I am glad that I met Dickson.
Dickson Ho Tak-ming is 55 years old. He runs a small business in an industrial building on Tsun Yip Lane. The businessman hires two staff, selling security equipment such as safe vaults, alarms and CCTVs. The majority of his clients are jewellers.
Dickson comes from a population that has all but disappeared in this city. He was born into a boat family. He and his family had lived in Yau Mei Tei Typhoon Shelter until he was nine which was when the government resettled the Hos into a squatter hut at Kowloon Bay. Their new home stood on what's today the Mega Box shopping centre. He's lived in Kwun Tong ever since he moved there from Yau Ma Tei and he has no plan to leave the district. Dickson's story illustrates how the Kwun Tong industrial area has functioned ever since it was built into what was Hong Kong's first 'new town'.
"When a typhoon came, we and our neighbours had to use a long thick rope to tie several huts together, or the huts would be blown away. We weren't fishermen but when my grandma and my father first got to Hong Kong after fleeing the Japanese invasion in China, they stayed with a relative who was a fisherman. Grandma later bought a boat from this relative and this was how we became boat people. My father was a kuli while my grandma earned a living as a water taxi 'driver'. The fare was five cents for a ride; that was in the late 1960s," he said.
The family of seven moved into public housing in Lam Tin in the early 1970s. At the time of the move, Lam Tin was still known by its old name 'Ham Tin', which means salty fields. It was there that Dickson met a girl. They were teenagers at the time, living in the same block – and on the same floor. She would later become his wife.
"The place where we lived was a resettlement estate. The building was 16-storey high. The unit was self-contained, with a kitchen and a toilet. At only 200 sq ft, it was very small by today's standards. We had two bunk beds and a folding bed. But we were contented. There were elevators. It was the first time we saw elevators, and we no longer had to worry about typhoons," said Dickson.
As the eldest child, Dickson left school after he finished Form 3 so he could start working and help support his family. But first, he had to take a short course so he could be trained as an electrician. That's in the early 1970s. Then he got a job at an electronics factory on Hoi Yuen Road, and he would go on to work there until the early 1980s. The factory manufactured radio sets for markets in the US and Europe.
Hoi Yuen Road is in the industrial section of Kwun Tong. It occupies an important role in Dickson's life. This road also housed the factory where his mother found a job after his family moved to Kwun Tong. Meanwhile his wife worked in a garment factory in nearby Wai Yip Street until the couple had their first child – a boy.
"There were few opportunities to spend money. To make sure the workers would go to work on time, the company had shuttles to take us to the factory. Most of the workers lived in Kwun Tong. There were three pick-up points: Ngau Tau Kok, Lam Tin and Sau Mau Ping. If I missed the shuttle, I would walk to work. It took about 20 minutes to walk from my home in Lam Tin to the factory on Hoi Yuen Road. I have never been late for work. The factory's business was so good that we worked overtime every day. We usually started at eight in the morning and finished at 10 in the evening. We had to work on New Year's Day as well until it became a public holiday. The money we earned from overtime work was more than the basic salary. The basic monthly salary was HK$500."
Dickson says that the industrial building where he worked also had garment production plants and printing houses. It was pulled down in the 1990s and replaced with a building that houses both industrial and commercial units.
He was already out of the radio sets factory before that happened, having left it in the early 1980s to join a company that specialised in the production of security systems. However, he made that decision not because he was already expecting the decline of Hong Kong's manufacturing industry as a result of the mainland's economic reforms. He explained: "I was interested in security systems and I also believed there would be good prospects. We need security systems whether we are in bad times or good times."
Dickson started his own business in 1993. He decided his company would be based in Kwun Tong. It is because he needs a place with good public transport connections to every corner of Hong Kong, and it also has to be close to his home. "My work is about a company's security, I have to be on stand-by every minute."
