It’s noon. The blades of the fan swirl sluggishly, stirring the warm, dry air in the living room of a dated apartment.
During the short window of a noon break, Lai Shui-kee sneaks back to catch some horseraces as they are played lived on TV. His bet was on “Elegant Frames”, but it’s coming fifth only. While it is a Sunday, two hours around noon is all Lai has for a break at the comfort of his own home.
With his brother he owns a fish stall in the Shep Kit Mei Market,five minutes away on foot. Save for this short break at noon, he works from 7.30 in the morning till seven in the evening, a routine he has mastered 360 days a year ever since he followed his father’s path when he came to Hong Kong in 1979, starting as his helper at the stall which he would inherit.
Business runs downhill in recent years. It makes it necessary to rush to a nearby taipai dong for a part-time job after dinner butchering fish.
“It comes down to a few hundred catties of fish I butcher a day. I do the guts as well, even for small fish that sells at 10 bucks. So one thousand fish goes under my knife a day!” says Lai as he switches off the television.
“Elegant Frame” makes a mighty comeback and winds up in the first place.
A solid 10 hours a day in the stall makes a no-nonsense lad like Lai a friendly folk to the some seventy vendors in the Shep Kit Mei market, a building of an area of 9,000 square meters located between the 19th and 20th block of Shek Kip Mei Estate.
The market houses 10 seafood and fishery stalls, each with its own suppliers and clientele. Lai’s stall specialises in refrigerated fish caught from the sea, while the next stall offers live catches, crabs spewing foams in wait for someone preparing a homely dinner to buy.
Even in peak hours when shoppers come for groceries, in between there are moments of recesses when these vendors have a few minutes to spare for some small talks with Lai, or “Bucktooth” as he is affectionately known here, usually about horseracing tips. “It’s when people talk and laugh away their time with each other. A great time to unwind.”
The aging premise, poor ventilation and wasteful layout are some of the problems afflicting Shep Kit Mei Market, which is now pending redevelopment in five years. Long-time businesses like Lai’s, which has run for over 30 years, are prioritized for relocation into the redeveloped market, although, at 53, Lai’d rather give up the fish stall which helped himraise the entire family, even with reluctance.
“Businesses like this fish stall aren’t going well these days. Sourcing and selling are getting difficult. People know deep-sea fish is better for your body, but their prices spike up. The natural environment changed. The local fishermen bomb the fish out and leave nothing to the sea, so stocks are depleting. When I got in the trade, a catty of bream was 4.80; now it sells at 80 dollars and comes in for 70 dollars. Red Bigeye comes in for 99 dollars a catty as well. And they never give you the full weight. It used to be a full 15 catty for a carton of shrimps, not the scanty nine or 10 catty that you have to put up with now.” And Sham Shui Po is an aged community of weak consuming power. As the market draws less and less people in, even though his is already a reputed stall, Lai’s business struggles to keep head above water.
But at his age, Lai has no plan for retirement as yet. Fully capable of more work, he is looking into a future of a minibus driver or security guard, instead of living on his children.
It’s typical of his generation, who complain very little even in hard times, living life in diligence and temperance. In 1962, the year when Lai was born, his father came to Hong Kong as a refugee and could not return to his hometown even since, leaving him and his mother in Zhuhai. He’d never known how his father looked like until he’s well into his teenage, when his father came to Guangzhou for a trading fair which made a reunion possible. After graduating from middle school, Lai applied to move into Macau, and several turns of events finally settled him in Hong Kong to make a living from his father’s fish stall.
The father and son’s decisions of leaving mainland China for British Hong Kong were also typical of their generations. Between 1950s and 70s, waves of mass exodus brought as many as two million people crossed the border to Hong Kong. Some were running away from political prosecution, others pursuing better lives.
In order to reach the land of freedom, or land of abundance depends on their motives for fleeing the mainland, every single dark night saw many mainlanders leaving their homeland, walking to Shenzhen, diving into the deep and dirty Dapeng and Shenzhen bays, and swimming the deadly four-kilometre journey to Hong Kong.
The years 1957, 1962, 1972 and 1979 marked the four major booms in illegal emigration to Hong Kong, as mainlanders had suffered severely first by a failed economic reform that caused the infamous Great Famine, then the Cultural Revolution. There were also people who entered Hong Kong via the Portuguese enclave Macau first .
“I knew this was the business I was getting into when I came to Hong Kong. I learn that with hard work comes great reward, as they say in Hong Kong.” The family business has landed Lai as well each of his second eldest brother and sister a family and a home, a reward hard earned by over three decades of work from sunrise to sunset. He arranged for obtaining driver’s license almost as soon as he set his foot in Hong Kong. “To make myself more useful, to fight for a better living.”
His work kicks off at 7 in the morning when Lai’s brother gets fish from the wholesale market, which used to be across the harbour in Aberdeen but is now located in Cheung Sha Wan. Lai helps with the unloading in the stall, then heads to a teahouse for some dim sum before working till noon. A break at home, then all set for going back to the stall for more work. “You work to be the king of your trade. Work makes life meaningful. I’m on leave only over a few days a year when a typhoon hits, but it’s boring. I don’t feel right until all my orders are done!” His exercise consists of sending goods to a local restaurant where he carries a carton of prawns running upslope in Shek Kip Mei Park, a laborious walk which bulks up his physique without having to hit the gym.
The clock ticks as the time of the noon break flows away. The shadows cast by the signs outside the windows are stretched longer and longer, going back to the time when the brands of wool sweaters advertised on these signs were still a popular thing. Yet again, Lai puts on his long plastic boots as it is time to head back to the stall, with his hands and knifes soaked in the soggy scales and guts, leaving a smell that will linger till the dusk creeps in.