Sheung Wan’s historic Hollywood Road is a tale of two halves: you’ll find hip bars and cafes, choice art galleries and designer shops; these are interspersed with a Chinese-style bone healer, while an Anglican Church-run nursery stands cheek-by-jowl with a greasy roast pork vendor. But what stand out are several old Chinese coffin shops—euphemistically referred to as ‘longevity shops’ by the Chinese—characterized by the lustrous stacks of lotus-shaped timber coffins on display.
‘There are only five coffin shops left today along and just behind Hollywood Road. It’s a lot for a small area, but there were more,’ says Auntie Wan, the friendly 65-year-old shopkeeper of Tin Sau (Heavenly Longevity) Coffins, which faces the tranquil Hollywood Road Park, otherwise known as Possession Point, purportedly the spot where the British flag was first raised in Hong Kong in January 1841.
‘We’ve been here for well over half a century. Besides the coffin masters, the area was full of craftsmen who made funeral lanterns, hand rolled candles, drew portraits as well as sold paper offerings like mansions or cars that are burned for the enjoyment of the dead in afterlife,’ she adds.
Today, Hollywood Road bisects a trendy hive of sleek cafes, graffiti-splashed walls, hip boutiques and art galleries. But what belies the gentrified air of the area is a morbid past that many have forgotten.
In the early colonial days, a makeshift graveyard stood opposite Possession Point. Legend has it that the pits were often so shallow that when summer floods hit, bones would be washed down to busy Queen’s Road below. Just a stone’s throw from the mass burial ground were crowded, filthy tenements that housed thousands of poor migrant laborers from southern China who poured into Hong Kong in the mid-19th century to make a fast buck. Opium houses, gambling dens and brothels were commonplace, but in this de-facto ghetto, the colony’s nascent Chinese business elite emerged to open Tung Wah, Hong Kong’s first hospital for Chinese people, in 1872.
That benevolent intervention didn’t stop a deadly bubonic plague from ravaging the area around the turn of the 20th century, but the hospital gradually modernized and expanded into a major charity.
‘Tung Wah even had a funeral parlor next to their hospital right up to the late 1970s. Naturally there’s a huge demand for coffins,’ Auntie Wan says. ‘Eventually, the funeral parlor moved to Kowloon because the endless chanting of Taoist monks kept everyone awake at night.’
Fast-forward to the 1990s: the opening of the Central—Mid-Levels Escalator began the gentrification around Hollywood Road, and craftsmen that built the local funeral economy retired one after the other, ushering in a definitive change for the neighborhood from coffins to coffee.
Though the heyday of the coffin masters may be in the past, those that remain are serving a deep cultural belief. ‘For the Chinese, durable coffins are houses for a peaceful afterlife, and auspicious symbols they bear such as lotus, bats and coins are as much for the happiness of the departed as to bless the living,’ Auntie Wan explains. ‘A proper send-off ensures prosperity for the children, which is why some families are still willing to pay HK$100,000 for a coffin today even if the deceased is cremated in the end.’
Tucked away in a quiet lane behind the lively local institution of Man Mo Temple is Leung Chun Woon Kee, one of Hong Kong’s last remaining burial garment manufacturers that in fact began life in Canton in 1904 as a supplier of imperial court robes. At the helm of the fifth-generation business is 57-year-old Kenneth Leung, an energetic man who gives Powerpoint presentations at his traditional store about the wide-ranging funeral services they offer. Leung’s business-savvy approach reflects changing times, and the fine silk clothing also talks modern fashion sense.
‘In the old days the clothing always came in black, brown or blue,’ Leung says. ‘Now people want them in purple, yellow or even pink. They go for what’s familiar, and perhaps more cheerful to them.’ The practice of picking appropriate funeral dates has also changed in the 21st century. In the past families would be advised by the Chinese almanac, but today many go for weekends as schedules of the living dictate the proceedings. However, some ancient beliefs will always be followed.
‘The sleeves of burial garments cover the hands completely because exposed hands make beggars of one’s family, and the outfits are without pockets to prevent the dead from taking money away from his descendants,” Leung explains.
In an industry that few would want to associate with because of fear of bad luck, Leung says he’s free of superstitions—but not his friends. ‘When I go for meals with them, they won’t let me pay the bill,’ he laughs.
That sense of ‘exclusion’ is shared by Auntie Wan. ‘I used to run a little restaurant just round the corner for 20 years,’ she says. ‘I got into the coffin trade by chance seven years ago, and now I cannot visit my friends at Chinese New Year – that is a taboo.’
But the well-known neighborhood figure assured that she’d always be around when needed. ‘Once a policeman stormed into my shop,’ she excitedly recalls. ‘He found a rotting body in a nearby flat. He was desperate for a bunch of incense sticks so he could burn it to clear the stench off his uniform, and to offer some solace to the tragic dead.’
Photos: Kirk Kenny