Dickson's family moved to Lok Wah Estate in Ngau Tau Kok after the birth of their son. They moved to Choi Wan Estate in Ngau Chi Wan about a decade later. Now the family lives in a 600-sq ft apartment in Lei On Court in Lam Tin.
Back in the 1970s, he would walk to work if he missed the factory shuttle. Now, he goes to work on foot because he enjoys the walk.
"I like Kwun Tong. I really can't think of anything negative about this district. I have no plan to move to another district. The only thing that worries me is our aging population. Property prices are so high in this district. Young people can't afford to live in Kwun Tong. This is bad for Kwun Tong's sustainability. A district's growth mainly relies on its own population. I hope the government can do something about the high rents so young people can move to Kwun Tong."
If Lo Hoi didn't show me his private collection, I would never know there are melon-green and bluish-grey correction pens. That's what he would later sell to me even though that meant he had to part with the very last pens in his special collection. He told me correction pens used to come in different colours other than the single white ink option that we are familiar with today.
Lo Hoi is a very interesting old man. He has been selling stationery for 39 years. The 74-year-old runs his business from a 24 sq ft stall in Mut Wah Street Temporary Market. Unsurprisingly, in his long career as a stationer, he has developed an affinity with particular brands and products.
His favourites are the "Made in Japan" stationery. He keeps them in various hidden corners of his tiny stall and would only show them at the request of long-standing clients. The hidden treasures include rainbow-coloured pencils, Hello Kitty and Kerokerokeroppi pencil boxes made in early 1990s, and Bad Badtz-Maru notebooks.
I asked the stationer to tell me his story because it is also a story of Kwun Tong's town centre, Yue Man Square.
Lo Hoi used to be a mechanic. He has been living in the Yue Man Square area since the 1960s. Before moving to Kwun Tong, he lived on Castle Peak Road in Sham Shui Po. He moved because his employer built a new plant in Kwun Tong and everything was transferred there. "It was a plant that produced machineries. It was one of the biggest such plants in Hong Kong," said Lo Hoi.
The plant's first relocation took Lo Hoi to Kwun Tong. Its second relocation would cost him his job. He worked in the Kwun Tong plant until 1987 which was when his employer decided to move the entire operation to Shekou, Shenzhen. All workers were made redundant. The site where the massive plant once stood is now part of the Millennium City cluster of commercial buildings in Nagu Tau Kok.
The mechanic found a new job at a Wan Chai five-star hotel very quickly after he was laid off. He was responsible for the smooth operation of the hotel's laundry room. He would go on to work in this same hotel until his retirement.
However, the story of his stationery stall began much earlier, in 1974. Lo Hoi and his wife started as illegal hawkers but they were given a hawker license shortly afterwards.
"We started the business under my uncle's advice. He ran a stationery store on Chun Yeung Street in North Point. I've got four kids. Money was always tight. He was worried so he gave me some stationery to sell in Kwun Tong. We sold the stationery from a cart on Tung Ming Street. Very quickly, the Urban Council gave us a hawker license. In those days, getting a hawker license was very simple. The officers would make frequent inspections and if they always found the same person doing business in the same place, they knew you're genuine, and they would issue you a license. The license was under my wife's name. I had a full time job; she was the one who looked after the business in those days."
Lo Hoi came to Kwun Tong in the 1960s. He lived on Tung Ming Street for some 20 years before moving with his wife to nearby Yue Man Centre on Ngau Tau Kok Road where they're still living up to this day.
For the old man, Yue Man Square is his world. He lives, works, shops and eats in this same neighbourhood. Everything that he needs is never more than a few minutes away.
"Yue Man Square is the commercial area. It has many shops, banks, and there were even department stores in the past. We used to have nine restaurants there, from upmarket places to reasonably priced options. There used to be a Japanese department store and a Chinese products department store. Wan Chai is the only other place I'm familiar with in Hong Kong so I think I can say I'll get lost once I'm out of Kwun Tong."
