Written by Angie Ling, Hilary Wong and Natalie Mak
Hong Kong has long been regarded as a metropolis where traditional culture intertwines with modernity. However, as the society increasingly pursues technological advancements and focuses on lucrative businesses, some traditional industries and craftsmanship are being forgotten gradually. Among those vanishing industries, some are able to resist the changes of times through inheritance by the younger generations, some are struggling to survive and looking for a new way out, while some are too vulnerable to extinction. We talk to people from three industries which are seen to be fading away to share their stories with us.
Looming Fear Over the Extinction of Birdcage Industry
Yuen Po Street Bird Market
Nestled in Prince Edward, Yuen Po Street Bird Market brings us to a different side of Hong Kong where bird lovers—mostly elders, carry with them their lovely birds and spend the morning with one another. As we stepped into this bird’s paradise that resembles a Chinese-style garden, welcoming us were the cacophony of songbirds, the chattering of bird keepers, and a quick escape from the city’s hustle and bustle. We had a chance to talk to Chan Lok Choi, the last birdcage craftsman remaining in Hong Kong.
The last birdcage master in Hong Kong — Chan Lok Choi
Chan Lok Choi, commonly known as Choi Suk (Uncle Choi), started birdcage-making at the age of 13. Intrigued by the birdcages that his uncle made, Choi started learning this skill from him in 1995, and afterwards, under the apprenticeship of Master Cheuk Hong.
In the 1970s, he set up his own stall in Hong Lok Street, Mong Kok, where birdkeepers went to buy birds and related equipment. When the street was demolished after the 90s, Choi relocated his shop to Yuen Po Street Bird Market. Now, at the age of 80, rain or shine, Choi stands by his stall to provide services for his customers. While he no longer makes entire birdcages but only repairs them, he believes that repairing is equally important, as it actually reveals the “versatility of a craft”.
Features of birdcages
Back in the days, Choi specialized in making Canton birdcages. The cages are created with aged bamboo shoots, as they could provide the flexibility required for bending them into specific arch shapes. The process of birdcage-making is complicated—trimming the bamboo to a desired thickness alone takes tremendous skills. Otherwise, the cage will look unsymmetrical and unbalanced.
Not only does the craft focus on overall aesthetics, but also it being “straight, solid and transparent” so that the bird inside the cage could be clearly seen. Sometimes, different masters are responsible for separate parts of the cages, such as the cravings and decorations. Therefore, it may take more than a month for a birdcage to be made.
Regular bamboo cages cost a few hundreds, but the more sophisticated ones could be more than ten thousand dollars. Comparatively, metal cages that are made with machines cost much less and require nearly no human effort. We asked Choi if he had thought of retiring or at least switching to selling metal cages. He immediately shook his head without hesitation and said, “Metal cages are for parrots! They break so easily and do not look aesthetically pleasing at all.”
Challenges and future of the industry
While Choi does not want this craft form to go into extinction, he seems to have no choice.
No one is willing to learn,”
uttered Choi. This is the first thing he said to us at the very beginning of our interview. “It is not limited to the birdcage industry. In general, young people nowadays just want to make money fast. No one wants to dwell on craft forms that require so much patience and time, not even my children,” he added.
The culture of bird-keeping is also dying down in Hong Kong. In the 20th century, Hong Kongers loved keeping birds as a daily leisure and entertainment activity, where they would show off their birds at traditional teahouses and spend a day there. Now, as people become more immersed in social media and other forms of digital entertainment, not a lot of people are interested in keeping birds. This has forced the decline of the birdcage industry as well.
A cage could cage a bird, yet it couldn’t cage the passage of time. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have prior experience in crafting. Just look for me here and I will be willing to teach,” said Choi. Having a successor is the master’s greatest wish, or else, this industry in Hong Kong will just vanish into thin air.
Snake Soup Industry Finding a New Way Out
Snake soup originated in China’s Guangdong province and is a popular Cantonese delicacy. The industry has a long history in Hong Kong, and it is a winter warmer for the older generations of Hong Kongers.
