Hong Kong’s Vintage Treasures Are Overseas

It’s a blustery afternoon in Montreal and Laine Tam is on a mission. She’s heading to the west end neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges, where she will visit a couple of large thrift stores in the hopes of finding something made in Hong Kong.

“I get pretty excited when I find something from Hong Kong,” she says. “Part of it is nostalgia. Another part is a reflection of Hong Kong being somewhere important to the world. In my mind, it’s like a seal of quality, to have the words ‘Made in Hong Kong’ on a product. I’m kind of bewildered sometimes, just remembering that Hong Kong had a lot of industries and it supplied a lot of exports overseas.”

Tam is a graphic designer, illustrator, woodworker and occasional contributor to Zolima CityMag (she is also, incidentally, married to the writer of this article). She spent her childhood in Hong Kong before moving with her family to Vancouver in the 1990s, part of a wave of migration ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty. She first moved to Montreal for her university studies, which is when she made her first foray into the world of thrifting – the act of shopping for second-hand and vintage goods at thrift stores, charity shops, flea markets and antique stores.

“Part of the appeal is its practicality. It’s cheaper than buying something new, and when you buy something second-hand, you aren’t wasting anything,” she says. “But when it comes down to it, I enjoy having an eclectic mix of objects at home, and I think old objects have more soul. They have a story behind them that you create in your mind. Even if it’s something that was mass produced in the 1960s or in the 1980s, it’s special now.”

And it can be a thrilling experience. “It’s treasure hunting,” she says. “Actually, it’s like gambling – you go into a store and you don’t know what to expect. You might get lucky or you might not.”

Growing up in a middle-class family in Hong Kong, there was no particular virtue in buying used goods. “There isn’t really a culture of keeping old things around,” says Tam. “My mother’s generation doesn’t see second-hand things as desirable. Basically I’m seen as a laap6 saap3 po4 (垃圾婆, “rubbish lady”) because I like saving things and buying old things. But I just like keeping things – I kept many of my grandma’s things when she passed away.”

When she moved back to Hong Kong after her studies, Tam kept on thrifting, sometimes going to Me & George — a surplus and second-hand clothing store on Ladies Street in Mongkok — and sometimes perusing the goods at the informal flea market that emerges in the evenings near Apliu Street in Sham Shui Po. “But there’s not a lot of actual vintage stores in Hong Kong, especially ones that are affordable,” she says. Many of the ones that exist sell a highly curated selection of vintage objects from overseas. “I’ve never seen anything [at one of those shops] that specifically says it was made in Hong Kong,” says Tam. “It’s only in recent years that people have sought after things made locally.”

But when Tam returned to Canada a few years ago, she began to discover more and more second-hand objects made in her hometown. Perhaps because Hong Kong’s industrial economy was geared for exports, it’s far easier to find something made in Hong Kong overseas than it is in Hong Kong itself. And every time she comes across a Hong Kong object, Tam is inclined to buy it. “Maybe it’s because I moved away and feel like there aren’t as many roots,” she muses. “This is part of my longing for home. But in a happy way, not a sad way.”

The trip to Côte-des-Neiges turns out to be a bust – there’s no jackpot today. After hours of browsing, Tam finds only one thing made in Hong Kong, a cashmere jumper that was too tattered to be worth buying. But she’s not wanting for more: she already has quite a collection of vintage Hong Kong objects at home. Here’s a selection of some of her discoveries.

1970s Kodachrome slides

“I found these in a creative reuse store in Vancouver, just in a bin of slides,” says Tam. Labelled “Hongkong & Kowloon Lab,” they depict a variety of locations around the city. One photo captures the third-generation HSBC headquarters decked out in Christmas lights. Another was taken in the now-demolished Tiger Balm Gardens. There’s even one from Nga Tsin Wai, Kowloon’s last walled village, along with the original Shek Kip Mei public housing estate and King George V Park in Jordan, whose distinctive archway has remained unchanged since its construction in 1941.

Yan Chim Kee coconut candies tin

When Tam’s aunt and uncle visited her from Hong Kong last summer, they brought along a package of Yan Chim Kee coconut-flavoured candies. “They remembered I liked them as a child and they happened to find them at Eslite,” the Taiwanese bookstore with several locations in Hong Kong, she says. “I found the tin just after they visited, when I went to a random small town in Quebec called North Hatley. There was a junk store with thousands of objects.” The tin was hidden in a barn behind the actual shop, in a cockloft that Tam had to climb a rickety ladder to access.

Based on the five-digit phone number printed on the tin, it dates back to the 1960s. At that point, Yan Chim Kee had already been around for half a century. The company was founded in 1915 by a Guangdong-born immigrant Yan Lun-lap, who had learned how to make coconut candies while living in British Malaya (today known as Malaysia). He began hawking them on the streets when he moved to Hong Kong, launching a business that was eventually expanded by his children to include a flagship store on Caine Road and a factory in Wong Chuk Hang. 

As historian York Lo writes on the Industrial History of Hong Kong, a failed attempt to relocate production to the mainland led the company to declare bankruptcy in 1999, and the candies disappeared soon after. But the brand was revived in 2011 by Yan Lun-lap’s granddaughter, Evelyn Yan, who partnered with designer Keo Wen to create new packaging. The candies are now made in Malaysia and sold through Yan Chim Kee shops inside Eslite. 

Pringle wool cardigan

Tam came across this handsome cream-coloured cardigan at a shop in Montreal. “I knit, so I really appreciate natural wool and look for things made with it at thrift stores,” she says. “I picked this one up and it was really good quality, and lo and behold, it has a tag that says ‘Made in British Hong Kong.’ I had to have it, even though the wool is very scratchy. It’s in perfect condition.”

The cardigan was made of 100 percent Shetland wool for Pringle of Scotland, a brand established in 1815. Like many overseas companies, Pringle took advantage of Hong Kong’s booming postwar textile industry to manufacture its products at a lower cost, supplementing the goods it made at a factory in the Scottish town of Hawick. It appears to have continued making garments here until the 1990s. In 2000, Hong Kong-based S.C. Fang & Sons Company bought the brand, reinforcing the luxury credentials it has long had; Pringle is one of a number of companies with a warrant to supply goods to the Royal Family.

Plastic tissue holder made in Hong Kong

Plastic tissue cover

“I usually don’t look at plastic things because a lot of it is poor quality,” says Tam. “But for some reason this thing appealed to me – the lilac colour is really popular in these past couple of years. I was on the fence about buying it, but then I turned it around and it says ‘Made in Hong Kong.’ So I was like, okay, fine. I’ll buy it.”

It’s impossible to say how old the tissue cover is; Hong Kong’s plastics industry continues even today, with brands like Red A still manufacturing locally. 

Painted ceramic dish

“Japanese porcelain, hand decorated in Hong Kong” is inscribed on the base of this elegant ceramic dish painted with an intricate floral pattern in blue, gold and red. Rather unusually, it is encased in metal, which is what caught Tam’s eye in the first place.

It’s likely the dish was painted on Peng Chau, which had a thriving ceramics industry from the 1960s to the 80s. Unlike most of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, whose economies revolved around fishing, Peng Chau had been an industrial hub since the end of the 19th century, when it was home to several lime kilns. It became a centre of matchstick production in the 1930s. When the Cultural Revolution swept over mainland China, a number of ceramic painters from Chaozhou settled on the island, importing Japanese porcelain and painting them with chinoiserie motifs meant specifically to appeal to Western markets.

It’s a lot of history in just one dish. “It’s really pretty,” says Tam. “Now it’s a dish for my yarn swatches.”

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