The bright neon lights of the countless shops and malls ensure Hong Kong lives up to its reputation as a shopping paradise. But if you stop to take a closer look at the luminous signs, you will notice that most of them belong to international brands and businesses with outlets around the world. Looking at the shops and malls around them, most tourists can’t help but ask: “Where is Hong Kong’s culture?”
“When my Taiwanese friend visited Hong Kong, he said: ‘The malls are impressive but they aren’t what I came to see,’” says Sean Chen, a Grade 11 student at Canadian International School (CDNIS) and a participant in the Beyond the Storefront exhibition. The exhibition hopes to focus the public’s attention on small, local businesses – a lot of which are dying out. “My friend said he was looking forward to seeing things that represent Hong Kong, not the big brands from the west,” Sean adds.
The exhibition is the end result of a community journalism project organised by Elephant Community Press. It features portraits and profiles of small business owners in Hong Kong, written and photographed by secondary students from local and international schools. The students interviewed business owners from a range of traditional industries, including slipper embroiderers, funeral and festival product suppliers, antique dealers and preserved meat specialists.
Sean, who talked to the owner of a 50-year-old shoe store, wished he had paid more attention to small businesses earlier. “We pass by hundreds of small businesses on the streets of Hong Kong every day, but rarely do we pay attention to them. This project has taught me the importance of learning about Hong Kong, our home, and our roots,” he says.
Most young people are taught to think international; to dream big and achieve big things. It’s all too easy to overlook small things, including local culture, which is an important aspect of life.
Many of the students who took part in the project think of chain stores and big brands as cool places to shop, but the project has inspired them to rethink their shopping habits.
“I began to realise how chain stores and international brands are killing the diversity of our city and the local culture. Now I often ask my parents if we can go to dai pai dong stalls instead of restaurants. I also ask them to do our grocery shopping at wet markets instead of supermarkets so that I can experience the things that they had growing up,” says Patricia Hu, a Grade 10 student from CDNIS who visited a paper craft shop for the project.
Katrina Yu, a Grade 10 student from CDNIS who visited a family-run herbal tea shop, agrees that is it is important to learn about local culture. After talking to the store owner, Katrina began to rethink her consumption habits. “We can get herbal tea from chain stores at every MTR station or convenience store, but the mass produced herbal tea from factories is not the same as the family recipe from a traditional store. From now on, if I want herbal tea, I’ll go to a traditional store,” she says.
It is encouraging to see young people starting to embrace local culture and supporting some of these smaller businesses. However, for some trades, such as one traditional barber shop, the market has become so limited that they might not have a future. Ryan Wong, a Year 11 student at Diocesan Boys’ School, interviewed a Shanghai barber shop and was disappointed by the inevitable fact that more and more of these shops will close down. “Old barbers are retiring and young people are not interested in the job,” he says.
To understand the importance of local culture, it’s important to learn about traditional businesses first. To get you started, check out the Beyond the Storefront exhibition at the Culture Club Gallery in Central. The exhibition is on display now until May 2, or find more information on community journalism here.