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Humans of Hong Kong: Looking through the lens of Desmond Kan

By Nicole Hurip 24 July 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. As we go through life, we're always worried about something. Our grades, our jobs, our relationships; it’s almost Sisyphean. Issues always seem unsurmountable, but is that really the case? Retired fireman Desmond Kan tells us the importance of keeping things simple and that letting go is the secret to a happy life. 

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“I used to be a fireman. I have been retired for six years now. I started dabbling in photography when film was a thing, back when I was in high school. I stopped for a while; digital photography only came about in these 10 or so years. Digital is quicker, more convenient.

“I take pictures of everything. I sneak pictures of people, of items on display in the museums, and sometimes natural scenery, like in the outlying islands. Cheung Chau, Lantau, Tai O; I’ve been to all of them. If I see something interesting, I will photograph it. Just now I saw a young girl holding a bag full of fish. After praying for a bit, she let them all go. She was just on the stairs of Pier 6.

“This is a learned hobby. Some of my high school friends were also into photography, so we would just play around. We used to use slide film. You can put it into a projector and enjoy it in succession, one by one like a movie.”

“The protective suit that we wear is very insulating, withstanding temperatures up to 800 degrees. It wasn’t pleasant to put on, because it was really stuffy inside. When you’re in a fire, you can’t tell how hot it actually is outside, because you’re so protected by the suit. There was a fire in a storage facility in Ngau Tau Kok a few years back, and two firemen were killed. It was because they overestimated the capabilities of their protective suit, and didn’t know that the fire was as hot as it was. I knew both of them. Yes, it was sad, seeing my brothers lose their lives on the job. But it was a long time ago. It’s in the past.

“How do I handle such things? Not much to do, really. I pay my respects. These things happen way too often, like when you are unable to get people out of a blaze in time. When you first start, you do feel it more intensely. Later, you learn to move past it, after a few decades on the job."

“I would go to church with my wife. She has been a believer for many years, while I’m not. But I would still go to church, every week. To listen to the songs, catch up with my fellow churchgoers, and listen to the pastor’s sermons. We will always have high and low points, it depends on how you see things. It will always be okay. In my industry, you have to deal with tragedy quite often, so if you let yourself be affected by it, you’ll be unhappy your whole life. You have to let things go. Easier said than done, but still doable. Maybe not for everyone, but I think I’m doing okay.

“I’ve been volunteering since I retired. I sing in nursing homes. I’m also taking singing lessons, practising songs by Sam Hui, George Lam, and Danny Chan. Old school songs. Maybe you’ll know my teachers, they sometimes busk around here. Some of the buskers are really good, but they’re not here today. Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, those performers are good. They’re doing it because they have a genuine interest in singing, entertaining themselves and others. Better than singing at home without an audience.”

“In our line of work, 9 out of 10 people would not bring their troubles from work home with them. Even after the hardest day, you don’t say anything to your family. You just let them know you’re safe, and not to worry. But I know they’re actually pretty worried. My wife is very understanding because her older brother is also a fireman. She knows it’s tough and dangerous work. I’m lucky that I did not suffer from any major injuries; I had a pretty stable run.

“I was never in any life or death situations. A lot of my peers pass away from illness, I don’t know why. A handful of them, in their forties. I haven’t really thought about the purpose of life, just living day by day. The most important thing is to make your family happy, your parents happy. That’s it.”

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.