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Interview: ‘Small Shops, Big Hearts’ author Christina Yung on preserving the city’s cultural heritage

With rising rents and increasing gentrification, small shops that were once tucked away in hidden corners of every neighbourhood are quickly disappearing. Writer and photographer Christina Yung decided to set out on a mission to document the shops that shaped Hong Kong’s history.

Earlier this year, her efforts came to fruition in the form of Small Shops, Big Hearts, which carries the tales of 33 such shops. HKFP spoke to Yung about her new book.

small shops hong kong

Photo: Christina Yung.

Tell us about your background and project.

I spent 10 years in the UK for my earlier education, and graduated from the University of London with a degree in social science and administration before returning to Hong Kong. I’ve been in the digital banking field since its inception.

I am passionate about design: I started my own little online jewellery website and often attend crafts market to showcase the designs. Obviously I love old shops and their craftsmen; taking photos and chit-chatting with them is something I do regularly.

small shops big hearts

Photo: Christina Yung.

You’ve covered many trades – from printing in Sheung Wan to knitting in Tai Kwok Tsui and footwear in Kwai Fong. Is there any story you found particularly significant or moving? 

That would be the first story in the book – which is of a shoe repair man in Sham Shui Po. He was forced to retire since he couldn’t afford the government licensing fee for his tin store at an alleyway in Sham Shui Po. To my surprise, he had no idea how to apply for social welfare.

I reached out and helped him successfully apply for the benefit and he would take me out for tea every month when he got paid. He called it “his payroll.” Sadly after only a few months, he passed away, a day before we were to due to meet for tea.

He played a very important part in the community, repairing shoes for all walks of life, but at his passing, hardly anyone knew about it. That made me very sad.

small shops big hearts

Photo: Christina Yung.

You say that your passion “stems from childhood memories of these old stores and their owners, and the uniquely personal touch they bring to local communities.” Can you share one of these memories? 

As a little girl, I would look forward to dressing up and [waiting] for my parents to take my brothers and I to a photo studio for a family portrait of the family… When I recently visited the studio, not much had changed at all – the decor remains the same; the owner, although much older now, has kept his sense of humour. His older customers still love going to him for taking photos.

small shops hong kong

Photo: Christina Yung.

What inspired you to give the proceeds of the books to elderly charities? 

It seemed only fitting to give the proceeds to elderly causes because of the old craftsmen in the stories. By and large the elderly are often a forgotten bunch of people but with great knowledge about life and the challenges it brings. I hope to encourage society to cherish them more.

small shops big hearts

Photo: Christina Yung.

You have said you want to preserve cultural heritage and create a sustainable future for these products and services. How have these trades and products have shaped Hong Kong life? 

There used to be local shops and hand-made products on every street corner, but as time evolves and with increasing rents, it’s mainly only those people who own their own property that managed to survive.

There used to be a close-knit community in the neighbourhood but with urban development, they have been pushed out and have struggled to survive today’s challenges. What many people want to see is these unique shops survive, not another shopping mall with cookie-cutter brands designed for a minority in society.

small shops hong kong

Photo: Christina Yung.

A core part of your book’s theme is “disappearance.” What do you think is the relationship between our city and “disappearance?” 

It’s the story of modern society. The irony is that without these special trades and shops, Hong Kong wouldn’t be the place we see today. They contributed to the success of society at large when resources were scarce and when everyone chipped in to help each other thrive.

That kinship is what makes Hong Kong special. I am sure this is also happening around the globe.

small shops big hearts

Photo: Christina Yung.

After speaking to these small shop-owners, what can be done to sustain their existence? 

The biggest threat is ruthless landlords who care more about income than preserving our heritage. The government has a large part to play in this – we need to appreciate these trades and give them recognition and protection in order for them to survive.

Interestingly, the book has become a quasi-Lonely Planet for some; I have heard that many westerners are now visiting these shops based on the stories and even getting the book signed by the shop owners. That’s what tourists are looking for: the old authentic Hong Kong, not the ubiquitous shopping mall. As for the locals, they love the emotions that the book brings. I am glad that I made the decision to present the book in a bilingual form.

small shops hong kong

Photo: Christina Yung.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The book is available for purchase on Yung’s websiteAll the proceeds will be donated to elderly charitable causes in Hong Kong.

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Interview: 'Small Shops, Big Hearts' author Christina Yung on preserving the city's cultural heritage