Here I was, thousands of kilometres from home and standing in a darkened street digging through piles of trash in the back of Hong Kong looking for typewriters. It felt surreal.
We arrived at Temple street market late in the evening after spending the day doing some shopping on the main island. This market is famous, if not notorious, and is considered a bit of a microcosm of life in Hong Kong. Bustling trade fills the street along with community kitchens, and there’s a vibrant black market trade and the occasional hint of the old sex trade that the police have tried but have yet to totally move on. That said this is largely a fairly safe district these days, and families can be seen bringing their kids down to eat at the various street food locations just like everywhere else in Kowloon and the New Territories.
It is an area that has a vibrant culture and a rich heritage, with an interesting food market located near by along with one of Hong Kong’s oldest cinemas just up the road. The Jade market is also just a short hop away from Temple street.
Here, we’ve moved away from most of the sky-scrapers and have entered an area of mixed industry and residential. Makeshift offices and workshops have been stuffed into residential rooms, and glowing street signs fill the sky – even if they have been dysfunctional for years and the shops they once belong to have long moved on. It feels gritty and seemingly real. But you can’t help but sense that a lot of this is a put-on for the tourists. There’s plenty of junky trinkets for visitors to find here, much of which appear to be aimed at parting people from overseas with their money. But don’t let that fool you, This market is a core piece of Hong Kong’s history, and a worthy spot to visit.
It was here that I started my typewriter safari in ernest, and was my first major failure. That said I did uncover an interesting ‘Seagull’ camera. Camera enthusiasts will no doubt know exactly what I’m talking about. They wanted $hk1200 for it, but I knew I could bargain them down to closer to half of that. However I didn’t have the motivation or the inclination on this occasion, so the camera stayed put. I asked them about typewriters, but they were unsure. They asked a couple of other stall holders if they knew someone and they all seemed to, as long as I came by and had a look at their goods first. Sadly, no efforts seemed to pay off, and I just felt a little disappointed by the lack of writing machines. But hey, I could easily find a jadeite fountain pen – most of which were so low quality that the didn’t seem to work.
Jane and I grabbed dinner here (as I noted in a previous post), and made a bit of a mess of it. But it was worth it, and I with a full belly we shopped on, and eventually bought…. well, nothing. Which was just as well, as we had only recently unpacked our stuff after getting it out of storage back in Melbourne, and felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of ‘stuff’ we already had. We didn’t need to add more to it – unless it was something particularly beautiful. Sadly not much here to us was, but I sure could get a set of shoes damn cheap.
across Apliu street back in 2003 while I was trying to make my way to the ‘Golden Computer Arcade’. I took a wrong turn out of the train station that resulted in yet another wrong turn – and I was soon confronted by an incredible sight. It was street was filled with shops along both sides of the road, but the road itself was crammed with street stalls that seemed to have more spilled over onto the street, than been set-up.
Much of what was for sale either sat on pallets or rugs, while some stalls appeared to have been pulled from steel boxes and had simply exploded from the release of the pressure of opening the doors. I imagined little Chinese men shoving everything back and pushing hard at the doors while they found someone to lock it before it all burst back out again. But this wasn’t just another stockpile of cheap shoes and touristy trinkets, rather this was the sort of thing that could have fallen straight from the pages of a William Gibson novel.
On the road were all kinds of electronica that ranged from home computer bits and portable radios, to workplace servers and telephone exchange racks. Transmitter pods from an outdated Hong Kong mobile phone system sat dormant on the street unloved, while medical treatment diagnostic equipment was pilled up on top of patient trolleys. I remember a decade or so ago telling the story of this place to my cousin, who happened to be a rural vet and environment researcher. Instead of being surprised she simply said “Oh yeah, that’s where we’ve been getting a lot of our equipment from on the cheap”. That said, now in 2015 a lot of the medical and high-end communications stuff is instead sold elsewhere, leaving Apliu street to have much more of a domestic focus. However it is still an incredible sight.
I didn’t come to Apliu street for the sightseeing. I’m not the first typospherian to visit here, and thanks to ‘Typebarhead’ and a previous blog that he’d written here before, I felt there was a modest chance that I could find a couple of typewriters. So Jane and I did a spin up and down the street trying to look for the second-hand retailer that had been known to stock typewriters. We were running out of time as we had another destination to go to, and it was getting quite late and some shops had started to close down.
Sadly, we didn’t find the seller that had carried several Olympia machines previously. and as such Jane and I left Apliu street rather empty handed, and feeling unlucky. We then headed north out towards the somewhat famous Golden Computer Arcade – a market stuffed into a deteriorating old concrete building that was slapped up in the 50’s, and is wall-to-wall computer hardware and gadgetry. I have bought a fair amount of computer hardware here before, and had I have known that my Mac Mini was going to fail me within hours of my arrival back in Australia, I would have bought a new computer while I was here. Instead I bought a new hard drive that I never got to put into my Mac. Yet it was still fun exploring haunt that I’d previously enjoyed hanging out in.
While in Hong Kong, this is the place to go if you want computer gear. I’ve bought computers, monitors and many, many parts on previous trips to Hong Kong from here, and there’s something about the do-it-yourself hardware hacker in me that always has me wanting to just pick my way through here. However Jane wasn’t quite so at home, and it wasn’t helping me find any typewriters. So when the shop keepers started to hint to us to move on as they closed up shop, we made our way back to Apliu street again.
