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Neighbourhood fusion of arts, culture and community

By Thee Lui

Yau Ma Tei is a familiar place to Hong Kong’s art and culture addicts. They can catch an arthouse movie at the Broadway Cinematheque and browse through the books and magazines at the Kubrick bookstore next door while taking in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Afterwards, they might want to attend a talk given by post-80s activists at one of the spaces run by local cultural groups.

Meanwhile, some construction workers, who have just finished work sit on the edge of the flower boxes outside the cinema and drink a can of beer or two. The historical Wholesale Fruit Market is a stone’s throw away and next to it and you may find food stalls selling cheap yet delicious beef brisket noodles.

Hemmed between the tourist spots of Jordan and the neon retail paradise of Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei retains its traditional shops, trades and artisans. In recent years, the area has also seen the arrival of local artists, designers and cultural workers. They are drawn by the sense of community, authentic Hong Kong culture and relatively cheap rents.

The incomers include people like Simon Go Man-ching, founder of HULU Culture, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting local arts and culture. Go says today’s Yau Ma Tei is a fascinating fusion of traditional arts, grassroots culture, and a strong sense of neighbourhood.

“Yau Ma Tei still retains many distinctive community cultures and neighbourhood features that were prevalent during the 1960s and 1970s,” he says.

Although he was not a Yau Ma Tei resident, Go spent a lot of time hanging around in the district during his student days. He is impressed by the street culture and especially by the close, neighbourly bonds people there enjoy.

“I always chat with the neighbours. It feels like we have known each other for so long. The old people here are eager to share their experience with me. I appreciate their belongingness and gratefulness about where they live,” Go says.

Go was able to showcase Yau Ma Tei’s unique character when HULU Culture won funding from the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and the Arts Development Council (ADC) to organise the six-month “Yau Ma Tei Cultural Celebration Project”. The project aimed to encourage active community participation through a series of community arts projects, exhibitions and performance activities. Although the Celebration Project ended in January, HULU Culture still organises heritage tours that take visitors to local sights such as Tin Hau Temple, the Wholesale Fruit Market and the Red Brick Building.

HULU Culture is not the only cultural group to make a base in Yau Ma Tei. In recent years, a number of young cultural enthusiasts have quietly moved into the neighbourhood. Woofer Ten was one of the first. It moved into a space in Shanghai Street provided by the ADC in 2009.

The name Woofer Ten is a transliteration of the Chinese for “heritage renewal and conservation room” and the space is run by a group of artists, curators, critics and other cultural workers who want to introduce contemporary art that engages with the community. They hold different exhibitions and stage many ad hoc activities such as performances, guided tours, workshops, talks, and film screenings.

Justina Wong, Woofer Ten’s coordinator, thinks art should not be confined to the small group of artists in Yau Ma Tei. Instead, the kaifong (neighbours in Cantonese) are welcomed and encouraged to embrace and contribute to the cultural atmosphere.

“Different kaifong have different interpretations of the purpose of Woofer Ten,” says Wong. “But no matter what they think of this place, they can feel free to utilise it.”

On the day of Varsity’s visit, Woofer Ten had just received hundreds of books donated by a retired universiy Professor. Szeto Siu-mei, a retired nurse, comes to Woofer Ten and selects some, including some on health, which she hopes will help stroke patients.

“They [Woofer Ten] started this; from the bottom of my heart, I feel I want to help. I find it very meaningful,” says Szeto, who is an active participant of events held by Woofer Ten, including being a “teacher” in an anti-national education programme called “I Teach If You Are Willing to Learn”.

To outsiders, it may seem that Woofer Ten is providing a lot to the community, but in fact, the kaifong also bring a lot to Woofer Ten.

Vangi Fong Wan-chi, a core member of Woofer Ten, says the space has a complex relationship with the kaifong. “It is not just that we ask neighbours to join [the events]. They may feel like bringing their talents into full play,” says Fong. “They engage with us not only by sitting around, but they also read our Woofer Paper monthly and give opinions to us.”

Cheng Chik-kuen is one of the neighbours who is very active and has even initiated events. He often brings things to Woofer Ten, from food to music. As a lover and collector of old CDs and vinyl records, he has some old tracks that even radio stations do not have. He is currently discussing the idea of holding an old music exhibition with the members of Woofer Ten.

For Cheng, Woofer Ten is a unique place to meet and share views with new and old friends. “Forget about on this street, how could you find any other place like this in the entire city? You can’t,” he says.

Maybe you would not find another place exactly like Woofer Ten, but just a couple of blocks away is another cultural space working on community engagement. Located in Tak Cheong Lane, Two or Three Things about Tak Cheong Lane opened in July. It is filled with books, CDs and other items. People are free to put and take things away without payment, although item swaps are also encouraged. There is also a computer and a Wi-Fi connection which the kaifong are welcome to use.

Founder Chan Wing-chi, says Yau Ma Tei is a place that always leaves you craving for more. “Of all the old neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, I think Yau Ma Tei is the one that has been most completely preserved. You can still feel a sense of neighbourhood, where people nod to you when you see them,” he says.

Chan uses his earnings from importing and selling CDs to pay the rent for the space and he does not make any money from it. Yet, he believes in running a space that can be shared by the neighbourhood, and where members of the community can decide whether to use it as a place for a chat over tea, as a barter shop, a bookstore, an art space or a second home.

Usually, the kaifong go to Two just to chat, drink or idle away time with Chan, and some local South Asian kids come over to use the computer every evening.

Jimmy, whose bicycle shop is nearby, appreciates Chan’s efforts to preserve the community bonds. He feels that people are more distant from each other now, whereas in decades past, neighbours chatted with, cared about and helped each other.

“People recognize all their neighbours and help you look after your children. This kind of care is not out of wanting to earn 10 dollars more from you.”

Contemporary Yau Ma Tei is not only managing to preserve some of the ethos of old community ties, it is also playing a role in preserving other traditional elements. The area is also home to the Yau Ma Tei Theatre, built in 1930 and the only surviving pre-World War Two cinema in Hong Kong.

After decades of neglect, the building was recently re-opened as a venue for Cantonese Opera.

“Yau Ma Tei is an old community that has always had a link with Cantonese Opera,” says Alisa Shum Kam-sin, chief executive of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, an association of Cantonese opera groups and artists. Shum says there used to be a theatre for Cantonese opera in Yau Ma Tei and many people in the industry used to frequent the area.

The association is now partnered with Yau Ma Tei Theatre to run the Experience Cantopera Programme. Although the Theatre has a relatively small auditorium with just 300 seats, Cantonese opera lovers are still glad they have a new place for more upcoming opera troupes to perform.

Shum notes with satisfaction that many kaifong are going to the theatre and hopes the Yau Ma Tei Theatre and the programme can have “synergy” with the other rich local cultures of Yau Ma Tei.

In the next few years, Hong Kong can look forward to what is being touted as a world-class multi-billion dollar arts hub in West Kowloon. But as much as they embrace the arts, the artists and cultural workers in nearby Yau Ma Tei will be hoping their turf can preserve its unique culture and appearance. As HULU Culture’s Simon Go puts it: “It is not about hindering development but making an effort to preserve what is worth preserving within our ability.”