“Some trades in certain areas should be eliminated,” says Raymond Lam, who runs a bamboo steamer making shop established over 70 years ago. “Hong Kong is now an international city, a financial centre. How can you survive doing work with your hands?” he asked.
Lam is one of the last people in Hong Kong who still make the iconic baskets used in Cantonese restaurants. Though the steamer is still made by hand today, there are fewer and fewer of these craftsmen left in Hong Kong. Perhaps as a reflection of people’s longing for the now dwindling trade, people now call him Master Lam, a higher title than when he had been working years ago.
Most steamers are now made in mainland China, where labour is comparatively cheap and there are more people willing to work in the trade. Lam’s shop, the Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Co., is one of the few such stores left in the city.
He inherited the trade and continued it because he could still make enough money, Lam said. His family has been in the industry for generations, fleeing to Hong Kong amid political turmoil in mainland China. “We have to follow where the businesses go if we want to survive,” said Lam.
The boon of the MTR
But it isn’t all about the desperate survival of a traditional shop, and there is a steady, even increasing demand for the bamboo steamers. Lam said that there are actually more restaurants opening up as Hong Kong’s population has increased over the years. And now, in a more well-off society, more people have free time. So there are now also families and tourists who come to buy steamers for their homes, and as souvenirs, he said.
The store has moved several times, the last time was 36 years ago to their current address, but he has never left the Sai Ying Pun area. When asked, Lam said that he was unafraid of the MTR. Its opening led to a new wave of gentrification in the neighbourhood.
“Why we survive is because restaurants have a demand, families have a demand. There a demand because other replacements can’t fulfil the same goals,” he added.
“We have waited for [the MTR] for more than 30 years. Because in the past… there were very few who came to the Western District to visit, to shop.” Now, however, the MTR has brought a steady stream of customers to the store. As time went during the interview, many peeked into the shop as they walked past, even on an especially rainy day.
Lam said that there are customers who come especially from the New Territories to buy his things. But they are old people, mostly.
An old man comes by and asks the price of one of the many bamboo products that Lam has made from the bits and pieces of bamboo left over from making steamers.
“HK$20,” Lam said. “Do you want a bag?”
“Yes,” said the man, and Lam grabs a red plastic bag and tries to open it, with some difficulty. “Sorry I’ve got no fingerprints left,” said Lam, smiling. “It happens when we work in this trade.”
Irreplaceable, for now
Lam trained for five years, longer than the usual three because he was studying during his apprenticeship. Little has changed in the trade and he says that until now, no machine has been able to replace the assembly of the bamboo steamer, which still has to be done by hand. Electrical tools, however, have made some things faster like hole-drilling.
“Maybe someone will invent a computer programme that can do this,” he said, “but right now assembly has to be done by hand.”
As long as there’s a demand, says Lam, then the store can survive.
Yet even if steamers cannot be produced on assembly lines, Lam said that he is not going to teach his trade to anyone who does not have a successful career and money to live comfortably on. He would refuse an 18-year-old who asked to become an apprentice, he said, because “he would be out of a job by the time he’s 28.”
“Think about it, you’re asking an 18-year-old boy to learn something without a future -you’re just sacrificing him,” he added.
Lam says it’s all business, but when asked if he feels anything for his job, he said that he has to, after so many years in the trade. “I’m thankful that this trade can still survive,” he said.
“You have to look at the environment… in my experience, you don’t have to be too worried. When you’re too worried, you’re only doing it to yourself. For example in the 80s, when I was starting out, they were making stainless steel steamers… And my generation before me was very worried – ‘Ah, we won’t have jobs any more,’ they said. They weren’t wrong, because how could you break a stainless steel steamer?” Bamboo steamers can last for maybe a year, but stainless steel steamers could last for 50 years, he said.
Yet the steel trend quickly went out of fashion in Cantonese restaurants after a year or two, because of the difference it made to the food, he said. “It’s simple, because the food it cooks is tasty,” he said of bamboo steamers.
He says again that, if there’s a demand, the trade will survive. As long as it is compatible with the needs of traditional foods, he said, “not because Tuck Chong’s steamers are very cheap, very good, and a good price for quality,” he said.
Lam said that “society now is a relatively better society, that’s why some people can be concerned about whether to keep the building, preserve this trade… ”
But “if there’s a demand, we’ll continue… You cannot demand anything. If one day there is no market, however you demand it, no one will look back,” he said.
Despite his reluctance to teach the trade to the next generation though, there is also a sense of gratitude towards how far his trade has taken him. As long as there are restaurants, it seems that Lam’s shop is here to stay.