To be honest, I have to admit that the snake-soup industry is really fading in Hong Kong,”
said Lo Cheong Hei, the manager of the famous snake soup restaurant, She Wong Hei (Former She Wong Yee). “I do recognize that many snake soup restaurants have been closing down, especially in recent years.”
The golden period of the snake-soup industry is during the 1980s, which is also when the former owner of She Wong Yee began the business. Lo, as a staff member at that time, has worked in She Wong Yee for more than 20 years.
“When I first started learning how to make snake soup, I was bitten by the snakes,” Lo said the most unforgettable moment came from the beginning of his career. “The master (Shifu) told me to grab the snake in the way it feels comfortable so that it won’t bite,” he laughed, “but how could I know how to make it comfortable?”
Difficulties in maintaining the snake-soup industry
As time went by, Lo gradually gained more experience, and he has become a master himself now. Witnessing the ups and downs of the snake-soup industry throughout the years, he admitted the industry is fading, especially in recent years. The major challenges he considered are related to climate change, as well as the business model of the snake soup restaurant itself.
“Climate change has been affecting us a lot,” Lo said. As he explained, the difference between autumn and winter is not as obvious as before, “there are only a few days every year that could be considered ‘very cold’.”
The “disappearance” of extremely cold days in winter leads to the decline in the number of customers, even during the original “snake-soup season” (around October to March). And this is one of the biggest difficulties the snake-soup industry is facing right now.
There are also difficulties in the inheritance of this traditional industry. Some may think the problem is that youngsters nowadays are “not willing to do hard work”, but he does not agree with it and has another view.
“Youngsters concerned on if the earnings in this job are enough for the living,” Lo said. According to him, due to the business nature of snake soup restaurants, there are not many customers in summer, so many of them choose to only operate for half a year (during the snake-soup season) each year.
“So what could they do with the remaining six months? This is why it is difficult to bring in new blood to the snake-soup industry,” said Lo.
The huge challenge of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the whole economy, and the snake-soup industry is not an exception.
Due to the downturn in business caused by the pandemic, the former She Wong Yee has closed down in 2020. On the last day of the business, many loyal customers of She Wong Yee went there to say goodbye.
After a year and a half, Lo brought back the original staff together to open She Wong Hei. But not long after they reopened, they encountered a huge challenge again – the dining restriction.
“Actually, the weather this year is surprisingly suitable for the snake-soup industry with around two months of a ‘very cold’ winter,” Lo said.
However, with the fifth wave of the pandemic outbreak in Hong Kong, dining restrictions started in January. From stopping dine-in service after 6 pm, to restricting table capacity to a maximum of two people.
“The evening dining ban has taken effect for a total of 105 days, and these 105 days were actually the golden season of our industry,” said Lo. The pandemic and the prevention policy have become a great burden on the snake soup restaurants.
Future prospects of the industry
Most snake soup restaurants in Hong Kong are with a long history. “Snake soup” becomes one of the cultural icons in Hong Kong, and witnessing the industry becoming a “sunset industry” gradually is sad.
By that, Lo believes other snake soup restaurants should also change their business model a bit, like what She Wong Hei is doing now. “They should try to search for a sustainable way to operate the shop throughout the whole year.”
Limited to the special business nature of the snake-soup industry, Lo has decided to change the business model of the restaurant to “sell snake soup in winter and sell other kinds of stew in summer”. They also try to serve more varieties of food, like roasted meat and sticky rice, in the restaurant to attract more customers other than the snake meat lovers. This bold step turns out to be very successful.
In his opinion, if other snake soup restaurants still insist on continuing with the traditional business model, it is very likely that the snake-soup industry would fade away.
A Silver Lining of the Vanishing Face Threading Industry
Face threading involves the use of thread and begonia powder, also named “Hoi Tong” powder in Cantonese, to remove customers’ unwanted facial hair, limb hair, dead skin, face grease and dirt.
