The changes started years ago, but it was only when the giant cow disappeared that it became clear what was happening. In 2015, the bovine emblem of Queen’s Road West restaurant Sammy’s Kitchen was removed, an iconic piece of neon scrubbed from the street it had dominated for 40 years.
The cow was taken away as part of a government crackdown on oversized signage that has wiped thousands of neon signs off the map. But this was no ordinary sign – it was a gateway to one of the most atmospheric parts of Hong Kong.
“When I first moved to Hong Kong, I lived in Kennedy Town,” says photographer William Furniss. “Everyday, I would take the red stripe minibus from Stanley Street home. Those guys would drive really fast along Queen’s Road West and I got to know it well. One of the big things to me, knowing where I was on the journey, was the Sammy’s Kitchen cow.”
When the cow vanished, Furniss—whose photos regularly appear in Zolima CityMag—knew it was a sign of things to come. For decades, Hong Kong Island’s Western District had been a kind of time capsule, a string of lively but dilapidated neighbourhoods beyond the reach of the MTR. It was a place where you ate dim sum and bought your groceries at family-owned businesses that had been around for ages – places like the Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company, which has supplied Hong Kong’s restaurants with handmade bamboo steam baskets for 70 years, and the Tim Kee Noodle Shop, where watchful cats inspect the production of fresh egg noodles.That may not be true for much longer. Government-led urban renewal projects, a booming property market and the extension of the MTR to Kennedy Town have unleashed a real estate revolution. Soaring rents put old shops out of business and entire blocks are razed for new development. In just a few years, Sai Ying Pun, Shek Tong Tsui and Kennedy Town have become magnets for young professionals and expats who have transformed the local demographics.
Sammy’s Kitchen is still around, and its sign was saved by M+ Museum, which has added it to its small but growing collection of neon signs. But the disappearance of the cow was a wake-up call to Furniss, who embarked on a mission to document the district’s old shops before they disappear forever. His new book, Queen’s Road West: The Vanishing Neighborhood, has just been published in association with the Sovereign Arts Foundation.
“I looked for shops in old buildings on the assumption that they’ve been there for a long time,” says Furniss. “Some aren’t as old as I thought, but many are second or third generation owners from the same family. A lot have been in operation from 40 to 60 years and one or two have been going for 100 years.”
Compared to the chain stores that dominate many parts of Hong Kong, the family-run businesses have a distinct aesthetic. “That aesthetic of a small space crammed with product, neatly organised in its own way – that’s unique to Hong Kong,” says Furniss. Each has its own personality, too. “You have these old shops and you tell them what you want and they’ll get it for you. It’s a much more personal interaction. Social contact, even if it’s minor, is a value.”
That touches on why these old shops are so important. They are locally rooted, so their profits aren’t siphoned into the pocket of some offshore corporation. And they act as touch points for the community. “The question in my mind is really what makes a neighbourhood a neighbourhood,” says Furniss. “Part of it is social interaction. Not only is it important for the shoppers, it’s important for the shopkeepers. There are one or two shopkeepers, I’m sure they make hardly any money at all, but they still run the shop because they enjoy it.”
Furniss isn’t alone in photographing Hong Kong’s old shops. Across the harbour, photographer Simon Go documented the businesses of Shanghai Street in Hong Kong Old Shops, and he is now working on a follow up. “The atmosphere and landscape are changing,” says Go. “Already, in these last few years, a lot of the businesses in the first book have closed. It’s a pity to see the real old Hong Kong vanishing.”
Furniss hopes the photographs will at least preserve their memory. “We’re trying to create an historical document,” he says. One of his favourite books is City of Darkness, about the Kowloon Walled City, the one-of-a-kind vertical squatter settlement that was demolished in 1993. “People still love that book – it’s lasted a long time. That’s one of the powers of photography. It gains value with time.”
Below, excerpts from Queen’s Road West: The Vanishing Neighbourhood.
The original owner, Mr. Lam, founded this tea shop over 60 years ago. His oldest son is 90 years old and still works in the shop. They have another location in Sheung Wan that is operated by the family’s third generation. The steel tea containers were custom made with snippets of beautiful poetry elegantly engraved on the sides.
Mr. Shum founded this bakery about 30 years ago and has been producing a big variety of biscuits and pastries everyday. Mrs. Shum is now working with him at the shop.
Mr. Lo is in charge of this ceramics business, which has been running for over 60 years. It was founded in Sheung Wan by his father. They expanded to this Queen’s Road West location about six years ago.Current owner Mr. Cheung’s father founded Queen’s Road West’s only lumber shop 40 years ago.Mr. and Mrs. Cho run this 50-year-old business selling household goods and handicrafts.Mr. Hung Kei founded this shop in the 1980s. One of his employees is the current owner. The shop boasts the street’s only professional marble-cutting machine.One of the biggest shops of its kind in Hong Kong and an icon on Queen’s Road West, Tin Chau Hong sells Chinese New Year decorations, Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns, incense and paper decorations.The owner Mr. Yau has been running and making delicious congee at the shop every day for 11 years.
Book launch on Wednesday Dec 7th, at Gallery Huit, 189 Queen’s road West, Hong Kong – from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm