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Dickson Lee
Service with a smile in old Shanghai Street. Photos: Dickson Lee

Fed up with huge malls? Lai Ying-kit visits Shanghai Street to experience shopping as it was decades ago - and still is today

The city is increasingly dominated by giant glittering malls, but a handful of small shops in Yau Ma Tei that have sold the same traditional products for decades have survived by finding gaps in the crowded streetscape.

Nostalgia buffs can visit 14 old shops in Shanghai Street on tours organised by the Development Bureau and heritage group Hulu Culture. Guides tell stories about the street's history and visitors can talk to shopkeepers. The tours, running until the end of the month, feature shops selling Buddha statues, herbal medicine, sandalwood, traditional Chinese wedding gowns, and watches and jewellery that were hot in the 1960s.

Each of the shops has operated for at least 40 years; some are a century old or more. Stepping inside, the first thing visitors notice is the cosy ambience and the warm smiles of the shopkeepers, which may well explain how the stores have stood the test of time.

Apex Chinese Medicine offers a glimpse of what a Chinese medicine shop in early 20th century Hong Kong was like. The decor is the same as when it opened in 1946 and it has all the trademarks: bronze scales, glass jars, ceiling-high herbs cabinets, and wooden benches on which patients wait - all still in use.

'Using scales is the quickest way to measure the weight of herbs for me, although we have installed a laptop here,' says manager Anthony Lau Mau-tau, who has worked there for 20 years.

The shop has also kept its traditional way of operating. For example, a Chinese medicine doctor is stationed in the shop to see patients and afterwards shop pharmacists prepare herbal tea for them.

'Many of our customers have lived in the district for decades and we have developed a special bond with one another,' Lau says.

This affection is the main reason such old shops have managed to keep afloat in a rapidly changing commercial age. Another example is the 40-year-old New Asia Barber Shop. Customers keep coming back even after redevelopment forces them out of the district.

'Most of our customers have been visiting us since they were small, which often means more than 30 years ago,' owner Chung Chi-sing says. 'We do not worry about losing customers because we have grown up together and are more like friends.'

Shopkeepers at the 118-year-old Woo Wo Shing Gold and Jewellery say good customer service enables them to compete with modern jewellery chain stores.

'The patterns we have are not as trendy as those you can find in chain stores. So we have to do extra good in our customer service,' 70-year-old owner Cheung Chuen-hoi says.

Also featured in the tour are Fung Moon Kee, a tailor shop that specialises in Chinese wedding gowns, a 71-year-old stall selling Chinese scales and other traditional shops.

'The Cultural Tour to Old Shops in Shanghai Street' runs every Saturday afternoon until February 27. It is conducted in Cantonese. For further details, click here



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