While face threading is said to originate in India and the Middle East with over 6,000 years of history, it was considered an important ritual for brides-to-be before their marriage in ancient China, which carries the meaning of bringing good fortune to them.
It also has great cultural significance in Hong Kong. In 2014, the face threading technique was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in the city, according to the first ICH Inventory of Hong Kong.
With myriads of beauty salons distributed across Hong Kong and offering services with modern technologies like laser facial treatments, traditional beauty treatment– face threading– is gradually fading away and might soon become part of history.
Nevertheless, Beauty Choice Threading, a traditional face threading salon located at Sheung Wan, represents a ray of hope for this industry. The owner Ho Sui Tin, whom everybody calls Mrs Leung, is the soul and icon of the shop.
Threading -From a kind of childhood entertainment to a lifelong career
Mrs Leung, a threading expert with about 40 years of experience in the industry, inherited the threading skill from her mother and started to do threading on others at the age of 5 to 6. “At that time, I treated threading as a kind of leisure as we did not have TV or other entertainment in our hometown,” said Mrs Leung.
Despite having nimble fingers and excellent threading techniques, Mrs Leung admitted that doing threading is never easy, especially when she wants to do her best. She added that having learnt how to hold a thread does not mean that one is able to do threading. “I delved into the threading skill and kept practising, and it took me three years to become a master,” said Mrs Leung.
In Mrs Leung’s eyes, every industry has its own challenges. However, she believes that
when you do everything wholeheartedly and the result is evident, it [the industry] will only become more prosperous.”
Love for the family as a motivation for entering the threading industry
The skilled threader, who is also a loving mother of 3 children, entered the threading industry all because of her children. “After they [Mrs Leung’s children] were born, it would be hard for me to look after my family and children if I went out to work,” said Mrs Leung.
“I started looking for a way which would allow me to earn a living but at the same time take care of my family, and so I chose this industry,” said Mrs Leung.
The affectionate mother had worked in the textile industry for a year, but she described the experience as “horrible”. Mrs Leung said she was always pressed to meet deadlines and had to work overtime without earning much money at that time. The job did not allow her to take a tiny break and take care of the family at all, she added.
“In my industry, no matter how busy I am, I can still take care of my children,” said Mrs Leung.
During the interview, Mrs Leung repeatedly stressed that being able to take care of the family is one of the greatest advantages of running the threading business at home. She said that the balance between livelihood, health and family enabled by the home threading business is a privilege that going out to work cannot offer.
The evolution and changing perceptions of the threading industry
According to Stanley, Mrs Leung’s youngest son, the recognition of the threading industry has changed a lot over time. Stanley said that in the past, this traditional beauty industry was perceived as a kind of business operating in street stalls or underneath the bridge where an old lady was doing threading on others. As time changes, the industry has gained more popularity with an expanding customer base which consists not only of the middle-aged as in the past, but also those in their 20s and even teens, Stanley added.
The significance of threading has also altered.
“In the old days, people treated threading as a means to change their destiny. Ladies also had threading treatment before they got married, which signifies putting off their old self and putting on the new self. However, nowadays, threading is more about beauty,” said Stanley.
The legend of skill inheritance
As the youngest son in the family, Stanley saw his mum and his sister work really hard for their home threading business when he was little. “Sometimes customers flocked into our shop during lunchtime or after work. But we only had two people [his mum and his sister] working here and we had to accommodate many customers all at once. It was not easy,” Stanley recalled. Therefore, Stanley and his brother, Jack “recommended themselves” to Mrs Leung and suggested they learn threading and help in the shop when they were in junior form.
Stanley’s skilful threading technique stemmed from an unforgettable summer vacation spent in Mrs Leung’s hometown, which he described as “the funniest” experience. “In that summer, my mum brought us to her hometown and we stayed there for a month, even though we had to close our shop for the whole month. We set up booths in the village to offer free threading services to the people there. I learnt the skill by doing threading on others incessantly. I spent the whole summer in that way. After we returned to Hong Kong, we got tanned, but our skills had improved remarkably,” said Stanley as he smiled.