He misses the Yue Man Square of old, not least because there used to be many restaurants he could choose from for yum cha. Nowadays, the only dim sum option he's got is the cooked food centre inside the local market. "Yue Man Square used to be very vibrant and energetic. Many people have moved out because of the area's redevelopment by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA). My business is severely affected because of this. It used to take three people to handle the extra business that we would get at the start of every school year. Now I can do it all by myself."
Lo Hoi reminisced that the 1980s and early 90s were the golden days of his business. The first blow came soon after when factories in the area started moving to the mainland. He lost a significant chunk of his business as the factory closures took with them many workers who didn't necessarily live in Kwun Tong but would always go to his conveniently located shop to buy stationery for their children. Now the URA's redevelopment is displacing many of his remaining clients. His stall will also have to move because the market that he is in will be bulldozed (finally, after being a temporary market for over 30 years, which is yet another curious fact of urban life in Kwun Tong).
Like Dickson, the old man has no plan to leave Kwun Tong. "The place is great, all my friends are here and the district is very convenient. I can't think of anything bad about Kwun Tong. The only criticism I have is the redevelopment. The way the URA is going about it is creating discontent. What it should do is build a few new blocks and allow people to move in. Many people have a strong sense of belonging to Kwun Tong, they don't want to move out. But the URA is not giving them any choice. This is a very bad practice."
You must think that I keep writing nostalgic pieces. That is not true. I am going to tell you Kimi's story. After writing this piece on Kimi, I will write another one on Dom. Their stories will give you a sense of what Kwun Tong means to the younger generation.
Kimi Lam is 24. She is a designer by trade and in her spare time, she works as a volunteer administrator for Hidden Agenda, an alternative live music venue. "It is only a name. There is no hidden agenda," she explains, before adding that there are four indie music venues in Hong Kong, with two in Kwun Tong and one each in Western District and Kwai Chung. Hidden Agenda is arguably the most high-profile of the four, thanks to the constant raids it receives from various government departments.
Kimi dropped out of school after Form 3. She then worked briefly as a bar tender before becoming a trainee tattooist. At her neighbourhood bar, she'd order a coffee instead of a cocktail more often. She found it an excruciating responsibility to inscribe a tattoo on someone's body, and she didn't want to make her job any more stressful.
She has two homes. One is at Sai Wan Estate in Western District. This is where she grew up and her parents are still living there. Her other home is on Tai Yip Street in Kwun Tong. The street is a typical dull-looking stretch in the industrial part of Kwun Tong. She shares a studio with another designer there. The studio is only a few minutes' walk from Hidden Agenda. She told me Kwun Tong is a village and this village is her playground.
"My parents' home in Western District is where I go for dinner. Kwun Tong is where I spend most of my time. I work and play here. There are many fun and bizarre activities going on along Tai Yip Street. I think I only know 10 per cent of the people here but that is enough to keep me busy shuttling between studios and workshops, drinking beer and catching up with my friends.
"We have many start-ups: a football pitch, a roller skating venue, a tennis court – they are all indoors – and a musical instrument repair shop. We have more and more shops selling frozen meat and seafood, and wineries. I don't know the people who run these stores. I think it is bizarre that people sell these things inside industrial buildings even though I know it is because of lower rent. We don't know what will happen if all industrial buildings are turned into commercial towers which is what the government wants."
Kimi's sense of normality is based on people constantly moving in and out of the industrial buildings. "A very common scene on Tai Yip Street is people moving between buildings. There are two to three times every month, I see people moving chairs, tables and other furniture items on the street. The scene is comical. They move because their landlord has sold the property that they used to be in or it's the result of a rent increase. Another reason is that they got into trouble with the Lands Department for unauthorized use (unauthorised use of the unit that they occupied for a non-industrial purpose)."
The unrelenting swirl on Tai Yip Street that Kimi so keenly observes is not for bystanders, however, and she has moved twice with Hidden Agenda over the past three years because they are not supposed to run a performance venue inside industrial buildings.
While Kimi may have a rather unusual perspective on normality, her sense of success is also uncommon. She thinks success means she can have fun every day.
She also believes she is out of touch with the rest of Hong Kong. "I don't know what other people in Hong Kong are doing. I live in Kwun Tong but the popular apm shopping mall is completely irrelevant to me. People shop at Telford Plaza; I go there because it has a cinema and banks. I have a bank account but it is just for receiving money from clients and paying fees. I don't use it to save up for a mortgage – I don't want to be tied down to something like that for the rest of my life.
"It seems that the new cruise terminal is a big thing. I don't share the excitement. What is the point of building a cruise terminal in Kwun Tong? I prefer the days when they left the land vacant. It was a huge piece of flat land. Before they started building the cruise terminal, my friends and I used to sneak in all the time and we would go cycling there at weekends, drink beers and watch the sun set."
She is waiting for another financial tsunami because from rent to food, the city is getting ridiculously expensive.
Dom did not reveal his full name. His last name is Chan. He said he's 30 years old but added that he faked his age. I could photograph every object in his studio except him.
Urban Diary had withheld the full name of our interviewees before. That was in the January edition. I did it to protect the two individuals that I spoke to from getting into trouble because they are living in industrial buildings, something that is liable to prosecution for unauthorised land use.
Similarly, it is not a good idea for Dom to disclose his full name or reveal his face because while his flash mob activities are not illegal, he has to maintain a semi-hidden profile if he's to continue his stencils on walls from Sheung Wan and Central to Kwun Tong and Yuen Long.
Dom set up the street art group 'Start From Zero' 12 years ago. Today, the group consists of a three-men team. The name 'Start From Zero' has two layers of meaning. One refers to the reality that the city's street art scene is starting from zero. The other is a reminder that we can always start again from zero, no matter what happens.
He explained that even though it's over a decade ago that he formed 'Start From Zero', there are still no more than 3 street art groups in Hong Kong today, a very small number that's reflected in the continued lack of public understanding of what constitutes street art.
The first time I noticed this group was three years ago, specifically at an art exhibition in the now demolished Tsoi Yuen Tsuen at Shek Kong.
The village was flattened to make way for a depot which the Mass Transit Railway Corporation will build as part of the highly controversial Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link. The high-speed rail, which is the world's most expensive per kilometer, aims to speed up the city's integration with the mainland.
A significant portion of the village had already gone under the bulldozers when the art exhibition took place. The villagers were working against the clock to negotiate a deal with the government so that they could rebuild their homes together in a new Tsoi Yuen Tsuen. At a village house, half destroyed, I saw "Start From Zero" painted on a wall amid the rubble.
Dom told me most of their paintings do not bear the group's name: "People who know us know they are our work." That is true, I can tell their stencils from others: they are always satirical messages, black-and-white, expressed in bold lines.
Dom's team does not use spray paint for their street art. Instead, they use stencil posters. "We can get it done very quickly. We prepare everything in our studio so when we arrive at a spot, all we have to do is to stick the poster on the wall. It takes 30 seconds to one minute. We put the poster on the wall, photograph it and dash off," Dom said.
While street art can come in the form of posters or stickers and isn't restricted to works by spray paint, a major reason why Dom and his friends choose not to spray is because they don't want to get into trouble with the police.
"Most people, including the police, still have no idea what stencil art is about. We have run into police officers before as we were putting up posters. They saw us, we took off the posters, they let us go. They also want to avoid the paperwork that they'll have to do if they take us back to the police station. Many small businesses also put up posters on street walls to promote themselves, so the police doesn't actually have any serious problem with this practice. But if we use spray paint, the police officers will get very nervous, and they won't let us go."
