Hong Kong Collectors: It Started With a (VW) Bug

In 1998, two things earned Hong Kong headlines in the international press: the opening of the new international airport at Chek Lap Kok and the strange phenomenon of hundreds of people queuing up at McDonald’s in the wee hours of the morning. They were there for something special. Every day for four weeks, customers could purchase a Snoopy figurine, and Charlie’s best canine pal from the comic strip Peanuts had taken the city by storm. 

Each new Snoopy was dressed in a different national costume. There was a Mongolian Snoopy, a Mexican Snoopy, a Chinese Snoopy and so on – each one resplendent in seven centimetres of plastic. Not everyone was happy. The 28-day offer was attacked by advocates of healthy eating for encouraging children to get hooked on junk food, and police stood guard outside outlets when the crowd situation and queue jumping threatened to explode into violence.

The Snoopy figurines followed a successful Winnie the Pooh run and were reselling for hundreds of dollars. But for many the craze was temporary, and likely had more to do with the fun of collecting all 28 figurines than in seeking any profit from reselling. The culturally adorned Snoopies graced taxi driver dashboards, secretary’s desks, and the bedrooms of countless schoolchildren. And while many would have moved on to the next attraction, there were a number of collectors who held on to their treasures. It’s still possible to see the occasional Snoopy pop up for sale today. 

Hong Kong is a collector town – coins, notes, stamps and first day covers, Chinese fans, postcards, photographs, sports stuff, bottles, trams, trains and automobiles, snuff bottles, you name it. And this hobby, passion, obsession is fed by secondhand shops, auction houses, and the vast universe of online opportunities.  Now the choice and chance of new discoveries is bigger and more varied than ever before with buying and selling resources such as eBay.

In this new series, we will meet some of Hong Kong’s collectors to learn about their passion, the stories behind the objects they collect and find out what started them on this journey. In many ways, these collections are unique and very specific. But in others they help tell the story of Hong Kong and its people.  

The collecting bug

Our first collector loves motoring. He fell in love with his first car — a Volkswagen Beetle, his dad’s — at the tender age of six.  Andrew Ng Ka-fai, 60, is now a committee member of the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Collectors Society. His career has been entirely car-related and he currently works for Ferrari.

His own Volkswagen Beetle stands pristine in its parking space in Kowloon Tong. Manufactured in 1972 and registered in 1973, this 50-year-old car was coveted by Ng as a little boy. It used to stand in the road at Kowloon Tong where he would admire it as he went to school, decades before he actually came to own it – yes, the exact same vehicle. It is resplendent in its original creamish colour. “It is called Kansas Beige,” says Ng, running his hand across the bonnet of a car made famous worldwide with the Disney movie antics of Herbie, the Love Bug, about a sentient 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, which first hit the cinema screens in 1969.

Ng was born in the same year as the fictional Herbie was manufactured. He was four when TVB was launched on November 19, 1967, with a live broadcast of the Macau Grand Prix. He was six when he first got to travel in a Beetle, after his father bought a 1964 model.  Then in 1973, at the age of 10, he first saw the Beetle that in 1996 would finally become his own at a cost of HK$26,000. More than 50 years on from its manufacture, it is paraded at classic car shows around Hong Kong and even on the Macau Grand Prix racetrack. It will be on show at the upcoming car show by the club when their classic vehicles will be on display on January 7 along Chater Road in Central. 

Ng started his career as a spare parts clerk for German Motors Limited in 1986. In the beginning, his collection revolved around his Beetle, but other members at the collectors’ society suggested including other elements that reflected Hong Kong. He did so enthusiastically. Standing next to his Beetle, Ng brings out loose-leaf albums filled with a glorious mix of ephemera from postcards to photographs, newspaper advertisements, driving licences, maps, receipts and business cards, all telling the story of Hong Kong’s motoring history. 

Ng began by collecting newspaper car advertisements when he was at school and since it has been a while since he was a schoolboy, that pile of newspaper adverts has grown, somewhat to the chagrin of family members. “At the beginning it was for my interest only as I wanted to find out more about the past in Hong Kong in motoring,” he says as we settle onto a park bench near his Beetle. “I thought it would be very interesting to find things from when I was born and before that. When I was a kid at school in the 1970s, I started collecting newspapers. I saw that on the weekends they always had car sales advertisements. So I would keep those car advertisements, so that now my family is complaining: ‘You have too much stuff.  You should throw it away, why keep it [until] now?’ It’s history, it’s personal to me, I’m trying to build up a whole story of what was going on in the past with Hong Kong motoring.”

Ng’s albums on the park bench are filled with motoring treasure.  His is not an elitist collection. He is not looking for first edition pristine condition of anything to be tucked away in archival plastic and admired from afar. It’s a collection meant to be read, studied, and looked at – a collection that conjures up oily rags and a pair of legs appearing under the car as the mechanic sorted out a problem at one of Hong Kong’s car repair shops, while Mandarin pop blared from the transistor radio. There’s a business card from Metro Car Hong Kong Limited, a repair invoice issued in 1975 by the United Auto Parts Company in Tai Nam Street in Sham Shui Po. Need more petrol? Then pop along to top up at Union Motor Supply Co, which had branches in both Boundary Street and Middle Road. 

