My trip down cluttered memory lane should have set me back a couple hundred dollars. That outlay probably didn't reflect the true worth of what I found: a Hong Kong travel map printed in the 1950s, a black-and-white postcard of a now-demolished cinema that once stood on the corner of Castle Peak Road and Tonkin Street in Sham Shui Po, and a draft copy of China's 1954 constitution. But Ah Wing told me not to pay him. "Put the money into the letter box that you couldn't take your eyes off the first time you came," he said. The silver rectangular letterbox is of the kind that hung on every household door in the old days. Ah Wing told me it's a donation box for Blue House because he's one of their volunteers. Therefore, like many local history lovers before me, my retro shopping has contributed to the regeneration of the Grade I listed building on Stone Nullah Lane, opposite the old Wan Chai Market.
The ponytail-wearing treasure keeper is known to his friends as Ah Wing (affectionate short for his real name, Fung Wing-kuen) or simply, Long Hair. He's kept his hair long ever since he found out many in this city associate long locks with designers. As he used to work in the garment industry, that image proved to be very useful. The story goes that around the year 2000, Ah Wing started to grow his hair long, not out of any conscious desire for a style makeover, but just because he couldn't be bothered to go to the hairdresser's. The millennial accident would soon transform his fortunes as previously uninterested suppliers suddenly showed him huge respect because of his radical new look. Today, Ah Wing continues to lead different identities. For some, he owns and runs a bar in Central; for others, he's an atypical, generous businessman who's built up a popular vintage store on Lockhart Road. This story on Ah Wing is about his vintage business, Simple Living.
Ah Wing's time capsule is on the mezzanine floor of a six-storey walk-up building in the middle of Wan Chai. The 600-square-feet shop space is bursting at the seams with all sorts of vintage items: lamps, chandeliers, clocks, fans, telephones and posters. Cabinets and shelves groan under the weight of wallets, handbags, tea sets, glasses, documents, books, photos and a mélange of metal tools. A circular, half-foot wide path amid the almighty jumble of collectibles is the only route to navigate the store. The items strewn around the store represent only a small proportion of Ah Wing's entire collection. He keeps four warehouses, which range from 200 to over 1,000 square-feet, where he stores the bigger pieces such as suitcases, wardrobes, armchairs, cinema chairs, barber chairs and cha chaan teng furniture. Whenever I doubt if he can actually remember everything that's piled up in his collection, he'll say, "Tell me what you want, I will find them for you."
Ah Wing's ability to recover the past is not to be disputed. After the vintage Paa Kung Cafe in To Kwa Wan folded early last year because of poor business, some people decided to restore an old-style cha chaan teng at the same location. But they didn't have the classic cha chaan teng furniture to recreate the nostalgic dining atmosphere, so Ah Wing donated the necessary furniture and decorations to them.
On another occasion, Ah Wing gave two traditional Chinese rice bowls with hand painted rooster prints to a Taiwanese visitor, also for free, and he wrapped the gift in a newspaper from the 1950s. The old gems that Ah Wing gives away would have ended up in one of the city's rapidly saturating landfills had he not saved them from abandoned old buildings and the bulldozers that inevitably follow.
When Ah Wing started his business in 2004, he sold bric-a-brac – mostly vintage clocks and cameras – that he had been collecting since the mid-70s when he was working in film crews. "Buying antiques for the set was part of my work. Gradually I developed this habit of going to the antique shops on Hollywood Road," he said. However, he left the film industry at its heyday towards late 80s after realising that the work no longer interested him. "I kept looking at my watch then I knew I was getting bored and it was time to leave."
Originally, he planned to sell off his entire vintage collection and leave Hong Kong for a long holiday. But the plan didn't work out, his stocks kept growing and today he has a second store in a Kwun Tong industrial building where he sells the bigger pieces that he's accumulated, such as dining tables, chairs and cabinets.
Additions to Ah Wing's ever-expanding collection come from two major sources: rubbish from vacated old buildings awaiting redevelopment, and knick-knacks that people can no longer keep largely because their homes are too small for anything that is of no practical domestic use.
Over the past eight years, Ah Wing has gathered a group of friends who shares the same passion for discovering and keeping vintage items. They inform each other every time a cinema has closed down and is facing demolition. Similarly, they exchange information about aged buildings that have been vacated because of redevelopment. In the beginning, their usual way of ‘excavation' was breaking into these buildings. Now, they choose sites where they know the security guards, but they'd always operate individually. When Ah Wing goes to a vacated building, he explains to the guards that he is a collector and that, in his eyes, abandoned household items are not rubbish and he will for pay for what he takes away.
