Siu King-chung has always liked to make things. When he was a kid growing up on Castle Peak Road in Sham Shui Po, he and his friends made electric cars, pinhole cameras, acrylic toys and leather wallets. They didn’t have to go far from home to find their materials. Siu found everything he needed in the street markets just a few blocks away from his apartment. Others were doing the same. He remembers how, in the 1980s, some hawkers at the electronics market built knockoff Apple computers from spare parts they had imported from Taiwan. “If you talk about maker culture, Sham Shui Po has always been the hub,” he says.
Maker culture is a term most people associate with Silicon Valley, and there were certainly no people using it when Siu grew up in 1970s Hong Kong. Yet people have been inventing, tweaking and crafting things for years, and in Hong Kong, it’s in the teeming, working-class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po where this street-level creativity has always taken place. In the face of rising rents, gentrification and a shift in the global economy, however, it’s not clear how much longer this DIY heritage will survive.
Sham Shui Po means “Deep Water Pier” in Cantonese, referring to a waterfront that has long disappeared through land reclamation. Until recently, it was a mostly rural place, with a few small fishing villages strung along the narrow alluvial plain that sits between the harbour and the mountains. Things changed in 1841, when the British claimed nearby Hong Kong Island as a spoil of war. The colony spread closer to Sham Shui Po in the 1860s, and in 1898, Britain finally leased a huge swath of land known as the New Territories from China for 99 years.
When the government laid out a tidy grid of streets in the early 1900s, entrepreneurs began to develop Sham Shui Po with shophouses and small factories. The faithful built temples for Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, and Pak Tai, the God of the North. When the Japanese military occupied Hong Kong during World War II, it converted Sham Shui Po’s military barracks into concentration camps for Allied citizens. Life was harsh under military rule. Bodies piled up in the streets, claimed by famine or imperious bayonet.
The end of World War II marked a huge shift in the history of Sham Shui Po. As British rule was restored in Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured across the border from China, which was still being ravaged by civil war. The flood intensified after the Communist Party victory in 1949. Migrants crammed into Sham Shui Po’s old shophouses, sleeping dozens to a room or else on rooftops and balconies. Many families built shacks on the surrounding hillsides. The streets were full of restless energy.
That’s when Sham Shui Po truly became a place where things were made. Apartment spaces were converted into knitting, dyeing and garment factories. “Knitting factories supplied fabrics to the garment factories and they delivered small orders of two or three bolts of cloth by bicycle,” recalls Au Kwan-cheung, who spoke with the HK Memory oral history project. His father was a knitting master who left the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou after World War II. When he came to Hong Kong, he set up an illegal knitting factory inside a residential building in Sham Shui Po. The factory ran all night and, like the rest of his family, Au slept in the factory’s doorway, growing used to the racket.
The streets were no less quiet. If they weren’t working in factories, many newcomers to Hong Kong became hawkers, selling surplus textiles, second-hand goods or food to fill the bellies of hungry labourers. When French writer Gérard Henry married a Hong Kong woman and came to the city for the first time in 1981, he shared a single room apartment with her family in Sham Shui Po. “In the evening, everyone took a shower, and then we put on pyjamas and went down to the street,” he says. “The streets were full of people selling food. All the neighbours were down there having a midnight snack. And they were all wearing pyjamas.”
Hawkers were eventually subjected to stricter regulations. Some were given stalls in street markets; others were driven off the street entirely. People opened businesses wherever they could: in alleyways, beneath stairwells. Hong Kong is an energetic place and Sham Shui Po even moreso. “People from their own communities in the streets,” says Siu King-chung. “They look after each other.” In this world of small businesses — emphasis on “small” — shopowners are both competitors and friends. If a customer comes to a market stall with an order too large to fill, many of the surrounding stalls will pitch in.
Siu’s early years in the markets of Sham Shui Po inspired him to study design. Today, he is an associate dean at the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, where he guides young students through their own creative journeys. Along with Swiss architect Jürgen Krusche, he recently published Deep Water, a new book that investigates some of the informal communities that exist in Sham Shui Po’s streets, like the Pakistani men who recycle old electronics and the illegal night market where people sell any manner of second-hand goods: clothes, shoes, vinyl records, household appliances. Sham Shui Po is still as lively as ever, says Siu, but it’s changing. “I worry about developers,” he says.
Hong Kong has some of the highest land prices in the world — the product of a complicated history of low taxes, property cartels and a government that gets most of its revenue from land sales — and Sham Shui Po is one of the few affordable places left in the city centre. Recently, big property developers have been buying up blocks of old apartment buildings and replacing them with luxury high-rises, pushing out small businesses and low-income families. The redevelopment often takes place under the oversight of the Urban Renewal Authority, a government agency tasked with gentrifying old neighbourhoods.
At the same time, the economy is changing. The old garment factories left for mainland China in the 1990s. After Au Kwan-cheung grew up in his father’s factory, he started his own textile business, which eventually left Sham Shui Po for the mainland city of Foshan. He stayed behind to run the business while his family immigrated to Canada in the mid-1990s, just before the end of colonial British rule. “Now everything is made in China and shipped from orders online,” says Siu. “It’s changing the ecology here.”
You can see the changes in the southern half of Sham Shui Po, which has long been dominated by wholesale businesses selling fabric, beads, leather and other materials. At first, these shops worked with local factories; then, when the factories left Hong Kong, they served as a bridge between mainland China and the rest of the world. Now that foreign buyers can order Chinese-made fabric with the click of a button, many of these shopfront businesses are going under. More and more streets are defined by metal shutters that never open.
That has piqued the interest of property developers – but it has also created an opportunity for a new generation of makers. Over the past few years, a number of new creative businesses have opened in Sham Shui Po, including Common Room & Co., a café, bookstore, art gallery and maker space. “The main concept is collaboration,” says one of the founders, a young designer named Felen Cheng. Tools hang on the wall opposite an espresso machine; there’s also a laser cutter and 3D printer. People buy raw materials from nearby shops and come to Common Room to make their products.
Cheng says they often collaborate with the area’s old businesses. The leather shop next door sells surplus material used to make the patch on the back of blue jeans; Cheng and another Common Room partner, Eva Leung, turned that material into wallets. They run workshops teaching people how to make their own wallets a couple of times every month. “It brings the old and the new together,” says Leung, who finished her product design studies at university just last year. A short walk away, fashion designers are doing something similar in Pang Jai, a ragtag fabric market that sells rare patterns and offcuts. When the government announced plans to demolish the market in 2015, young creative people rallied to its defence. “What’s interesting is [these newcomers] support the material culture that already exists in Sham Shui Po,” says Siu. “I just hope the rents don’t rise.”
For now, there’s always the streets. Huge bolts of fabric are piled high on Ki Lung Street, perused by fashionable young people and Pakistani women in colourful chadors. Not far away, towards Nam Cheong Street, thousands of beads are piled up in shop windows and ribbons hang from the awnings. On Apliu Street, disassembled radios and computers are piled high in market stalls, each piece containing the potential to create something new.
A Spanish-language version of this story was originally published in Hong Kong: La ciudad mundo, a special edition of Altaïr magazine.