It’s four in the morning. Kam Kun Lam is trying to figure out why this blender just won’t work. Perched by the roadside, he yells at his friend that a piece has chipped off.
“Then don’t touch it anymore!” is the response.
Kam is a 79-year-old retiree who frequents the Hung Hom dawn market, not to buy or to sell, but to chat and laugh with his friends.
Every morning between 5 to 7am, illegal hawkers of clothing, shoes, electronics and other home decorations gather at Bulkeley Road to sell these goods at rock-bottom prices.
Kam lives just around the block and has been coming to this market for over 20 years now. He wakes up at 3am, gets dressed and heads down to the street where he will find a gathering of old men, crowded around a 1960 Philips battery-operated portable cassette player croaking old Cantonese tunes.
As residents from the neighbourhood and around Kowloon slowly browse through the different stalls, Kam and his friends chat about current affairs and complain about the weather, the economy, and each other.
He spotted me struggling to speak to a stall vendor, and came over to help, delighted that I speak his native Mandarin.
“I don’t come here all the time,” he tells me later, “Sometimes my daughters take us travelling!”
Kam beams proudly as he says he has “two pearls in his palm”, which is a Chinese expression to describe how precious daughters are to their parents. His are both around the age of 40, and currently reside in New York and Taiwan respectively.
Kam himself had been a police officer in Hang Zhou, China, where he was born, before coming to Hong Kong to settle down around 24 years ago.
“Ah, they used to like us a lot then,” he says, talking about Hong Kongers, “But now it’s broken into two camps and some of them don’t want us to come anymore because they say its hurting their businesses.”
He almost immediately asks me what I think of the Occupy Central protests that occurred in October last year, which saw students and the Hong Kong police clash as the former seek universal suffrage in the upcoming Chief Executive elections in 2017.
The Beijing government had announced earlier that the candidates for the elections will have to be approved by a pre-selected committee of leaders from various segments of the economy.
Many saw this as a way for the Chinese Communist Party to tighten control over Hong Kong as the party struggles with separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang. Some even argued that it was a move on Beijing’s part to show the Hong Kong public that they no longer prioritised them like before.
Previously in 2012, the CCP conceded to a protest on national education, which laid the foundation to the methods of the Umbrella movement. For ten days in September, protestors flooded the areas around government headquarters to object to compulsary national education classes in schools.
Then, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying not only retracted the government’s decision, but also pledged not to push for these lessons for the rest of his time in office.
Before I can even reply, Kam jumps in to say: “I think, if China is reasonable, listen. If they’re not, discuss with them, just don’t smash other peoples’ things.”
He says that many, especially the Mainland Chinese who reside in Hong Kong, were hurt during the Umbrella movement.
Mainlanders and local Hong Kongers have clashed increasingly over the years as the two societies head closer to the end of the basic law agreement which allows Hong Kong to retain its own currency, legal system, and government until 2047.
Issues such as immigration, jobs, cross-border shopping, and a general disdain of “mainland manners” have underlined a difficult future for Hong Kong and China, and raised questions of the current “One Country, Two Systems” principle.
“This tension between the mainland and Hong Kong has really intensified after the protests, and people don’t treat us with respect anymore,” Kam says, “It doesn’t affect me because I’ve been here so long, but sometimes people can still tell from my bad Cantonese accent.”
Looking to the future, Kam says he cannot imagine the Special Administrative Region and the mainland at odds forever. “Hong Kong is a part of China, and will have to integrate into the country, where else will they go?”
After the market ends at 7 – it has to clear at 7 before the police patrolling nearby step in – Kam heads home to cook porridge or eggs for breakfast while waiting for his wife to wake up.