Inspired by his backpacking trips to over 80 countries, Paul Chan Chi-yuen weaves history and human stories into his walking tours which explore lesser seen parts of the city.
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Chan, 39 and co-founder of Walk in Hong Kong, will lead a two-hour walking tour next month featuring the changes and secrets of Hong Kong’s legal system over the past 170 years.
The tour is part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s oldest law school. An alumnus of the faculty, Chan will bring members of the public to key places in the city’s legal history like Tai Kwun, Man Mo Temple and the Court of Final Appeal.
Chan and his team have been offering tours of the sort over the last six years. He is driven by a desire to show that his home city is more than just gleaming skyscrapers and neon lights – it is a place of culture and tradition, as well as compelling human stories.
“What makes Hong Kong unique? Its culture, tradition and people,” he says.
He first had the idea of organising walking tours while studying comparative politics in 2006 at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He went to London on the British government’s Chevening Scholarship, which sponsors 15 to 20 Hong Kong residents annually for a year of master’s degree study in Britain.
During his stay in London, as well as studying, Chan explored the city and visited other European countries, including Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.
On his journeys, he joined local walking tours and was amazed by the way the tour guides presented the cities with compelling stories.
“You could feel their sense of pride in their cities. They knew about their origins and communities much better than we do in Hong Kong,” says he. “It planted the seed in me of an idea to do something equally cool in Hong Kong.”
After graduating with a master’s degree from the LSE, Chan started working as a political assistant to the Secretary for Food and Health in Hong Kong in 2008.
After four years working in the government, Chan decided to take a break from the demanding job and explore a new way to put his expertise to use. So he returned to the idea in the back of his mind.
“There seemed to be a sudden calling, so I thought I’d try the idea out,” says he.
Chan and three friends established Walk in Hong Kong in 2013, offering small-group walking tours around old Hong Kong neighbourhoods like Sheung Wan, Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po, where tourists can get a nostalgic taste of the city.
But to start a business from scratch is never easy in Hong Kong, especially for new ideas which take time for the public to appreciate, says Chan.
What makes Chan’s tours special are the human stories told, but it is challenging and time-consuming to search for compelling stories that locals are willing to share, says he.
Once when exploring the old neighbourhood of Sheung Wan, