Friday, March 22, 2013

Culture Walk - Yaumatei

I played tourist for one Saturday morning and signed up for the Culture Walk event down the memory lane in the old Yaumatei. This was part of Hong Kong Arts Festival program and during this 2 hour walking tour, the curator gave us - a group of around 10 - a brief introduction of Cantonese opera development in Hong Kong through various spots around the legendary Yaumatei neighborhood.

The tour started outside an old building at junction of Waterloo Road and Shanghai Street known as the "Red Brick Building". This is the second oldest structure still remains on the Kowloon Peninsula and rated a Grade 1 historical building by the government. (The oldest structure being the Tin Hau Temple which we visited later on during the tour) Originally as the engineer office of the water pumping station when it was built to serve the booming population of the area in 1895, it went on to become a post office, government department office, homeless shelter and now transformed into a community center to promote Cantonese opera.

We then walked over to the renovated Yaumatei Theatre. Most of us in our generation can only recall Yaumatei Theatre in its twilight years being a filthy, rundown cinema showing softporn movies all day long, attracting not the most desirable crowd. But at its glorious times, it's considered one of the best movie cinemas in Kowloon which dated back to the 1930s. Since its closure in 1998, the cinema has now been turned into a Cantonese opera venue to preserve this traditional art. Now there's little trace of the past, except the unique neoclassical facade, a few memobilia photos and the original projector made in the 1920s on display in the lobby.

It's always interesting to see how popular art and culture progressed with social and economic development over the years. In the 100 years since the British took over the Kowloon peninsula (basically from 1860s up to the economy boom after WWII), Yaumatei has turned from an inhabited land and anchorage for boats into a major neighborhood for trading and local businesses. Before the time of television or even radio becoming a common household item, watching a movie or opera show has become the only entertainment available for locals - especially Cantonese opera. It's said that back then the ticket for a popular opera show could go up to HK$2.50 a piece - considered a fortune when an amah (a housemaid) earned about $5 a month in those days. Yet they were willing to pay that much to enjoy the show or support their favorite actors on one of their rare days off. Or for the coolies, manual workers at the fruit market or the nearby pier, going to the cinema was not just about watching movie - it's the way to cool down in the air-conditioned cinema in the grueling summer heat after a hard day's work.

Our next stop is the famous Yaumatei Fruit Market, just right behind the theatre. By the time we arrived at around noon time - the fruit market's dead quiet, as most of the actions started at around 11pm and died down before sunrise at around 6am every day. On one side of the market the original building - which is now a graded heritage building - still remains in operation. What caught my attention is the shop sign hand carved and made with marble, and with matching counter table inside the store, all made by craftsmen from the prosperous pre-war Shanghai. I would imagine that didn't come cheap - an indication how prolific food trading business was back in the good old days.

We then stopped by a little shop at the corner right behind the Fruit Market. Lei Wo Scale (利和秤號) has been in business for more than 70 years, now owned by Mrs Ho, the second generation shopkeeper. Here we saw traditional scales and abacus still on sale - very much to our amazement. Mrs Ho told us many street stall owners, local restaurants or fishermen on the boat still use those old-style scale for business transactions. She even showed us how a scale was made by hand on the spot.

Down the road on Portland Street we stopped by a recycling shop cum antique store cum private museum. Mr Wong, as a side hobby, collects old stuff. What people see as trash to be thrown away he saw them as treasure to be kept. He even named his shop Sap Chan Hin (拾珍軒) - House of Treasure Picking. And interestingly he also owned a recycling shop which takes in scrap paper and metal. As we walked in, we saw a great grandfather's clock, and 2 big gramophones, all of which in working condition, along with cabinet full of vinyl records and books. Mr Wong was enthusiastic to show us all the goodies he proudly collects, even to strangers like us.

Down the Temple Street, we dropped by one of the few "singing houses". Back in the days Cantonese opera was not only shown on stage but more commonly by the street performers either on the street at night or with a permanent venue - the singing houses. Nowadays, with the cover charge of $20, people can sit around, enjoying simple food and drinks, with entertainment from the band and the singer - most of the time woman singers in their 50s. You can also make song request, and better yet, pay extra to have the stage by yourself to sing. Call that the mother of karaoke bars, and reminded me of the movie "C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri" (新不了情) - one of my favorite local movies which talks about the unlikely romance between a dying girl who grew up in a family of street opera singers, and her bohemian-style musician neighbor.

Finally we arrived at the Public Square, also known in Chinese as "Yung Shue Tau" (榕樹頭) - which literally means the front of banyan tree, with quite a few banyan trees still stood as the symbol of this popular gathering place for local residents. We ended our tour at the Tin Hau Temple inside the square, which was built in 1860s along the original coastline (now it's miles away from the sea). The temple was built to worship Tin Hau - which literally means heavenly queen and is considered the Goddess of the sea and protector of fishermen and sailors - and reminds us of Hong Kong's root as a fishing village and then as a hub for sea trade which still remains as one of our core industries to this date. It is the oldest building in Kowloon that remains and is where the name "Temple Street" came from.

After the walk, I suppose it's only appropriate that I had lunch at the nearby Mido Cafe - one of the oldest "cha chaan tengs" still in business. While their food's only passable at best in today's standard, most of the people came here mainly to enjoy the ambiance from the wooden booth seats with a perfect street corner view of the Yung Shue Tau and Temple Street, and the decor with white and green floor tiles that is largely unchanged since its opening in 1950s. And ever since Anthony Bourdain featured the restaurant in one of the Layover episode, this has become quite a sightseeing attraction as well.

I am always amazed at being able to learn something new about my hometown - just when you thought you stayed around long enough to know almost everything. Now maybe I should dig deeper to learn more about Cantonese opera?

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