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Humans of Hong Kong: Threading the needle with Yan Ka-man

By Nicole Hurip 18 March 2021

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. We ventured onto the first floor of an old commercial centre in Jordan and into the workspace of a qipao tailor who has been plying his craft for more than 70 years. Master Yan Ka-man came from a small village in Zhenjiang city where the poisonous pufferfish is a prized delicacy, and hardship is a way of life. Join us as he reminisces on all the people he had dressed, a very different kind of delicacy he enjoyed as a child, and his favourite thing to eat, hands down.

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”We made qipaos for lots of celebrities. I made them for Maggie Cheung for her role in In the Mood for Love, for Tang Wei, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and TVB stars like Liza Wang and Tracy Ip. I’ve also made qipaos for Carina Lau, and Miss Hong Kong contestants. I don’t remember all of their names; there have been too many.”

“We made very little money as tailors. I didn’t have a place to stay after I got married. I didn’t have money to buy a house, so I rented for a while. After that, I couldn’t even afford to rent. So I went to live in the Diamond Hill squatter area, in a wooden shack. There was no running water, we had to draw water from a well. We lived like that for quite a while.

“In our line of work, we work long hours. We start at nine in the morning and didn’t finish until nine or ten in the evening. There was no giving up though—we didn’t know how to read, and didn’t have a formal education—there was nothing else for me to do.”

“I have never even thought about doing something else. When I came to Hong Kong, there was nothing here, no factories or anything. There weren’t places to buy clothes, so you had to make them yourself. Textile factories came later, so everyone had their clothes made. The wealthier ones had qipaos made, and the normal folk had simple shirts and pants made. Back then, Hong Kong only had concession stores and bodegas. No gas companies, so we burnt kindling for fire.”

“We were really poor during my childhood. We didn’t even have rice to eat. We had congee for every meal. Plain congee for breakfast and dinner, vegetable congee for lunch. We would put taro and pumpkin in it sometimes, and that’s already a treat. The only time we would eat rice was when we had to prepare offerings for ancestors, sometimes without any dishes to go with it. Pork was very scarce, we usually ate vegetables that we grew ourselves, and tofu.” 

“I remember in my village, there was nothing to eat, so we dug up dirt for food. It was referred to as ‘Guanyin powder’ (觀音粉), but it was actually just mud. We would mix it with rice noodles.”

"I have no childhood memories. I didn’t get to play—I had to take care of my younger brothers and sisters. I was ecstatic when I came here. I had food to eat in Hong Kong. It felt like I was in heaven. It was very simple for us back then; as long as we had enough to eat, we were happy. We didn’t know of any other luxuries.”

“My favourite thing to eat is rice, I can be very satisfied with just rice.

“I was always worrying about something, worrying about having a place to live, having enough work, having enough to eat. Now it’s much better. As long as I can still see, I’ll continue working.”

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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.