[Review] “Sunset Survivors: Meet the People Keeping Hong Kong’s Traditional Industries Alive” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 45 (September/October 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Lindsay Varty (author), Gary Jones (photographs), Sunset Survivors: Meet the People Keeping Hong Kong’s Traditional Industries Alive, Blacksmith Books, 2018. 80 pgs.

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Old Hong Kong is vanishing by the day, and it’s never been more apparent than now. In a physical sense, property developers force out mom and pop shops when they tear down old buildings. Small-scale family businesses can no longer afford to rent space in these new buildings. This is all done by design because property developers don’t want these cottage industries to occupy their glass and steel high-rises. Another reason for these dying businesses is because the newer generations are better educated than their predecessors and have more career options than their parents and grandparents.

In her photo book, Sunset Survivors: Meet the People Keeping Hong Kong’s Traditional Industries Alive, Lindsay Varty has captured the people who keep much of old Hong Kong alive and running. One of the most startling portraits in the book is the first one: Raymond Lam of Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company. Lam’s shop is located on Western Street in Sai Ying Pun. It’s a small shop with an adjacent studio, and it’s easy to miss if one doesn’t look for it. With all the bamboo steamers in use in Hong Kong, it was shocking to read that Lam’s shop is the only remaining bamboo steamer business in the city. When Lam retires, his family’s business could close if he can’t find a successor. And if and when that happens, Hong Kong will no longer produce a product used across the territory.

Chan Lok Choi operates a bamboo birdcage shop in the Mong Kok bird market, and his is the only shop among the many there that sells birdcages made on the premises. Master Chan started his profession at the age of 13—more than six decades ago. He would like to teach his trade to younger generations, but he says, “no-one with a school education seems to be interested in learning these handicraft skills anymore.”

Other businesses like dai pai dongs, or outdoor food stalls, have largely disappeared from Hong Kong as the government stopped issuing licenses in 1956 for hygiene reasons. But dai pai dongs have remained a popular and quick way to grab a meal, despite the fact that thousands of dai pai dongs have closed over the decades. Sunset Survivors features Irene Lee, the owner of Sing Heung Yuen, a dai pai dong in Central, one of only a few that still remain.

Another female restaurant proprietor in the book is Becky Tam, manager of China Café Bing Sutt in Mong Kok. Once a staple of Hong Kong dining, the bing sutt, or ice room, serves traditional Hong Kong milk tea, and snacks like pineapple buns and Hong Kong French toast. These cafés are called bing sutt because they were some of the first eating establishments in Hong Kong to install air conditioners. Tam has been at the China Café for more than fifty years and the décor hasn’t changed since then. She got into the business because her parents were servers there. She’s now the manager.

Stepping into the Kung Lee Herbal Tea Shop in Central is also like travelling back in time to the 1950s. Run by Tsui Man Pan and his father and brothers, the café specialises in sugar cane juice and turtle jelly. Since the shop stands on prime real estate in Central, one can only hope it remains another seventy years. But since Hong Kong real estate is among the most expensive in the world, it’s difficult to tell what will happen with this café and the other establishments Varty portrays in Sunset Survivors.

Some of the other industries she features in her book include those more out in the open, like knife sharpeners, karaoke managers, village hitters (women who hit away evil energy) and shoe shiners. In all, Varty highlights over thirty people in her book, only about a fourth of them women. Some the survivors are immigrants from China and Vietnam, while many others are third generation Hong Kong Chinese.

The photographs by Gary Jones show the proprietors and their workplaces, and they’re stunning. With all that’s transpired in Hong Kong this summer, it’s important to take a look at what’s at stake for the city. The people and places in Sunset Survivors are an integral part of Hong Kong’s fabric. Without them, the territory will become just another generic city. No one can predict what will happen to Hong Kong, so Varty’s book is a crucial piece of record-keeping that will preserve the city we know and love, even long after it’s gone.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone WrongHer writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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