The shoppers had now departed from Apliu street, and traders were pulling their wares back into the steel boxes, vans or shops that the roadside trade had spilled from. Forklifts moved palleted and secured wares away, and I could hear several of them noisily operating up and down the road at a distance.
We were just making a brief visit in the hope of spotting some typewriters at the last minute as we made our way back to the train station, but I was pretty certain that if there were machines to be found, I’d have found them on the previous visit. Oh how wrong was I. Now that several towers of hardware had been removed, other pallets of stuff that I hadn’t spotted before lay exposed in the middle of the road.
To be honest, I’m still surprised I spotted anything at all, considering it was at a spot on the road that was very dimply lit, and pretty much all the stores around it had turned off their lights and closed up. A couple of traders stood near-by just chatting, and they largely ignored me when I approached and started digging into the mess of semi-identifiable second-hand goods. But I had made no mistake. out of the corner of my eye I spotted the familiar shape of a Brother typewriter. I whipped the cover off to have a good look at it, and quickly snapped a shot. Here I was, thousands of kilometres at home and standing in a darkened street digging through piles of trash in the back of Hong Kong looking for typewriters. It felt surreal, and I was loving it. I was knee deep in trash and getting excited about a bunch of smelly old keyboards.
As you can see in the photo above there were other machines around it. The blue Lamir was so mouldy that the case was stuck fast to the machine and I simply couldn’t get it out to look at. There was also a Royal 220 and an Adler Tippa – Litton era. Sitting on a pallet several feet away were a few other machines, and I started digging through an assortment of 70’s era portables that usually would have me excited, but did – if anything for just finding some typewriters on my trip.
I found an nice looking Kofa 400 machine, which actually typed surpassingly well with the exception of the broken draw-band. However it was also quite heavy, and despite being offered to me at a reasonable price (about $au15) I didn’t feel that it really would suit my collection.
I also found an Olympia Traveller C that I was seriously temped to bring home with me. It needed a bit of attention, and it was rather mouldy. So mouldy in fact that moments after I cracked the case off it, Jane who was standing about 4 or 5 meters away in the open street got a waft of the ‘typewriter smell from hell’, and exclaimed “Get your hands off that filthy thing. It smells revolting”.
The seller offered it to me at a price of around $au8, and as it had a couple of problems it seemed to suit my urge for a repair challenge, while the typewriter had plenty of design character. I thought for a second – just a second – about how I could get rid of the smell, before I simply put the typewriter back into its case and stuffed it back into the pile of dodgy radios and weird massagers.
“The stink is all over you” Jane said as we entered the train station. “You smell yuck. That typewriter was disgusting. I can’t believe you put your hands on it”. Maybe I’m too used to typewriter smell, but I hadn’t really noticed much. But Jane sure did, and as she is an ever-vigilant infection control CNC, she whipped out a package of soap from her handbag and demanded that I washed my hands immediately with some of the bottled water we had with is.
The next day Jane and I headed back to the main island for a few things, and while we were there we headed to the antiques district known as ‘Cat Street’. That’s not the actual street’s name, which caused no end of confusion with both google and apple maps as we tried to find the actual street. Both systems directed us to streets at the opposite ends of the island, and both were completely wrong. We ended up using directions that we found on a website that took us for a wander along some incredible Hong Kong streets – many of which I had only seen before in Hong Kong action movies. Buses moved throngs of tourists up and down these streets, and as we walked we occasionally had to push our way through masses of tourists that had stopped to look at some significant landmark or other. I was certain I’d find something here at Cat street. However there seemed to be a larger focus on art and furniture, along with odd little hand-bag cartable knick-knacks. If I still collected phones, I’d have had a field day here, as some of the models that I’d been seeking for some time were all to be found here at reasonable prices. And I again found another interesting Seagull camera, priced fairly, but I still left this one behind.
About the closest thing I found to typewriters were a couple of Burroughs adding machines. They looked beautiful and graceful, but they weighed an awful lot. I’d love one of these machines myself, but getting one back from Hong Kong to Australia would have proved difficult, and I didn’t like them THAT much to try. Had it been an antique typewriter however, that would have been a different story.
Something did stop me in my tracks however. It was a statue of the ‘Skipping Girl Vinegar’ sign that is a Melbourne icon. This statue seemed a very long way from home, and I asked the shop owner how it got there. She kinda grumbled a bit, and just didn’t say anything. So I guess the mystery will just have to remain. Further down the street I found a shop that looked like it could potentially have some typewriters, so I shuffled in sideways as to not knock over anything that had been stacked vertically in any available space inside.
There were some beautiful lamps to be found by the right person who’d appreciate them, and some magnificent art deco fans that needed some attention to bring back to life, but I didn’t really seem to find any typewriters. After about 20 minutes of looking while Jane started to loose her patience , I simply asked the shop keeper if they had any, who just answered with a blunt ‘No’, before going back to watching some dodgy Hong Kong talent show on the TV.
All in all I pretty much enjoyed the hunt at some interesting locations around Hong Kong, but sadly came away empty handed. I honestly didn’t expect to find much in Hong Kong, but it was fun all the same. At at least I saved my money for machines that I might be able to find back in Australia, and I certainly did find some not long after getting back home. One day I might get a chance to go to some other locations in HK to look for typewriters, but I might be better off dragging another typospherian along with me when I go hunting. Anyone up for a safari?