If you haven’t already noticed from my blog, The Long and Winding Road is that one of the things that I have a soft spot for is in old places which would be mixed with bits of nostalgia of those places in the days that have passed. While The Long and Winding Road isn’t so much a nostalgia blog as it has sometimes been labelled as – being about how I see what is around me, it does have a large dose of nostalgia for the Singapore that I grew up in, and when I am in a place like Hong Kong, I can also identify with the places and things that the local people have a nostalgia for. Hong Kong does provide a lot of that in some ways: the tramway and the Star ferry being some of the older things that are still around. There is another part of Hong Kong where it is possible to enjoy hearing the lingering echo of a forgotten past, which on this trip was introduced by Mr Leon Suen, a professional photographer who had kindly and patiently served as our guide for two hours in an thoroughly enjoyable walk around the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong Island.
The highlight of the walk was the walk along the staircases and terraces of Sheung Wan around the area where Wing Lee Street is. Wing Lee Street is a terrace that was made famous by Alex Law’s award winning movie 歲月神偷, 岁月神偷 in simplified Chinese or when translated into English, “Time, the thief”. It goes by the title “Echoes of the Rainbow” in English, a reference to the double rainbow I suppose, that features in a scene in the movie. I guess the walk would probably have been more meaningful if I had watched the movie before taking it, but somehow, walking down the staircases and terraces did take me back to a time as the street that Wing Lee Street was used to depict was in, to the Sheung Wan of the 1960s, much like how my walks in some of the older parts of Singapore would bring me back to a time that I would have remembered.
The movie, which I made a point of watching in the plane on the voyage back to Singapore, is filled with sights, sounds and images of the Hong Kong of the late 1960s. In watching it, I felt very much that I was back in that Hong Kong, back to a time when I had my own childhood in Singapore, with strains of music of the era that echo in the background of the many warm nostalgic scenes that fill the movie. I didn’t think very much of the plot though, while it may have centred around a heart wrenching tale of a family of a shoemaker struggling to make ends meet and desperately trying to save a favoured son in his prime diagnosed with cancer as seen through the eyes of the younger son finding hard to live up to the comparisons made with his elder brother. The story which is in a sense an autobiographical tribute to the director’s own brother who died of cancer in his teens, I felt was rather shallow and predictable, but still watchable for the poignant look of the Hong Kong of old. I understand that it was only after the shooting of the movie that a decision was taken to conserve the buildings along Wing Lee Street which would otherwise have been demolished.
An interesting part of Wing Lee Street is at the corner of Shing Wong Street (one of the “ladder streets” – named such as they are literally staircases up from the lower reaches of the Central and Sheung Wan areas to the Mid Levels higher up), where the Wai Che Printing Co. is located. It is also interesting to note that opposite the entrance to the Wai Che is the building that was used to depict the school in the movie. Entering the printing shop through the half opened collapsible gate, you would immediately be transported back in time – more so because of the sight of old wooden racks of lead type against the wall and an old Heidelberg cylinder movable type printing machine, which although still being operated by the owner, the very friendly Mr. Lee Chak Yue who is in his eighties, has become obsolete. Mr. Lee, had been using this traditional method of printing which harks back to the days of ancient China in which it was invented (it is considered one of the great inventions of China), for some 60 years and was patient enough to explain how printing is done in this traditional way where typesetting can be a lengthy task. It is a shame to have to hear from him and Leon that the shop and the wealth of history that can be found in the lead type and machines is not something that the heritage body in Hong Kong is looking at preserving. It would certainly be nice to see that at least the shop and the contents of the shop be kept where it is and preserved as a museum, but from the sound of things, that is quite unlikely.
At the other end of the terrace there is a charming old apartment block – looking somewhat dilapidated. If not for the evidence of clothes hanging to dry on lines and letter boxes stuffed with the mail, I would have thought that they were not lived in. A feature of buildings of that era can be seen on the façade of the building, which has slots to serve as ventilation openings on the stairwell and more importantly to provide a source of light, one that you will see on many of the buildings around Sheung Wan. Other notable sights in the vicinity are the old Chinese YMCA building – a red brick eclectically designed building that dates back to 1918 which served as the headquarters of the Chinese YMCA on Bridges Street until it moved in 1966 and the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road.