Collectors like Ng are great for keeping the everyday, everyman ephemera, in this case car workshops and businesses.  And these are affordable items, Ng notes. “I don’t have unlimited resources to buy everything and then I have to figure if I can afford it,” he says of his purchases, which are usually several hundred dollars; and almost always under HK$1,000.  He has early 20th century photos of Queen’s Road and the Hongkong Bank of 1935, with cars of the day parked in front. There are also images of European and Chinese families proudly standing by their cars in the 1950s and 1960s when disposable income and car ownership in Hong Kong increased.  

“In the past, taking photographs was expensive,” explains Ng. “So they wouldn’t just take the car, they would include the people in the photos – them standing next to the car. And in those photos I can see the [number] plate and know that it is a Hong Kong photo, so even if I don’t know the background, I know the plate is Hong Kong.”

There’s debate over when the first car came to Hong Kong. Ng says it could have been a dentist around 1908, who drove from his home in Mid-Levels to his clinic in Central. Then around a similar time, there is the write-up in a Chinese-language newspaper by a disgruntled reporter who complains of this new thing that strikes terror in the public as well as spewing dirty smoke, oh and the noise! Generally the first owners were few and far between, and usually British.

Photo of a family posing with an American NASH Ambassador car in the 1950s – Courtesy Andrew Ng

While number plates were required, due to slow demand, the plates started purely with numbers from 1 to 9999, with a small charge paid to the police. In 1951, they switched over to the HK 1-9999 format. Interestingly, says Ng, the system then moved on to using “XX” in front of the number, but was this jump in the alphabet caused by a bit of in-house police miscommunication? Was it – let’s imagine this for a moment, “I’ll just write in XX for now,” which a member of staff took not as a stand-in but as a directive? Whatever the reason, Hong Kong’s number plates began with XX for the first 9,999, after which it began with the AA and the system we still use today.

Ng moves other items in his collection: a bus ticket from the 1930s, then the advertisement for a Caritas Lucky Draw when one ticket cost a dollar in 1973. The top prize was a residential flat, second prize a Datsun 1200 Sedan. He also has a fixed penalty ticket from the same year, a HK$30 fine for a parking violation. It’s dated 11 August 1973 and is from M J Harris, Commissioner of Police.  

Ng expands his collection in a variety of ways. Like many others, eBay has provided him with photographs and postcards over the years. He also goes to secondhand dealers in Mong Kok who call him when they have something that might interest him. The go-to collectors’ emporium for philatelists and numismatists — those looking for old coins, notes and stamps — is the Ho Mong Kok Shopping Centre in Portland Street, a collectors’ heaven spread over four floors.

One object that a vendor alerted Ng to was a little Chinese-language booklet from 1964. Inside are multiple columns of small Chinese characters telling the reader the Kowloon Motor Bus and China Motor Bus timetables, times for the train, trams and ferries and the ticket prices. There are bus routes and typhoon information. And then, curiously, it lists all the colonial governors since 1841. It was an information booklet handed out alongside a free small 1964 calendar, which Ng also has.

“This is a roadmap of Hong Kong and the New Territories,” he says, bringing out a map sponsored by Mobilgas and the Standard Vacuum Oil Company. A series of attractive hand-drawn illustrations on the front depict various activities around Hong Kong. The map dates back to 1958 when there were far fewer roads. It also provides an index of place names and traffic sign graphics, and information about the vehicular ferry service across the harbour run by the Hong Kong and Yaumati Ferry Company.

Ng tries to stick to a reasonable budget, but occasionally there is a special item that calls for more of a splurge – such as a commercial motor licence dating back to 1932 that was renewed annually on July 1. The licence accumulated renewal stamps until the end of 1941, when the Japanese military invaded Hong Kong. Ng has one from even earlier, in 1928, which bears a stamp from when the vehicle went on the Yaumati ferry weigh bridge.   

It has been 54 years since his first trip in a Beetle, but Ng’s enthusiasm for Volkswagen Beetles and Hong Kong motoring history hasn’t dimmed. The Volkswagen Beetle had an infamous start – it was launched by Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche in 1938, based on an earlier concept by Hungarian inventor Béla Barényi (who had to sue Volkswagen in 1953 to earn recognition). “The first Beetle that came here in 1953 was black, but I don’t know the owner at the time,” says Ng of his ongoing research.  “Apparently photos were taken at that time when it was offloaded.”

Ng still has the original owner’s manual and tool kit for his own Beetle, though rues the fact that the original owner did not pass along the factory plates. But its pristine original interior and the items he has kept or found alongside meant his Beetle once won the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong’s Concours d’élégance, which is held every January alongside a car show on Chater Road.

The Beetle was Ng’s gateway to the world of motoring – and it’s still the most cherished object in his collection. “When I have the car out on the streets, people comment that it is so old but still running, or they tell me about their own memories of the car,” he says. “I think Herbie did a lot for that.   I tell them the car is original, I did not change anything.”

The Hong Kong Classic Car Club show will be held on January 7, 2024 on Chater Road in Central.