goods, all made of paper, of course. While mass-produced paper offerings are now widely available and have become the norm for those seeking to purchase offerings, there are still master artisans that go through the laborious process of handmaking these crafts, thus preserving a precious piece of our history. Bo Wah Effigies in Sham Shui Po, founded in the 1960s, is one of the only places left in Hong Kong that handmakes joss paper accessories. Paper art master Au-Yeung Ping-Chi followed in his father’s footsteps to keep the art alive and has managed to breathe new life into paper crafting with his penchant for creating fully-functional items, such as when he made a fishing rod complete with a moving reel and a fishing line—all from paper.

Click here to see some of the more accomplished and outlandish joss paper offerings we’ve seen.

Photo credit: @leungchopan (Shutterstock)
8

Shrimp paste

Shrimp paste is one of the most essential condiments used in Cantonese cooking, imparting a signature aroma and rich umami taste considered indispensable in many pork, seafood, and vegetable stir-fry dishes. Usually made and processed with silver shrimps found in local waters, one of the few neighbourhoods in Hong Kong where you can still witness this intangible heritage craft at work is Tai O. Its long history of making shrimp paste stems from its past as a flourishing fishing village, but what was once a thriving industry in the 1960s has now become a tranquil day-trip destination.

Villagers in Tai O still make shrimp paste today, but the craft is slowly disappearing due to the lack of apprentices willing to take up the job. During its boom, there were about 10 shrimp paste factories churning out this iconic product, but now, only two remain. Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory is one of them, and its founding dates back to 1920. The family business is now in third-generation hands, and Cheng Kai-keung, who started working in the factory as a child, emphasises the important process of making sure that the fine shrimp paste mixture dries and ages under the sun for the best quality. However, he finds it unlikely that a younger generation will want to pick up the mantle of shrimp paste-making.

Read here for our in-depth neighbourhood guide to Tai O.

Photo credit: Box of Pic (Shutterstock)
9

Birdcage-making

Birds, in general, are very symbolic and often representative in Hong Kong and Chinese culture. Bird-keeping is very common in Chinese culture and it started all the way back during the Qing dynasty. Soldiers and martial elites would raise and keep birds for company, but over time, it would be a common sight for regular people to own birds, too. In the past, Birds were considered a popular pet choice due to Hong Kong’s dense and close quarters. Unlike dogs, birds were permitted in many public housing estates and many lived in handmade birdcages, which were crafted from bamboo.

Unsurprisingly, this tedious trade—which involves shaping pieces of bamboo, soaking them for hours, as well as bending and moulding them before attaching them together to form the cage—is not widely practised anymore in Hong Kong and its craftsmen have long moved on. In Prince Edward’s Yuen Po Bird Garden, you can still find one: Hong Kong’s last birdcage maker, Chan Lok-choi. Cloaked in the din of birdsong and septuagenarian chatter, it can take him months to craft his handmade birdcages, although these days, he mostly focuses on repairs to existing cages.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the story 👇

10

Handmade bamboo noodles

Jook-sing noodles are a rare Cantonese delicacy found in some scattered pockets of Hong Kong and the process in which it’s made is highly tedious. These noodles are also known as bamboo pole noodles, so-called because the chef traditionally rides a bamboo log, bouncing up and down in order to press the ingredients together. The purpose of using a bamboo pole is to give the noodles a bounce in texture, most noticeable when they are being chewed. Today, very few restaurants tend to make jook-sing noodles in the traditional manner due to its labour-intensive methods. However, one restaurant that still carries on this tradition is Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodle in Cheung Sha Wan, a true pilgrimage destination for any foodie worth their salt.

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Having been born and raised in Hong Kong for all his life, David is a recent high school graduate embarking on a gap year. He was always interested in writing and sharing stories that tend to be unnoticed. When he is not in the office typing away, you may find him taking photographs, running around the city, hiking, swimming in the ocean, or just chilling with a nice book at bay.

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