Start From Zero chooses busy streets for their stencil art but would only take action after most people have gone home for the night. "Our purpose is to let people see our art so of course we have to put up the posters at busy places. When I was much younger, I would go back to take photos and I would be upset if the posters were taken away. Now, I take photos immediately after we put up the posters, just for the record. I don't get upset now if the posters are gone but of course, I'll be happy if I see that the posters are still around."
Dom does not only put up his stencil art in Hong Kong. Wherever he travels, he leaves his mark. He has lost count of how many pieces of street art he and his team have painted.
He has got into trouble twice over the years. Once in Tainan, a policeman caught him putting up some posters at a historical monument. He apologized to the officer and said that he respected their culture and history. Another time, he had to explain to a Shanghai policeman that he was just trying to spread the positive message behind the words 'Start From Zero'. "The efficiency of the Shanghai police is stunning. I put up dozens (of posters) and they were all taken down an hour later."
Dom moved to Kwun Tong nearly six years ago. He first rented a unit in an industrial building on Tai Yip Street. The team had to move out eight months later after the landlord sold the property. They relocated to nearby Lei Yp Street where they stayed for more than four years. A rent spike forced them to return to Tai Yip Street recently.
Their studio is not only a base where they produce their street art but it is also home to their fashion business. Dom studied garment trading at vocational school and his partner Katol is a designer. Dom had been a merchandiser for several years before he started his own design business. Now they sell designer T-shirts to overseas markets. They also have a boutique on Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan where they sell their own products.
Dom and Kimi share the same passion about Kwun Tong. Like Kimi, he calls it a village and says it is self-contained. "When I was a kid, I lived in a walk-up building and we didn't have to close our door. We would pop over to our next door neighbour to borrow soya source every now and then. No one is doing that anymore. But we are now reproducing that kind of close inter-personal relationships here on Tai Yip Street."
Dom shares Kimi's distaste for the cruise terminal at Kai Tak. He calls it an eyesore. He is also vehemently against the Development Bureau's wider 'Energizing Kowloon East' policy which aims to turn Kwun Tong into a new central business district. He believes it is only a way to boost up land prices for future land sales.
"They government wants to revitalise the industrial buildings but we have been doing this for years. The SARS outbreak 10 years ago nearly killed Kwun Tong. Then we moved in and brought the energy back. They don't have a clue on what we are doing and they say they are revitalising the place. They said they would give us spaces to run our studios and the rent will be cheap. The problem is they don't know what cheap really means. For instance, if the rent in Central is HK$100, they'll think that HK$50 is cheap. But we are only paying HK$10," he said.
Dom stresses that he and his friends at their 'Kwun Tong village' will not let the government do whatever they please and destroy their settlement.
Lives in Lam Tin
"Kwun Tong is a unique place which is by turns familiar and unknown. It is now caught in a major state of flux, and it is grappling hard with the challenges this brings."
Assistant Professor of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University
Since her father was a civil servant, she lived in the government's staff quarters on Junk Bay Road during the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. The road was renamed Tseung Kwan O Road in English in the 1990s.
"The Kwun Tong Town Centre Redevelopment Project (2009 – 2021) by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) is the biggest redevelopment project in Hong Kong. 'A Map of Our Own: Kwun Tong Culture and Histories' is an online platform for the documentation of community history and the spatial culture that has specifically grown out of Kwun Tong's unique landscape. We hope the database will not only record Kwun Tong's cultures and histories but will also encourage reflection on the complexities of urban renewal. We started the project in 2009, and we will keep it running until the end of the URA project in 2021."
Works for an arts organisation
A fan of Kwun Tong
"Kwun Tong is my life and imagination. I grew up in a new town where life revolves around chain stores and fast food joints in a shopping centre. Space in new towns is always designed to facilitate consumption. In Kwun Tong, I can find small shops and community, and they always give me surprises. I dare not imagine what will become of Kwun Tong post-redevelopment. For now, I will continue to enjoy the everyday stories that unfold in Kwun Tong."
A Map of Our Own: Kwun Tong Culture and Histories