Chinese Characters: The Bird Men of Sheung Wan

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When I first started studying Chinese characters–the kind you write with pen and paper, not the people kind–one  of the first stories I read straight through was about an ancient Emperor who delighted in keeping songbirds in cages. Nowadays in Hong Kong we don’t have any Emperors floating about, but we still have some very elegant gentlemen who practice the art of what I will call “Song Bird-ery”.

I started noticing them years ago on my walks around Sheung Wan, and now they are like old friends, since so many of our Little Adventures in Hong Kong routes take us through their domain. Here, in one of those blah, concrete-happy Hong Kong vest pocket parks (where you enter to a big sign that “welcomes” you with a posted litany of Don’ts!) the Bird Gentlemen feed their finches, tell their tales.

They always shout out to me, in Cantonese, have I gone to yam cha yet? Their tone is cheerful, but this must be a sore point; in the old days, pre-bird flu mania, the Bird Gentlemen could walk their birds around in the morning air, and carry them straight into the dim sum tea parlor. There, men and birds would chat, and twitter (the old fashioned, lower case twitter of course!) for hours.

The old tea parlors, to accommodate them, had a network of hooks above the tables. You’d walk in to a cacophony, a joyful noise of tweets, chirps, and of course cart-pushing ladies shouting “Cha Siu Bau!”.

No more Emperors with cages, no more tweets, lower case, in the tea parlor. The Bird Gentlemen inform me that you can’t even transport your bird in a taxi or the MTR any more. Why would anyone bother to keep a bird in this rules and regulation choked city any more? Fewer and fewer do; the Bird Gentlemen are a rara avis, indeed.

This man’s friend once told me, sotto voce, that he was quite a ladies man in his time. You can see that: he’s still handsome and charming, and he always greets me with a slight hint of flirtatiousness, which is even rarer in straitlaced Hong Kong than birds in a teashop.

The fact that you can walk down a street in Hong Kong and connect to a tradition so ancient that it appears in Chinese children’s readers just kills me. How can you not love a city like this! It is just another reason why we do what we do, here at Little Adventures in Hong Kong.