When he's inside abandoned buildings, he looks for items that can shed light on a previous era in Hong Kong. "I am curious about how people lived in the past," he said. So when he visited a campus that's been vacated by a leftist secondary school, he took home piles of documents, old magazines and textbooks rather than abandoned desks and chairs. From the documents, he learned about a scholarship programme for the poor in Hong Kong and those living on the mainland to study in the school. As we went through the old textbooks, I was amused by the positive spin they placed on the Cultural Revolution.
Ah Wing has developed a name for having an extensive network of clients and being helpful to the small collectors. He's always willing to receive people whose collections have outgrown their homes, or that their children aren't interested to inherit the relics. He either buys from these individuals, or asks them to photograph their collection and stick the pictures on the wall in his store so customers interested in the items can contact them directly. Again, he doesn't charge for his service. "I have clients who pay a lot for my goods, and I don't need much money," he said.
Indeed, Ah Wing tries to keep a frugal lifestyle. He lives on Lamma Island, travels to work by ferry and bus, and always takes his lunch at the same cheap food stall in Lockhart Road Indoor Market which is only a minute's walk from his store. He likes to repeat that he spends less than HK$100 a day.
The owner of Simple Living really practises what it says on the tin.
Ah Wing's Q&A
This is a story about Surdham's second-hand book store. However, I must first introduce my friend Chow Chung-wah. Chung-wah studied law at the University of Hong Kong but instead of practising law, she became a travel writer with Lonely Planet. She is also a regular contributor to the BBC's Chinese-language website, writing on Hong Kong issues. If giving up law to be a writer is a bold decision, she made another bold decision several years ago – living green. Instead of shopping for new furniture, Chung-wah took home what people threw away. She also wrote to various environmental organisations asking where she could recycle empty wine bottles because she couldn't find any glass recycling point near her home. And she stopped buying new books. "I only go to second-hand book stores for books," she told me.
This was how I came to know Surdham and his bookshop which sits right underneath the Central Mid-Level Escalator on Hollywood Road. Since then, I've also been going there for books though I'd still buy brand new ones. There are about 10,000 books in the 800 square-feet store, where melodies of world music flow in the air. The books are in good condition, and they're sold at only a fraction of what one would pay in a regular bookstore. The second-hand titles pile up from floor to ceiling and overflow on to the staircases outside. Though Surdham's centrally-located business isn't as tidily organized as the major chain bookstores that we're used to in Hong Kong, it's cosy enough to let booklovers walk between the bookshelves and dip into the titles one by one.
Surdham has been running his second-hand bookshop for 15 years. The 49-year-old's business is about recirculating books, CDs and DVDs. He calls the bookstore Flow. Flowing books, music and films allow precious resources to circulate between users. The store has a wide range of titles from fiction to design, from self-help to cooking and travel. Surdham read philosophy in university and he previously worked in a charity to promote organic farming because he disapproves of this city's love of excess. He stresses that therefore he's been engaged in the same business over the years even though the products have changed from agriculture to books.
He buys second-hand books, CDs and DVDs from people who take them to his shop. He can pay them cash or give them book coupons to use in his store. He also welcomes donations. "The best books we get are those donated to us. I think it is a natural outcome. People who feel adequate usually want to share the best with the others," he said.
"The government hardly encourages the idea or practice of recirculating books, but as long as there are people who love to see the books they no longer need go to trusted hands, I'll be around. I am only doing my part to make this happen. It is always about conserving resources at a community level. I'm here to serve the Central community. I've moved several times but my bookstores are always along the escalator." he said.
Surdham has moved his store three times before due to a combination of high rent, redevelopment buyout of the building that his second store was in, and bad business. The biggest challenge his business now faces is the digital revolution. The impact of electronic books is easily felt while CD and DVD sales are in terminal decline since music and film downloads have become far too convenient. Surdham has to contemplate how to respond to these irreversible changes but he reiterates he's worried. "These changes are a fact, I may have to sell something else but I'm not worried. It's not a big deal, what matters is resources can keep circulating, whether it's books or something else. There are plenty of things we should recirculate in Hong Kong," he said.
Surdham believes an effective way to help resources circulate and recirculate is through redesigning the city's rubbish collection points. His idea is to build multi-storey rubbish collection depots where one floor will be set aside for abandoned items that are still in good condition, whether they are furniture, electrical appliances, clothes or books. People can then go there to take home what they need. "Many things we throw away are actually still in good condition and can be recycled. But once they're thrown away, they pile up with other rubbish and become dirty, then no one wants to take them and they'll only end up in a landfill," Surdham said.