The old man peddling antiques from his stall. The hunched lady busily embroidering slippers in the shop window. The barber snipping away at another style in his alleyway shop. Hong Kong is brimming with small business owners, but how often do we stop and hear their stories? What are their dreams, their aspirations? Why are they toiling away down a side-street for hours on end, day after day?
We pass these curious characters as we head to work, on our way to meet friends for lunch, or on our way home after a long day in the office, sometimes snapping an Instagram photo but rarely do we know their stories.
A group of secondary students from local and international schools are trying to shine a light on these busy small business owners who keep Hong Kong humming, satisfying needs that we don’t know we had until the heel of our shoe needs gluing or the hem of our trousers needs stitching.
‘Beyond the Storefront’, a two-week community project opens to the public this Sunday, featuring a collection of portraits and profiles collated by a group of students who took the time to step out of the classroom and interviewed business owners from a range of traditional industries including Shanghai-style barbershops, slipper embroiderers, and antique dealers.
With help from Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Journalism and backing from Elephant Community Press, which offers project-based writing workshops for young people, the team of budding young journalists are now able to share their stories.
“Why should we, the young generation, care about traditional shops in Hong Kong?,” student Ryan Wong asks. “Because every day, chain stores sweep through the streets – modernising Hong Kong, but at the same time threatening the existence of these local shops. Although these stores may not be as convenient, they represent the past and the roots of Hong Kong people.”
The students are sharing their findings to raise awareness among residents that our city’s history is under a slow, grinding attack from within as some trade crafts lack the apprenticeships that have kept them alive for generations. “By interviewing the 71-year-old nostalgic barber of the traditional Shanghai-style Sun Ngah Monaliza,” Wong adds, “we realised the ‘sunset’ situation of businesses that represent Hong Kong heritage. Old barbers are retiring without any capable young barbers to perpetuate their jobs.”
As the students dug deeper, speaking with more and more shopkeepers, it seemed that the stories were endless, as fellow reporter Katrina Yu explains. “We interviewed the shopkeeper of a 67-year-old turtle jelly and cane juice family business, who shared with us a sweet memory: ‘My customers are like family. I remember doing my homework on the table over there, watching my dad serve a dating couple. They are married now, and their kid comes to visit us’.”
At Localiiz we love what these students are doing. By taking the initiative they are becoming local journalists, pounding the pavement and sharing stories that connect us all. We will be certain to keep a close eye on their work and bring you future stories from Hong Kong’s next generation.
Go ‘Beyond the Storefront’, at Culture Club Gallery (15 Elgin Street) in Central before the doors close on May 2.