Rows of Matchbox cars line the shelves of a nondescript shop on a busy Sham Shui Po street. A rack displays magazines of yesteryear in one corner, while commemorative MTR tickets and Ronald McDonald Happy Meal toys jostle for space in another.

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
Ricky Lau, owner of second-hand shop The Good, the Bad and the Creative in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

On a July afternoon, there are no more than half a dozen customers in the store at any one time. All of them browse intently; most buy nothing. Background violin music is interrupted whenever a customer opens the door and the din of traffic spills in.

The two-storey unit sells a hodgepodge of vintage items. Proprietor Ricky Lau, who has a decades-long love of collecting toys, started a second-hand shop with a partner four years ago, selling the kind of model cars and robots that he grew up playing with. In September 2020 he branched out on his own and opened The Good, the Bad and the Creative, stocking everything from cassette tapes to mementos with the colonial-era Royal Hong Kong Police Force emblem.

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
An envelope from the Urban Services Department, a government department that was abolished in 1999. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“Now we sell everything,” the 58-year-old told HKFP. “You name it, we’ve got it.”

The sources of the merchandise are as diverse as the goods themselves. Some are toys from Lau’s own collection, while others are on consignment from fellow hobbyists. Friends have also given him items lying around their homes, and scavengers in Sham Shui Po – one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts – come across occasional valuable items.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good, the Bad and the Creative in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

But nowadays, it’s a new kind of supplier keeping the businessman busy: Hongkongers who are emptying their apartments ahead of emigrating.

“They come with bags and bags of stuff,” he says. “They don’t want to take it all with them, but they also don’t want to throw them all away. So they bring them to me.”

Exodus underway

Amid a rapidly changing political environment and strict Covid-19 restrictions echoing mainland China’s zero-Covid approach, Hong Kong has seen a sharp increase in people leaving for good.

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
Old magazine issues at The Good, the Bad and the Creative. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Government figures showing the change in the resident population since 2010 reveal a rising trend until the end of 2020 and 2021, when the population fell 1.2 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively.

Alongside schools seeing falling enrolment and companies struggling to recruit, Lau’s humble shop has joined the ranks of institutions experiencing the impact of the exodus first-hand.

“It began around two years ago,” he said. “People started telling me they were emigrating, and asked me if I was interested in taking some of their stuff. There are usually around one or two cases every month.”

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
A ruler calling on Hongkongers to register as voters in the first-ever Legislative Council elections in 1991. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“Most of their things are popular culture stuff, like CDs, celebrity magazines, collectible idol cards from way back,” Lau said. “They’re things that they’ve had for 20 years or more.”

Among the more striking items is an engraved mirror from a retired man leaving for the UK later this year. The mirror is etched with the names of his parents, the man told Lau, custom-made to mark their wedding more than 70 years ago.

“The handiwork is stunning,” Lau said. “You don’t see this sort of craftsmanship nowadays.”

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
A custom-made mirror marking the wedding of a Hong Kong couple in 1950. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The man also dropped off sets of tableware with a pre-Handover emblem. “I’m not sure where he got those from. He probably had friends or relatives who were civil servants before 1997,” Lau said, referring to the year the former British colony was returned to China.

“Actually, a lot of people love these [pre-Handover] collectibles. Especially these few years, there’s been a lot of interest.”

Remembering Hong Kong

While emigrants declutter their homes, some are also turning to Lau’s shop to buy trinkets to remember their home city by.

“Coin banks, toys, games like airplane chess and [early editions of] Hong Kong Monopoly, these are all popular among people who are moving abroad,” Lau said. “They bring back childhood memories.”

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
The shop is overflowing with old mementos of yesteryear. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“It would be hard for them to find these things once they leave.”

The government has denied that figures pointing to a falling population imply a wave of emigration, citing factors such as Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and residents who had left the city before Covid-19 being unable to return, among other factors.

Yet findings in March from the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, whose members employ about one-third of the city’s workforce, warned of an “exodus of educated workers on a scale not seen since the early 1990s.”

The Good, the Bad and the Creative
An issue of HighNoon News from 1970. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Lau, meanwhile, recognises that his humble second-hand shop – selling 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 are seeking made-in-Hong Kong toys – rare finds following the decline of the manufacturing industry in the 60s and 70s – and wonder if he can help to source them.

“Times are changing,” he said. “But people still love to reminisce about the past.”

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.