Whatever the country, whatever the neighbourhood, there is one spot I always seek out: stationery stores. I know I’ll find everything I need to write, scribble, record or erase, everything I need to cut and paste. Whether you’re a school kid or an office worker, shopkeeper or start-up entrepreneur, student, retired, you’ll find something to note your projects and memories, to stop time in order to save something, start something, dream about something. The stationery store is a promise.
Stationery stores are starting to resemble each other from one country to the next – globalisation has not spared this particular sector. When local touches manage to survive, they are all the more touching for it: a funny format, strange paper, odd colour. This particular Frenchwoman marvels at the discovery that no, not all paper is A4, not all pencils are HB, not all envelopes have the same acrid taste of glue.
Here, in the country that invented paper, in the face of inexorable digitalisation, you can still find neighbourhood stationery stores in Central, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei. Take a minute to wander into one of these boutiques with shelves packed with local curiosities from floor to ceiling. These local products are often hidden behind newcomers from Japan — the standard for quality and innovation — or South Korea, another great country for dreamers. Look beyond these first colourful shelves to find treasures that take you back to the everyday life of the Fragrant Harbour, past and present.
First are those notebooks that allow you to imagine the endless hours dedicated by schoolchildren to learning the vast number of traditional Chinese characters, which unlike those in mainland China, have not been simplified. Then there are the books devoted to learning the Roman alphabet, lower and upper cases, block letters and cursive, which you can find for less than HK$2 in the markets of Sham Shui Po. The pastel hues of these notebook covers can be found on books filled with space for music, too.
Some pencils proudly declare their origins, such as Chung Hwa, a brand made by the China First Pencil Company in Shanghai. Their Hong Kong counterparts are particularly seductive, with ancient Chinese proverbs etched in golden characters on a black background.
Next to them are pretty brushes destined for calligraphy, with bamboo stems and tips made from horse or rabbit hair (if they aren’t synthetic and made of plastic) which brings to mind the traditional way of writing in this region.
I have a weakness for envelopes made from thick paper and sealed with twine, an alternative to less poetic glue, or the sad stickers that seal the white envelopes we have in France. Do you close them with one round of twine, two rounds, a figure-eight or a double figure eight? It depends on the recipient!
When Chinese New Year is drawing near, red lai see packets take the forefront, offered in different formats representing all the different types of bamboo and Double Happiness symbols. This is the stationery shop’s moment in the spotlight, an annual occurrence that reminds us that, yes, we really are in Hong Kong.
Take a look at the shelves where professional materials are stocked: different log books, bill books and receipt books take you back to an era when handwritten material had no alternative. To a Westerner, a Hong Kong-style bill is an astonishingly poetic thing when you see a merchant opening his book, hastily scribbling a price beneath elegantly-drawn Chinese characters and stamping it before handing you this sheet of paper that is almost worthy of being framed. You can imagine this artisan conscientiously filling out his sober black-covered log book at the end of every day.
The shelf of stamps, by contrast, gives you pause. Every possible message seems to be accounted for: Urgent, Unpaid, Overpayment, Top Secret – written in Chinese or Roman characters, they absolve you have any need for handwriting.
The recent move of Stanley’s most comprehensive stationery store to Sai Wan Ho is a sign of just how difficult it is to run this kind of business. Like all traditional enterprises, they are struggling to survive in the face of high rents and online shopping. In 2000, there were 2,360 stationery shops in Hong Kong, employing 7,320 people, whereas today there are just 4,490 people working in 1,460 shops.
That said, the efforts of a new wave of designers, like the founders of Ditto Ditto’s letterpress studio or the architects behind Blank, a contemporary stationery store in Shek Tong Tsui, offer hope that the paper civilisation has not yet written its last word, and is not destined to serve only nostalgic purposes. Notebooks, pencils, envelopes – the vitality of these everyday objects offer a social and poetic connection to one another that digital communication can never replace. At once functional and aesthetic, they facilitate Hong Kong’s economic hyperactivity and brighten up the city’s daily life.
Here are some of the stationery shops I visited while researching this column:
Yat Fat Stationers
2/F, Yat Fat Building, 44-46 Des Voeux Road, Central
1/F, 30 Johnston Road, Wan Chai
Chun Kee Stationery
G/F, Anson House, 13-19A Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
503 Nathan Rd, Yau Ma Tei
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.