Elaine Chen-Fernandez — Photographer based in Hong Kong

Project | Remembering a way of life | Hong Kong

Photography: 2002-Present
Piece below written in 2004:

                       '‘A Way of Life, Forgotten’'

Hong Kong has always been known to be a city, rich and diverse both in culture and ethnicity. It is a city most metropolitan in nature. However, the traditions and customs that have long withstood its downfalls are suddenly becoming more and more threatened by natural changes toward advancement and technology—the coming of age. From the Opium wars in 1839 and 1860, to the occupation of the British in 1841, all the way to handing back of the city to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the people who built Hong Kong, turned it into the magnificent city that stands today, have always coped well with the changes of age. On the other hand, it is becoming harder and harder to make ends meet, for the common local, in a city that prides itself on its increasingly growing global and economic standpoint. Thus, I set out to capture the side of Hong Kong that more and more people are disregarding, those who are most common, those who seem to be gradually diminishing, constantly being exploited to foreigners, and above all, becoming forgotten.

For instance, the traditional fisherman is slowly becoming extinct and being replaced by larger fishing boats, clearly a more efficient means to catch fish for the masses. However, with enormous fishing nets and way too few fish, those commoners who usually live on the outskirts of Hong Kong in little villages, relying on the daily catch for feed, are frequently finding themselves without dinner. Many villages like those most known in Sai Kung and on Lantau Island have moved, either back to the mainland or to the city to find a better job in order to take care of their families. Outside the fringes of the city, many remnants of what used to be a lively village, full of tradition and history can only be found.

There are some villages that survive; one that I frequented the summer of 2004 during a family boating trip. However, the people who reside there are usually found to have given into the hands of tourism and have come to realize the only way to make a living is to take advantage of the foreigners who seem to be exploiting them and their once, culture-filled rural community. The night market in Mong Kok is one of Hong Kong’s most well known and deadliest tourist traps.

Open only after the sun sets and the streets close, then do hawkers flood the middle of the roads with their carts. Peddling porcelain, jade horses, “gold” Buddhas, furniture, toys, Mao trinkets, Che t-shirts, cheap jewelry and cd’s, fake sunglasses and DVD’s, not to mention furs and leathers of all kinds, it is a subsequent candy store for visiting travelers and antique collectors. In addition to basically everything you can find, restaurants and street food vendors outline the night market encapsulating all the attention in the center with an assortment of warm and filling aromas. However, these common smells of local foods such as wonton noodles (Wonton-Meen), homemade Chinese dumplings filled with pork, shrimp, shitake mushrooms and Chinese chives (Gao-Zi), special thinly sliced fish (Yu-Peen), congee, and a kind of fried dough commonly eaten for breakfast (Yao-Za-Gwai), are not only found on the outskirts of the city like Mong Kok.

Familiar Hong Kong cheap and fast street food can be found all over parts of the city, being pushed increasingly back behind tall buildings, ritzy hotels, and alluring shops. This kind of mass-appeal local dining (Dai-Pai-Dong) are still visited regularly by the Hong Kong businessman looking for a quick bite between meetings; however, with the increase of ex-patriots, quickly thinning out the usual Chinese face in the crowd, proper eateries are now the way to go. Besides the air condition and comfortableness of restaurants that people are opting for, these local, and sometimes outdoor, places are usually located smaller, older buildings that tend to be very crowded during consumption hours where smaller parties usually find themselves sitting with strangers at larger tables.

Since people are finding themselves frequenting Dai Pai Dong’s less and less, storeowners are finding themselves unable to pay the expensive city rent and are being forced to move into government market buildings that usually rent out the top floors to local restaurateurs. Not only are these budget restaurants being the ones shoved out of the old spotlight, but as are common street markets, like the well-known Wan Chai market, which has now been moved into a central government building.

It is not the fact that these places have been forced to succumb to the city’s ongoing clean-up and transformation, but that the spirit of tradition and Hong Kong culture is no longer being seen, let alone remembered, in a city that is constantly evolving. Markets are giving way to more traffic room due to a rise in vehicles; fisherman and farmers are losing their war with globalization; local restaurants are being drowned beneath grand buildings; and convention has surrendered to modernization. The way of life that used to be will soon be no longer.