Inside the Old Shops That Give Hong Kong its Character

Simon Go describes himself as “a 99 percent old school guy.” With an undying love for local history that runs through all his projects, the Hong Kong-born photographer and heritage crusader says he is driven by a passion to preserve the culture of his hometown for future generations. He may be nostalgic, but he is always looking to the future.

You can see this in all his endeavours. Go and his wife Irma Fok run Hulu Culture, an effort to preserve endangered and easily forgotten elements of local culture. Together, they collate stories and mount exhibitions, talks and workshops. Go has published a number of books, including one that charts the history and complexity of Hong Kong apothecaries.

Go’s latest exhibition is an homage to old family-run businesses that are disappearing at an alarming rate. Over the past 15 years, he has gotten to know over 300 local business owners and their establishments. Go is personable and chatty, and he has a disarming, jovial spirit that speaks to an innate interest in people and their stories. Born in 1967  in Wong Tai Sin, the son of parents from Fujian province, he has lived in Hong Kong his entire life.

He fell in love with Hong Kong’s local businesses very early on. As a child, his grandmother would take him to the nearby shop run by a Chiu Chow vendor with dazzling gold teeth and a tireless cat that chased after rats through the hours. Go remembers the impact that shopkeeper had on the local community – how much he had invested in getting to know his customers. That kind of personal touch to business is in increasingly short supply, he laments.

After studying at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he took up various jobs in photojournalism, helping chart the city’s bumpy course through the camera lens. While out photographing for various local newspapers, he also began collecting aspects of local culture, like old chairs, he worried wouldn’t get the attention they deserved.

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Temple deities by Sun Hung Hing established in 1938 in Yau Ma Tei – Photo courtesy Simon Go

Go’s show is being held at the recently opened f22 foto space in Causeway Bay, a private gallery  run by photography enthusiast Douglas So. It’s So’s second space, the first being the F11 Foto Museum, was opened in 2015 in a 1930s-era townhouse in Happy Valley. So is a friend and fan of Go, and he asked the photographer to be the second solo exhibitor since f22’s opening.

Across the swish, two-storey exhibition space hang portraits of independent businesses across Hong Kong, with a particularly large number from Yau Ma Tei, Sham Shui Po and Sai Wan, where Go says local culture has been able to survive in a way that has been much harder for other, better connected districts of fast-changing Hong Kong. More and more old neighbourhoods are gentrifying as they are linked up to the ever-growing MTR system, but this isn’t so much a bugbear for Go as it is a source of quiet sadness.

These locally-run businesses have been open for decades, and they have been able to establish strong community ties, their own aesthetic and unique ways of doing things. In Sai Ying Pun, Tuck Chong Sum Kee has been making bamboo steamers for 70 years, and they are just one example of the many family-run businesses around Hong Kong.

But as they fall victim to rising rents, redevelopment and changing consumer habits, many are shutting down, taking their years of history with them. And when they disappear, their neighbourhoods lose another piece of the connective tissue that binds them together. Go says this shift reflects an increasingly atomised mindset that pervades Hong Kong and the smartphone obsessed world, in which we are far more connected technologically but not tangibly.

Another reason why these businesses are disappearing is because few members of the younger generation want to take over their parents’ and grandparents’ businesses. The life of a small business owner is tiring and hard and many young people feel there are better opportunities elsewhere.

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“I make sure to interview everyone before I shoot them, so that they feel comfortable” – Photo by Viola Gaskell

Go’s exhibit features over 60 prints of beaming shopkeepers in an black and white, each shot at knee-level by Go, who is committed to capturing the confidence and pride of local business owners despite the struggles of keeping a local shop alive in the rapidly developing metropolis. For Go, taking to one knee is a mark of respect for his subjects.

That connection Go establishes with his subjects is obvious from the photographs. “All of these people are my friends,” he says, gesturing across the exhibit. A key part of the project is making sure his subjects actually want to be photographed, and that they enjoy and feel empowered by the experience.

“I make sure to interview everyone before I shoot them, so that they feel comfortable,” he explains as he walks through the show. Picking which pictures to put up was hard enough, he says, and when he is asked to pick his favourite from the show it is even harder. Eventually Go points to one photo mounted on a central pillar on the upper level of the gallery. It features a beaming octogenarian named Lee Wo, who runs a shop on Shanghai Street selling traditional bamboo weights and scales. Go says he is inspired by her energy and character, especially the way she still insists on doing everything herself and refusing assistance, taking hours each day to set out the shop as she always has, a stickler for tradition and forbearance.

Go is especially enthusiastic about another favourite image, which depicts the owners of Sze Cheung, a family-run store in Yau Ma Tei that specialises in pulleys for boats. Now that fewer and fewer of Hong Kong’s Tanka boat people live the way their forebears once did, there is much less demand for the tailor-made resources the shop provides – another example of the impact the shifting landscape of Hong Kong has had on its small enterprises. And yet the shop owners in Go’s photos are not sad: they look happy and proud to be custodians of Hong Kong’s heritage – even if it’s a heritage that will one day disappear.

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Sze Cheung, the family-run store in Yau Ma Tei that specialises in pulleys for boats established in 1920s – Photo courtesy Simon Go

Simon Go’s exhibition runs at the f22 foto space until January 8, 2018. Click here for more information.

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