Little by Little, Irene Hui Explores A Slower Way of Living in Hong Kong

Canton Road comes alive as it descends into a balmy dusk. Neighbours wait as the corner butcher prepares their evening cut of pork. Across the street, a group of elderly women sit on plastic stools around a vegetable stall, each dressed in the kind of brightly patterned blouse you can only buy at the wet market. A propane delivery man rides his bike slowly past, two big canisters of gas perched in his oversized front basket.

Just down the street is another cluster of activity. Bright fluorescent lights shine out from a purple stall filled with second-hand goods and bags made from upcycled materials by former factory seamstresses. This is Hung Kee Good, an alternative kind of market stall just around the corner from the Kai Fong Pai Dong, its spiritual cousin. “It’s a space for the community,” says Irene Hui, who manages the stall.

Irene HuiOn a recent morning, Hui is sitting not in Hung Kee Good but Home As Space, her ground-floor home on Chancery Lane, which doubles as a book sharing spot, art gallery and gathering space. The setting couldn’t be more different to Yau Ma Tei; it’s a quiet passage in the shadow of the century-old granite wall of Tai Kwun, the art and heritage complex that recently opened inside the former Victoria Prison. Hui’s neighbours include 10 Chancery Lane, one of Hong Kong’s first contemporary art galleries; an antiquarian bookseller called Lok Man Rare Books; and a serenely minimalist branch of Sunny Hills, an upmarket Taiwanese bakery known for its pineapple cakes.

But Hui’s Chancery Lane space shares a similar cluttered, ad hoc aesthetic as Hung Kee Good. And its mission is the same: to inject a bit of community spirit into a hyper-commercial city where life is expensive and moments of genuine interpersonal exchange are rare. “I put some books outside, 20 to 40, and started to talk to the neighbourhood kaifong,” she says. “It doesn’t involve any money, just sharing. Now all the books come from the kaifong.”

It’s a radical change of pace for Hui, who not so long ago was a business development manager at a multinational company. Things started to change when she had to undergo surgery in the summer of 2011. “I was not feeling that well,” she says. It made her realise that she needed a change of pace, so she quit her job later that year.

She had no plan. “Nothing,” she says. She was looking for something to do when she learned about a food donation event being staged at Woofer Ten, a community art organisation in Yau Ma Tei. Hui remembers she had never heard of Wooferten before. “I had to take a taxi,” she says.

What she encountered was a lively space that had roots in urban agriculture, grassroots politics and thought-provoking art – a place where you could stumble across a King Kong sculpture by Jean-Michel Rubio, a showcase of vintage records collected by local vinyl Cheng Kai-fong, or a flower plaque workshop led by master craftsman Wong Lai-chung. “Technically an art exhibition venue, Woofer Ten has transformed into something like a neighbourhood drop-in centre, tapping into the artistic and practical talent of the nearby kaifong,” wrote critic John Batten in 2013. Kaifong (gaai1 fong1 街坊, is a Cantonese word that roughly translates to “neighbours,” but with the added connotation of community.) 

Hui was smitten. “I started going to Yau Ma Tei more often,” she says. “I thought there must be some way I can help them. I was like a white sheet of paper in that world, but I have always been a coordinator, and I am always learning.” She had never gone to university, but she had nonetheless worked her way up the corporate ladder, and she delved into volunteer work with the same gusto.

Among the many people Hui encountered at Woofer Ten was a young woman who had inherited a vacant market stall on Canton Road from her family. That sparked her idea for Hung Kee Good, which is named after the stall owner’s father, Mr. Hung. “I thought, ‘Now I have a chance to use my experiences and passion to do my own experimental space,’” she says.

At first glance, Hung Kee Good is a stall that sells upcycled products like totes made from old Kowloon Flour Mill bags, but its purpose is much more complex than that. It’s a place to stop by for a chat, and where you can donate food and other items to needy families. “It’s not about money,” says Hui. “I don’t want to be like the Salvation Army.” In her view, Hung Kee Good is less a charity than a point of connection for people who want to help each other.

Irene HuiHome As Space is similar. Its books are a reflection of the surrounding community, with books in Chinese, English, Japanese, French and Russian, from low-brow airport thrillers to the Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s 1842 novella Die Judenbuche, one of the world’s first murder mysteries. Hui first moved to the space after a rent hike forced her out of nearby Tai Ping Shan Street, and she likes the quiet atmosphere, which reminds her of growing up on Tai Pak Terrace in Kennedy Town, another car-free lane.

Both Hung Kee Good and the Chancery Lane space are self-funded; Hui gets by thanks to a modest lifestyle and part-time work as a marketing consultant. “I’m happier now,” she says. “Life is not only about work.”

For now, she has plans to invite artists to paint part of Home As Space’s exterior wall, and she wants to project movies against the Tai Kwun wall. She is also auditing courses at the University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University – always learning, always making new connections. “When you are passionate you always think it’s not enough,” she says. “You have ambition to do more.”

But she’s not in a rush. Part of her philosophy is to let things unfold naturally, like a warm evening on Canton Road. “No need to be fast paced. Little by little,” she says, looking outside as a man ambles past the book sharing space. It’s a radical statement in warp-speed Hong Kong, but maybe one the city needs to hear.

Hung Kee Good (雄記好) is located at 872 Canton Road, Yau Ma Tei. Home As Space (贊善里家作館) is located at 7B Chancery Lane, Central. 

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