Urban Diary
未來故事 永續香港|Sustainable Future, Hong Kong Tales
Diarist's Notes
20 October 2020

Wan Chai Streetscape is a project we started in early 2018. The nearly 60-minute documentary marks the first time we focused on "the street" as a unit of storytelling. Six streets – which pedestrian frequent yet easily loses sight of – were identified for the exploration. They include: Thomson Road, Heard Street, Oi Kwan Road, Russell Street, Jardine's Crescent, and Ngan Mok Street.  

Why streets? It is because we believe that perspective matters. An understanding of the city begins with an exploration of its streets. Walking on the streets, we see people and their everyday activities. "Each road has its own rhythm and its own character," observed the cultural critic John Berger.

After nearly three years, we are finally rounding up the project. We began by making six short films, followed by a showcase in Times Square. We then edited the six shorts into one documentary and tried unlikely locations for community screenings. Our screenings took place in a park, a pavement outside a church, an old-fashioned shopping centre, a private library and inside schools. At long last, we have uploaded the documentary online, so that everyone can access it free of charge and at their convenience.

Our team walked, observed, interviewed and collected stories about all six streets in Wan Chai, and converted them into moving images. Although the stories are mundane, they also reveal the multicultural past of Wan Chai, its development and the sources of its vitality.

Split into two parts by the Southorn Playground, the eastern segment of Thomson Road is still home to dozens of hardware shops, surviving urban Hong Kong's increasingly inhospitable environment to businesses selling essential mechanic parts. Caught between the busy Wan Chai Road and Hennessey Road, Thomson Road allows lorries to park, which has turned the street into a hub of hardware shops. Lau Wai-yin, a 2nd generation shop owner, shared with us the tales of growing up in Thomson Road.

Heard Street was named after an American trading firm, i.e. Augustine Heard & Co. Back in the mid-19th century, the firm established a warehouse in the coastal patch of land that is now Heard Street. In the documentary, George Cautherley recounts the stories of his maternal grandmother's family – who were owners of Augustine & Co. We also recorded tales from Benson Chan, the 2nd generation owner of a stationery store, about the changing face of the street and how kids in the past would run between Heard Street and the now-vanished Morrison Hill.

As director Lam Sum recalls, George's story about Heard Street is the most memorable experience throughout the documentary making process. "We don’t easily meet descendants of those who inspired the names of streets. There is a feeling of history in the air," he said.

As Wan Chai developed, urban development led to the demolishment of Morrison Hill, giving way to new roads. Oi Kwan Road – which is circular in shape- marks the previous boundary of Morrison Hill. The street which is lined with trees is also the home to schools, a public swimming pool and community centres. These are the essential public facilities and breathing space for the kaifong of Wan Chai. Scriptwriter Yeung Leung-chuen, for example, could still recall the carefree, adolescent days which he spent on Oi Kwan Road.

Only a dozen blocks away from Oi Kwan Road is the much noisier Russell Street. Times Square imposes itself and luxury brands overshadow the row of tenement blocks facing the skyscraper. The tenement blocks are filled with small, independent shops selling cameras, cigar and even sex toys. It is here that we met Joe Tam, who runs a shop selling instant photo cameras made in Kwun Tung.

This district is also home to some of the city's busiest bazaars: Toy Street, Wan Chai Market and the Goose Neck Bridge Market. A passer-by could easily miss the street market in Jardine's Crescent, which used to be a wet market where vendors nowadays sell inexpensive outfits and accessories. Over the years, the market has evolved as Causeway Bay evolved. Despite the lack of attention, we interviewed two 3rd generation vendors – Leung Ming-yu and Lo Oi-kwan – on the evolution of Jardine's Crescent. They shed light on how the bazaar was trimmed and moved over the years.

As we move further east, we reach Ngan Mok Street. In Chinese, "Ngan Mok" means the silver screen. The street name commemorates the filmmaking studio China Sun Motion Picture Company (1923-25). Back then, the Hong Kong people populated the coastal area and the street had yet to be born. Lai Man-wai, the Father of Hong Kong cinema, set up the studio with his brother Lai Pak-hoi. The reclamation in the 1950s formed the Victoria Park and new streets. A stretch of land not far from the site of the studio was named Ngan Mok Street. In the documentary, film historian Eric Tsang Siu-wan guides us along Ngan Mok Street, showing us a trip down memory lane.

Wan Chai is a district where the beauty of streets and the charm of walking are in full display. The area is one of the oldest historic district and its streets are of a human scale. The intricate web of streets also means that there are multiple routes to the same destination. As researcher Lancelot Chan explains, Wan Chai is the polar opposite to new towns which are connected with footbridges, depriving its residents of the autonomy and possibility to explore.

The project is sponsored by the Wan Chai District Council, organised by Integer Foundation Association Limited, and co-organised by the Wan Chai District Council Cultural and Leisure Services Committee. Instead of the common definition of Wan Chai, the film adopts the demarcation of the Wan Chai constituency.


Chloe Lai

Diarist's Notes