Efforts to preserve a slice of Hong Kong’s history usually have wide support as the construction boom in past decades has largely destroyed whatever is left on people’s collective memories. But the government is sometimes seen to be picking the wrong things to preserve.
A row of shop houses on Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei is a case in point. These old relics are part of Hong Kong people’s collective bad memories that should be eradicated and wiped out rather than preserved as a constant reminder of the bad times when a family of eight had to share one bed.
A relative of mine with his wife and five children lived in one of these shophouses on Shanghai Street in the early 1960s. He was one of the luckier ones being able to afford a whole apartment on one floor. Usually, an apartment there was shared by several families, occupying cubicles separated by flimsy wood panels.
The ground level shop in the stick house where he lived was an ironmonger selling pots and pans that were banged into shape at the workshop in the back. The noise of hammer hitting steel mixing with the cacophony of the busy traffic on the street can be most annoying unless you’re forced to get used to it assaulting your ear everyday.
Even in the early 1960s, the long row of shop houses, which were built before the 1930s, along the entire street were dilapidated with much of the plasters on the outer walls peeled off, exposing patches of layered bricks. The staircases leading to the upper floors were steep, narrow and dark even in a sunny day and the exposed water pipes were rusty and pronged to leaking.
Yes, there was running water in every shophouse apartment. But the water pressure was so weak that people living on the upper floors would have to wait till those on the lower floors turned off their taps before getting a trickle.
The bane of living in those shophouses was, I believe, the lack of flushing toilets. That was because the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter had blocked the discharge of waste in the area to the open sea. How the households in Shanghai Street disposed of their wastes is not something you want to read about. It’s messy.
The only reason I can think of to preserve these shophouses is to remind the many disgruntled Hong Kong people that despite the shortage of housing, they are considerably better off than some of their predecessors. If that’s the case, yes, it’s worth the money.
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