The Snake Soup Queen

On a Monday evening, in those delicate days before Hong Kong’s brutally humid summer begins in earnest, Chau Ka-ling’s snake soup restaurant is bustling with the after-work crowd. Snake soup is usually reserved for the winter months; it’s renowned for its warming and medicinal qualities. But Chau’s shop stays open all year long, despite the fact she might sell under 100 bowls on a July day compared to about 1,000 bowls on a December day. 

“We have rent to pay,” Chau says squarely. It’s with the same get-it-done sensibility that she opens a drawer of a tall wooden cabinet and removes a squirming non-venomous python. This one isn’t dinner, she says: Along with a king cobra, which is stored in a separate cabinet drawer labeled “poisonous” in Chinese, she keeps this python as a pet. 

Chau’s unflappable nature is part of what makes her such an expert snake handler. The walls of her shop, Shia Wong Hip, are lined with glass bottles of snake wine, jars filled with prized snake gallbladders, and newspaper clippings splashed with photos of a teenage Chau. That’s when she started in the business, helping at her father’s snake shop.

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The Chinese Signboard Calligrapher

Au Yeung Cheong isn’t one for modesty. He heralds himself as No. 1, the crème de la crème, the acolyte of famous Chinese calligraphers. 

His kingdom is a cluttered corner shop in the residential Hong Kong neighborhood of North Point: Fluorescent lights line the ceiling, and scraps of plastic, sawdust, and empty paint cans fill almost every square inch on the linoleum floor. Newspaper clippings adorn the door jamb. It’s not exactly a place you’d stroll past and wander inside to check out, but nonetheless a cluster of people huddles outside late on a Saturday afternoon as the sun begins its descent, peering inside.

Au Yeung’s traditional handicraft can be found plastered across more than 1,000 buildings in Hong Kong if you just look up. He designs, builds and installs signboards across Hong Kong, everywhere from restaurants and jewelry shops to Chinese medicine clinics. The 65-year-old once even stood on the bamboo scaffolding outside a watch store to paint the company’s name onto a signboard.

Handmade neon signs may be the iconic symbol of the city’s visual landscape, but in the 1980s, government regulations and a preference for more energy-efficient signs began transforming Hong Kong’s streets. These days, Au Yeung’s work is primarily acrylic, plastic or backlit with LED lights. Producing handmade signboards is a skill in and of itself, but his use of the distinctive Zan script — a regal style of Chinese calligraphy — is what truly sets his work apart from machine-made typefaces. 

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The Chestnut Roaster

“Chan’s Roast Chestnut Cart” (2020), watercolor sketch by Alvin C.K. Lam. Scroll to the end of the post for details on this Alvin C.K. Lam x No Joe Schmo collaboration.

They crackle and sizzle like explosive popcorn on the giant wok burner, which is almost the size of Chan Yuk-Lan herself. The woman’s small frame hunches over her cart as she expertly swivels a metal spatula the length of her torso, propelling dozens of chestnuts through a cascade of sugar and sand that caramelizes their shells into a sheen. 

Then Mrs. Chan, 68, hauls over a tank of fresh gas that she’s stored just around the corner. She shovels charcoal into a small cabinet at the bottom of the cart where she’s roasting the largest sweet potatoes I’ve ever seen. Then she returns to the chestnuts, adding water to the wok and continuously working them for 30 minutes, the time required until a batch is ready to serve. Smoke and steam billow around her.

Meanwhile, throngs queue outside her cart on the coldest day Hong Kong has seen all year (48°F, or 9°C). They eye it all hungrily, doling out $20 HKD (about US$3) for a hand-sized brown paper bag filled with freshly roasted chestnuts — plus maybe one of those sweet potatoes, and maybe some of those macadamia nuts or quail eggs that Mrs. Chan also sells. Her retired husband sits on a stool just to the right of the cart, watching silently.

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The Chop Master

Early on a Sunday morning in Hong Kong, nestled away in a pedestrian alleyway in the residential neighborhood of Sheung Wan, one stall among dozens is open. It belongs to Ng Kam Chun, a reserved 57-year-old man whose work most Hong Kongers have likely seen without knowing it.

Ng’s business, like that of all the stalls lining Man Wa Lane, is customized chops — traditional, necessary tools for doing business in Hong Kong, China, and beyond. A chop is essentially a square-shaped seal made of jade, marble, or wood with the owner’s name engraved onto the bottom, which is used to stamp a “signature” on important documents, cheques, and contracts. Chops symbolize a company’s identity, and in many offices are kept in safes.

Every nook and cranny in Ng Kam Chun’s tiny stall, which can fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder if you’re really squeezing, is filled with shelves that hold boxes and boxes of blank chops — slabs of stone waiting to be carved. Ng estimates there must be around 10,000 in there. 

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Hong Kong’s Last Female Mahjong Tile Carver


Ho Sau-Mei, a slight, spry 62-year-old, is the only female mahjong tile carver left in Hong Kong — that she knows of.

Her shop, Kam Fat Mahjong, is a tiny alcove squeezed beneath a staircase, about 6 feet wide and twice as deep. It’s partially enclosed by a glass-topped counter that displays tiles engraved with various suits: bamboo sticks, wheels, and Chinese characters. A dust-caked glass case lining one wall contains stacks and stacks of others, leaving just enough space for a yellowing photo of Ho at age 13, when she first learned how to carve from a sifu, or mahjong master. The shop was her family’s home when they first settled in Hung Hom, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, in the early 1960s.

Fluorescent lights and natural sunlight keep the place lit, but Ho’s eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. She relies on a small wooden box with an affixed bulb that emits a glow directly over her workspace, which also serves to warm up tiles and make them more pliable to carve.

“That way, I don’t need to use as much strength,” says Ho.

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