At Time Coupon Shop, a modest store on an inconspicuous corner of Wan Chai, shoppers can choose to pay for their purchases with a "time coupon" instead of money.
The social project, started by St James' Settlement, adopts the idea of "Community Economic Development" from a farmers' market in America. The store is trying to revive the ancient barter system in modern-day Hong Kong, encouraging the exchange of goods among people, mostly from Wan Chai.
Anyone can register to be a member of Time Coupon Shop, which lets them bring items they no longer need and exchange them for time coupons. These can be used to buy other second-hand products in the shop.
"Society should not be all about money. Social capital is also key," says St James' community economy officer, Lo Tsz-shan.
"Everyone here has a role, value and more essentially, they have dignity," echoes Wong Sau-ping, a housewife living in Wan Chai, and one of the initiators of the programme.
The shop was founded in 2003, when the city was in recession and the jobless rate was high. "Back then, the poor economy left women especially impoverished and disadvantaged. Housewives like us have to take care of kids, so we cannot get any kind of job to help the family out financially. We could not be waitresses or bakery workers because the working hours are not flexible," says Wong.
The shop brings new hope, providing opportunities for the underprivileged, including single parents and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. "Housewives or anybody can register to be part of the shop staff. We are paid with time coupons for our labour and we spend the coupons at the shop," says Wong. "Because people aren't giving donations, Time Coupon Shop doesn't in any way create a sense of 'Giver' and 'Receiver'. It is merely fair exchange."
Leung Yeuk-wai, another staff member, says: "Almost everything we wear comes from the shop. I do not need to buy anything new. Clothes, books, cutlery … everything can be found here."
The shop is tiny, but it has become a popular place for kaifong, or people from the neighbourhood, to get together.
"Not only do they love to look around the shop, they also love chatting in here. It is just like a gathering place for them," says Lo.
As well as boosting social values, the shop promotes a green lifestyle in a city well known for its consumerism. "One of the shop's objectives is to waste nothing. One man's trash is another man's treasure; things should not end up in landfills so quickly," says Wong.
Lo admitted that even though it wasn't popular in the beginning, more people have now accepted the idea of using second-hand goods for the sake of the environment. "Initially, many people avoided second-hand products, claiming they would not use something that others had previously owned. Gradually, more and more people have accepted the notion of 'second-hand' and are quite willing to buy such goods," says Lo.
Wong adds: "Time Coupon Shop has really brought about changes - to us and to society."