The Art of Preserving Old Hong Kong: An Artist’s Quest to Honor Extinct Crafts and Vanishing Neighborhoods – YP
Beneath a three-story building on Fuk Lo Tsun Road in Kowloon City, a metal hardware store and fruit stall have sat for decades as part of a tight-knit community.
Both stores have since closed, but a painting by Hong Kong artist Alvin Lam has brought back memories there – especially for the family of hardware store owner Lee.
“This is a store my late grandparents built to raise their seven children,” Lee’s granddaughter wrote in a message to Lam. “I shared your post with my family and they found your work adorable.”
Lam’s brushstrokes brought to life the characters that lived on this street: Lee and his son, who were cutting metal on the sidewalk, and the owner of the fruit stand, known to locals as “old man”, which gave bags of fruit to the less fortunate. .
Thirty-something Lam is on a mission to preserve old Hong Kong and has been recreating scenes from his sunset crafts since 2020. He released his project, “14 Years in Kowloon City” in August, charting the changes in the neighborhood.
“Everyone you see in the painting was real,” Lam noted, adding that even a cat with a curled tail was a beloved member of the community. “Everything was real, down to the details of the laundry racks at each plot of land.”
Kowloon City is expected to undergo an urban renewal plan over the next 10 years. But even before the redevelopment, many of the neighborhood’s legendary businesses pulled out, including Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, a popular tofu shop that had been around for more than half a century.
To depict the old neighborhood in great detail, Lam scoured the Google Maps archive and relied on photographs and anecdotes provided by the Decoff family who lived there for 14 years.
Alvin Lam poses in front of the Kowloon City street that is depicted in his painting. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Troy Decoff, a father of three who has since moved to Canada, said: “We were immediately captivated by the older buildings and the unique character of Kowloon City.
The Decoff family, who lived at the top of the building, came to Hong Kong in 2007 and witnessed the rapid redevelopment of the area.
“Over the years, new high-rise buildings seemed to spring up overnight as low-rise, walk-up apartments were quickly replaced. It was always sad to see the ground floor stores closing, which often included some of the dying trades and businesses in Hong Kong,” Decoff added.
“These helped shape this unique character, making Kowloon City such a vibrant neighborhood.”
“Cookie Cutter Town”
Lam’s work is a tribute to the character of Hong Kong, offering an intimate and personal look at its hardy artisans.
“They’re just, on the surface, very ordinary, very insignificant scenes or stores,” he said. “But once you dive into all those personal stories, it gives the place a face.”
The artist lamented that Hong Kong was becoming a “cookie-cutter city” as the facades that made it unique faded away.
“Our generation will be the last generation to witness and appreciate these places that have shaped and built Hong Kong. It’s sad because Hong Kong is heading down a very dangerous path…where we lose touch with all that surrounds us. has shaped.
Lam added: “It is time for the government to start looking to preserve these [traditional shops]. Otherwise, why would people come to Hong Kong? What, for museums? Or for exhibitions? For Victoria Harbour? Is that right?”
Rediscover the house
Lam said he was captivated by the ruggedness of his hometown – the weathered corners, the peeling paint on the walls of old buildings and the delicate carvings on old metal doors that have stood the test of time.
As a child, Lam was not interested in Hong Kong culture as he did not have the chance to explore the landscape of Kowloon. He had gone abroad for seven years to study, and when he returned he barely spoke Cantonese.
“It took me many years to start adjusting,” he recalls. But being a stranger to the city has given him a new appreciation for places locals might overlook.
“Do you notice that when you travel, we look for authentic places? In the same way, expats who have spent time in Hong Kong also see Hong Kong in a different way from locals, as they have the advantage of third-person view,” he said.
“Every time I walk into Sham Shui Po, I always look at it with appreciation…all those little bits, every old corner, every crumbling building, every old store there and the people behind it – knowing that they will disappear in my life.”
In his quest to capture in art what cannot be preserved in real life, Lam’s muses include the city’s last mahjong tile carver in Hung Hom, a birdcage maker in Prince Edward and a manufacturer of metal mailboxes whose store closed this year.
Authentic Hong Kong
Lam makes a living selling prints and postcards of his works. He has enjoyed drawing since a young age, but it was only recently that the artist ventured into urban watercolor sketches after witnessing the changes in the city.
It all started with a simple sketch at the 160-year-old open-air Graham Street market in the center of town.
“I witnessed [most of] it decimated under the whole redevelopment project… It was a place with a lot of memories,” he said. “My mom always went to that noodle outlet to buy wonton wrappers. The shop is still there – I just saw how it changed.
After reaching out to traditional stores, he would sit on a foldable chair outside to paint and bring the beauty he saw there to life.
In 2020, the artist began to expand his collection as part of a mission to preserve old Hong Kong, while documenting society amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After completing his paintings, Lam offers them to merchants.
“It makes me very happy when you see them displaying the painting – the tofu shop, the rice shop, the birdcage maker,” he said. “It’s also for them to feel that someone found their years of work special… It’s about recognition and respect.
“I hope I can bring my work overseas, so I can share these stories…and more people can experience this authentic side of Hong Kong and realize that it’s not just a shopping paradise.”
Retire or withdraw gracefully
A brief account of a particular incident or event
The facade of a building, especially a large building or an attractive building
Have a grossly uneven, rocky, hilly or jagged surface.
Change in color or shape over a period of time as a result of weather conditions.
significantly reduced in number or quantity, or having suffered significant loss or damage