Chan Lok-Choi: Sunset Survivor

 

It’s about 9:30 a.m. Sunday, 76-year-old Chan Lok-Choi went downstairs his home in Kowloon Bay, crossed the pedestrians, and spent 20 minutes on the no.45 minibus to Yuen Po Street Bird Garden.

After entering the garden, he took out a small piece of paper from his pocket, which was torn from the calendar, and discussed the Six Lottery with some friends outside a birdseed store. Then he walked all the way to Choi Kee, his five-square-meter store at the other end.

Hongkongers have always loved their birds. Much like walking a dog, older Chinese men would take their caged birds out in the morning to parks or quiet streets and sit listening to songs or chat with others bird-lovers. But Chan is not one of them.

Joyfully talking and birds restlessly warbling surrounded the crowd. Chan, without a single word, removed the bulkhead in front of the store, opened three locks of the rolling gate, and positioned his tools and his potted plants. Now he could start his work.

This is the typical start of Chan’s day. Starting learning to make cages in 1955, at his 13, Chan has been a bamboo birdcage maker for more than 60 years, and the only one left in Hong Kong.

Growing up with his uncle selling birds, Chan began to learn to make cages out of love of birds and art. “Each bird is different in nature, so the cage should also be different to suit the bird,” he said, “I like to create things, so I wanted to make cages for different birds.”

Then, he was under the tutelage of renowned birdcage maker Cheuk Hong, who sold his craft at HK $50,000.

The first thing Cheuk asked him to do was bending the bamboo, Chan recalled. First, select a whole bamboo, break it open, and then bend it into a circle until the circumference is a little less than that of the basic plate of the cage so that the size matches the cage.

In the 1950s, when there was no precise instrument, all the processes relied on the experience of the craftsman. “I did it more than a hundred times before I qualified,” he said.

“People now do things so casually, they use instant glue to fix cages without studying the structure,” he criticized that this is not ability. “The young are not able to do this, some old has been retired, and I’m the only one left who really know how to make cages.”

IMG_2288
Chan Lok-Choi is polishing the second layer of the pedestal of a birdcage using a knife, which is the part his master first asked him to study, on Nov. 25, 2018. Normally, a birdcage has three layers in the pedestal: the bottom one is the basic plate, the second is a bent bamboo that strengths the base, the third is lining.

Choi Kee is like a treasure trove of birdcages, houses various kinds of birdcages fixed or still under repairing on the shelves, in the cabinet, or hung.

Less than 20 meters away in the Git Kee birdcage store, where is one of six birdcage stores in the Garden, the owner Wong Chiu-Lun, 42, said cages made by craftsmen in Hong Kong now can be sold more than HK $10,000.

However, Chan hasn’t been making a brand new birdcage for too many years to tell the price of his crafts. “Making a new cage is time-consuming. There’s a lot of refurbishments to do so I don’t have time,” said Chan.

Usually, Chan has one day off monthly, but the past November broke the pattern. He took a five-day break for attending the clinic to review his diabetes, which was diagnosed 20 years ago when he had his rhinitis examined.

In the past, Chan only took consecutive days to rest for Chinese Spring Festival. Besides, the last break was when he traveled to mainland China with friends a decade ago.

A “goal-directed” rest is acceptable, like traveling with family and friends, but now his physical condition has not allowed him to travel long distances.

“I sometimes want to take a break, but it is not a good idea if I don’t have any plan,” he said. “It’d better working in the store rather fidgeting at home.”

“He is now working not for money, but for fame,” said Au Sing-Cheong, 63, has his parrot store adjacent to Choi Kee.

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Chan Lok-Choi is lacquering a birdcage in his store Choi Kee, at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden on Nov. 27, 2018. After finishing fixing each cage, he would put them in a transparent plastic bag and hang them up, to save room for cages still under repairing.

The arrival of avian flu in 2012-with the subsequent of bird ban on public transport and restaurants-had hugely dampened the tradition of walking birds and the culture of raising bird.

However, Chan bathes the bird and feeds them “decent food” every day for pressing grievances: “Domestic birds are very clean, they never come across wild birds, and even not to mention they touch guano. But people still avoid them.”

Having two daughters and one son, none of his children are keen to learn Chan’s trade. Instead, they do banking, tourism, and medical supplies. “Life was not so good when I studied making cages, unlike people now may earn HK $10,000 to 20,000 doing any job,” said Chan.

“I would love to have an apprentice, but no one with a school education seems to be interested in learning these handicraft skills anymore,” he added, “most young people are short-sighted, they only focus on how much they can earn.”

Chan’s industry is fading quickly, but dying handicraft is not all doom and gloom in his eyes, “it’s no use worrying because that’s the way things are. Similar industries decline, but if no one wants to learn, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

He has no plan to retire any time soon. “No one new is learning,” he shrugged, “but I will keep doing this…

“If my body could tolerate that,” he laughed like a child light-hearted.

 

Chen Yuyang, Dec. 9,  2018

The video story is named Sunset Survivor. In the four-people group project, I was responsible for project directing, interview, shooting, and editing.

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