"He sets up his whetstone, dips the scissors in a bucket of honing oil set to his side, and slides the scissors onto the whetstone at an angle, skillfully moving them back and forth and gradually picking up speed"SHEREN MAO

Note from the author About the "Pearls of the Orient – Daily Life" series

“Pearls of the Orient – Daily Life” is a series documenting the stories of eight Hong Kong traditional industry owners who have struggled to find their reason to continue working in face of society’s rapid modernisation. These industries have existed since Hong Kong’s early days as a small fishing village, and are either passed down for generations or operated for over 40 years. As a Hong Kong child, I found it extremely eye-opening to enrich myself about my city’s traditions, through conversations that shed light on the beauty in the culture that we rarely speak of.

Through these stories, I hope to show you a glimpse of my city’s numerous undiscovered gems as they hide away in the shadows of our skyline and bustling malls. Apart from appreciating the art of these industries, read into these owners’ personal stories, as you will soon find a common trait they share – a respectable amount of devotion and perseverance to preserve Hong Kong’s traditional culture. Alas, I hope this short collection will help some to recall, some to learn and all to understand what Hong Kong’s community is losing today.

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Mr. Chan is one of the very few remaining knife sharpeners in Hong Kong. 73 years ago, he had single-handedly started this business; and, today, his reliable skills and affable persona have earned him a renowned title, one that has even found its way into the international culinary world. 

What Mr. Chan does is very simple: apart from selling German-imported knife products, he specialises in providing knife and scissor honing services – this was what I was most interested in.

Taking a step back, let’s have a think: at the convenience of craft stores today, it is safe to say that many of us wouldn’t really think twice before throwing out our blunt kitchen knives; a new one is simply a quick purchase away, right? This is where Mr. Chan’s job comes in. During my parents and grandparents’ generation, when knives became blunt, most people turned to knife sharpeners like Mr. Chan to sharpen them back to their original state, saving money and by extension, reducing waste in the environment.

“I believe this industry has an enormous value that people fail to recognise. Nowadays, people instinctively throw away their blunt knives because they are unaware of this industry. It is discomforting to see so many knives go to waste when they could be reused, and even used for so many other purposes,” Mr. Chan remorsefully tells me.

He reaches into a wooden drawer and pulls out a pair of small scissors, usually used for trimming purposes. “Let me show you how sharpening works,” he says, during which I saw a slight smile curving up upon his lips. He sets up his whetstone, dips the scissors in a bucket of honing oil set to his side, and slides the scissors onto the whetstone at an angle, skillfully moving them back and forth and gradually picking up speed.

"It is discomforting to see so many knives go to waste when they could be reused"Sheren Mao

“There are a few factors that vary the way I hone these scissors and knives. Firstly, depending on the knife’s bluntness, I will adjust the honing angle accordingly. Secondly, Chinese-styled knives have a simpler honing method than Western-styled knives. Thirdly, knives made from a higher quality steel can only be honed on a special whetstone to achieve the best results,” Mr. Chan fluently explains. “Do you see it now? There really is a lot more technicality to knife honing than people may think.” I couldn’t agree more.

While Mr. Chan insists to do another demonstration with kitchen knives, I couldn’t help but notice the way he lights up when he speaks about his job, as his passion for his work translates through his genuine tone and fluid motions. It was almost as if Mr. Chan had been waiting to share his knowledge and experiences with someone, and now that he is given the opportunity to do so, he couldn’t hold back. For a good while, I simply listen to him speak, as clean and crisp sharpening sounds fill the little shop while the knife dances along the whetstone.

When he is done, Mr. Chan tells me to wait and eagerly goes to his cramped desk space to pull out a yellowed and worn out journal. As he starts to flip through the crinkled pages, I see various pictures and short lines of text, piquing my curiosity as to what he wants to show me.

"many foreign celebrities and chefs around the world have specially sent or brought me their knives during this visit"Sheren Mao

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“Look, although knife sharpening is a dying art in Hong Kong, many foreign celebrities and chefs around the world have specially sent or brought me their knives during this visit. These people come from places like Russia, Holland, England, Switzerland, Austria and the list goes on! Every time they come, they leave a message in this book. It is great to know that people recognise my efforts and really, there is no better feeling in the world, to have people from all over the world come to you for help because they trust in you and your skills. It really is an honour,” Mr. Chan says with nostalgic tone, as I could sense him reminiscing these golden days of his.

“Sadly, as it takes at least four years to become a qualified knife sharpener followed by an unstable income, it is impossible to have any successors in this industry. Because of this, it is my goal to devote myself to this industry till the day I die,” he firmly tells me. “Think about it, if international chefs make the trip to come to your business in this big, big world, wouldn’t you feel motivated to preserve this valuable art?”

"It is great to know that people recognise my efforts and really, there is no better feeling in the world"SHEREN MAO

“However, I dare say that this industry will disappear within the next few years. Even though this may be an art treasured by foreign countries, with the little attention it receives from the society and government, there will be no use even if we started to commercialise in Hong Kong now. This is an unsustainable job with a difficult skill one needs to fully master before being qualified to start a business. But who knows, maybe there will be a solution if the government provides us with some money to carry on. However under our current circumstances, I feel very regretful to see this precious art go to waste and it has become part of my duty to keep it going for as long as I can”.

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