Memorabilia of a departed Hong Kong pile up in a vintage thrift store amid a wave of emigration
Rows of Matchbox cars line the shelves of a nondescript store on a busy street in Sham Shui Po. A rack displays vintage magazines in one corner, while commemorative MTR tickets and Ronald McDonald Happy Meal toys jostle for space in another.
On a July afternoon, there are no more than half a dozen customers in the store at any one time. All navigate attentively; most don’t buy anything. The fiddle background music is interrupted each time a patron opens the door and the din of traffic erupts.
The two-story unit sells a mishmash of vintage items. Owner Ricky Chu, who has enjoyed collecting toys for decades, opened a thrift shop four years ago with a partner, selling the kind of model cars and robots he grew up playing with. In September 2020, he branched out and opened The Good, the Bad and the Creative, stocking everything from cassette tapes to memorabilia featuring the emblem of the colonial-era Royal Hong Kong Police Force.
“Now we sell everything,” the 58-year-old told HKFP. “You name it, we have it.”
The sources of the commodity are as diverse as the goods themselves. Some are toys from Chu’s own collection, while others are on consignment from other hobbyists. Friends have also given him items lying around their homes, and scavengers in Sham Shui Po – one of Hong Kong‘s poorest neighborhoods – occasionally stumble upon valuables.
But today, it is a new type of supplier that occupies the businessman: Hong Kongers who empty their apartments before emigrating.
“They come with bags and bags of stuff,” he says. “They don’t want to take everything with them, but they don’t want to throw everything away either. So they bring them to me.
Amid a rapidly changing political environment and tight Covid-19 restrictions echoing mainland China’s zero-Covid approach, Hong Kong has seen a surge in the number of people leaving for good.
Government figures showing the evolution of the resident population since 2010 reveal an upward trend until the end of 2020 and 2021, when the population fell by 1.2% and 0.3% respectively.
Alongside schools experiencing declining enrollment and businesses struggling to recruit, Chu’s humble boutique has joined the ranks of institutions directly impacted by the exodus.
“It started about two years ago,” he said. “People started telling me they were emigrating and asking if I was interested in taking some of their stuff. There are usually about one or two cases a month.
“Most of their stuff is pop culture stuff, like CDs, celebrity magazines, long-time trading idol cards,” Chu said. “These are things they’ve had for 20 years or more.”
Among the most striking items is an engraved mirror of a pensioner leaving for the UK later this year. The names etched on the surface are his parents, the man told Chu, and were custom-made to mark their marriage more than 70 years ago.
“Handwork is beautiful,” Chu said. “You don’t see that kind of craft these days.”
The man also dropped dinnerware sets with a pre-transfer emblem. “I don’t know where he got that from. He probably had friends or relatives who were civil servants before 1997,” Chu said, referring to the year the former British colony was returned to China.
“In fact, a lot of people like these [pre-Handover] collectibles. Especially these few years there has been a lot of interest.
Remember Hong Kong
As emigrants declutter their homes, some also turn to Chu’s shop to buy trinkets as a memento of their hometown.
“Piggy banks, toys, games like plane chess and [early editions of] Hong Kong Monopoly, they are all popular among people moving overseas,” Chu said. “They bring back childhood memories.”
“It would be difficult for them to find these things once they were gone.”
The government has denied that figures indicating a population decline imply a wave of emigration, citing factors such as Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and residents who left the city before Covid-19 could return, among other factors.
Yet the March findings of Hong Kong’s General Chamber of Commerce, whose members employ around a third of the city’s workforce, warned of an “outflow of educated workers on an unprecedented scale.” seen since the early 1990s.
Chu, meanwhile, acknowledges that his humble thrift store – which sells symbols of Hong Kong’s past – has inadvertently come to embody the present.
Some of his customers who have already left Hong Kong, he said, still occasionally message him across time zones. They search for Hong Kong-made toys – rare finds following the decline of manufacturing in the 1960s and 70s – and wonder if he can help find them.
“Times are changing,” he said. “But people always like to reminisce about the past.”
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