Why resist the sunset?
All of the craftsmen and women that I interviewed for Sunset Survivors were battling the odds; whether it was rising rents forcing them to close down, modern technology replacing their services, or factories in China producing their wares much faster and cheaper than they could, they had all faced their struggles. Some even fought a more abstract opponent, such as cultural changes that made their industry outdated, irrelevant or even avoided. For example, many young people today might frown upon keeping live snakes in drawers, only for them to be selected and sliced up for snake soup – a traditional remedy for arthritis. Most Gen Z-ers would prefer to save the snakes and just take western medication in pill form instead.
So, with so many reasons why these old traditional industries are struggling, what is the main motivation to keep going? For most, it all came down to 3 main reasons.
Firstly, it was all that they knew. If you were born into a family of Shanghainese barbers, it was hairdressing and grooming skills that you were taught from your family members. Manual clippers and sharp razor blades to shave men’s beards were your family treasures – and whether you liked it or not, you would watch, learn, help, and soon become an expert in the trade. Ms. Li the face threader says she never wanted to be a face threader and even actively tried to pursue a different path. But after many years of helping her mother powder, pluck and pamper thousands of faces in her spare time, she found that she had become an accidental master and didn’t excel at much else. So reluctantly but expertly, she took over the family business. At 80 years old (the average age of the Sunset Survivors I interviewed), it’s a little too late to make a career change.
Secondly, many continue to run these old stalls and hand make traditional products because it is the last legacy of their family’s business. For Mrs. Ho, the traditional steelyard scales maker, she continues to run her tiny 90 year old stall in Yau Ma Tei, because it is the last memory she has of her father. She started working at the stall alongside him when she was just 12 years old, watching him expertly measure out the catties and taels on the wooden rod and string together the metal tray and weight before selling to market workers, fishermen, tea shop owners and jewelers. She was never given a formal education and still to this day cannot read or write, but in scales making, she is a professional and widely respected in the area. So even though she has seven children of her own, and 13 grandchildren, all of whom have all urged her to retire and promised her that she doesn’t need to work in the sun and the heat and trouble her arthritic fingers with the scales any longer, she refuses to give up on her father’s stall, and says she will honour his last gift to her until the day she dies.
Thirdly, and quite simply, nearly all of the Sunset Survivors were not willing to retire because they said that without their work, they would feel bored and lose their sense of purpose in life. Like many Hong Kongers, they lived at home with extended families and if they gave up their work, they would simply sit at home in front of the TV and ‘wait to die’ as they put it. Even with very few customers and hardly any sales, simply going to their stalls in the daytime gave them a reason to keep going, a chance to see friends and chat to passersby, and a way to be a useful member of society.
Their reasons really portrayed Hong Kong people’s core values: saving face, respect for one’s family, and perseverance. The more times I heard these same reasons, the more proud I felt to be a Hong Konger.