Mrs Leung, the master hand at threading, recalled the long queues formed in the village when villagers heard that she came and offered free threading services. “We did threading from day to night,” said Mrs Leung as she and her son laughed together.
The impacts of COVID-19 on the business of Beauty Choice Threading
As the fifth wave of coronavirus strikes Hong Kong since the beginning of 2022, the government had extended its strict social distancing policies multiple times, resulting in over 3 months of suspended operation of the scheduled premises from 7 January to 20 April. Beauty parlours are one of those that were ordered to cease operation.
Stanley said their threading salon was directly subject to the government’s social distancing measures and they had to suspend business during the entire period. This long period of closure together with several suspensions in 2021 have exerted a serious impact on their business, according to Mrs Leung and Stanley. They also said that the difference between pre-COVID revenue and revenue amid the pandemic is significant. Under such business circumstances, they still feel fortunate that they do not have to pay rent and their business cost is low.
However, they are not without financial worries. “They [Mrs Leung’s children] have to pay their mortgage, the impact [of business suspension] is big,” said Mrs Leung as she shook her head. “If they [the government] still don’t allow us to resume business, we will go through a rough time,” said Mrs Leung.
On 21 March, the government announced that most of the existing COVID-related measures would be relaxed in 3 phases starting 21 April. Beauty parlours are among those scheduled premises that are allowed to reopen in phase 1. Stanley said many of their customers have already booked an appointment for threading on 21 April.
According to Stanley, Mrs Leung has been making enzymes for a long time and kept looking for a way to tackle customers’ post-threading skin allergy. Over ten years ago, Mrs Leung discovered enzymes which could help cure this allergy problem and they are still in use today, Stanley said.
Mrs Leung added that enzymes are effective disinfectants. “Many of our customers also trust that enzymes can kill bacteria effectively. We keep spraying enzymes [around our shop] and it’s well ventilated here, so people were willing to come once the measures were eased in these 2 years,” said Mrs Leung. During the pandemic, many regular customers purchase more enzymes to use at home, Stanley added.
Stanley said their threading salon has also adopted e-commerce which generates more sales for them. Customers can also purchase Mrs Leung’s handmade natural herbal enzymes from Beauty Choice Threading’s official site.
The future of the face threading industry
We are confident,”
The second-generation inheritor of the traditional threading technique feels optimistic about the prospects of the industry as he said, “like what Mrs Leung has just said, you can make customers look pretty and feel very happy every time when they leave our shop, from this we can see the positive effect of threading.”
Stanley said there is not any other types of beauty techniques or products which can uproot the dirt in the existing market. “It’s hard to look for a way that can make you look prettier and prettier,” said Mrs Leung seriously. “Only threading has this effect,” she and her son said simultaneously with their heads nodding. Stanley explained that through face threading, grease, dirt, dead skin, and stratum corneum (the outermost layer of skin) can be uprooted.
The traditional threading technique remains undefeated despite the popularity of modern beauty treatments. Mrs Leung recalled that a customer, who was very happy with her clean face after face threading, said that it [threading] was very different from doing facials.
Stanley reiterated that they are confident about the future of the industry and he said,
it’s a kind of business which can help others and ourselves at the same time.”
As our society moves towards mechanization and capitalization, along with the threat of COVID-19, some traditional industries that require much more time and sophistication might no longer find their spots for survival.
From the birdcage industry that is on the verge of disappearance, to the snake soup industry that is seeking for a more sustainable business model, and finally, the face threading industry that fortunately has its successors, we notice that it is high time for industries to come up with new tactics for continuity. At the same time, it is important for us to appreciate the uniqueness of these fields. In that way, we could see a glimmer of hope for Hong Kong’s distinctive industries.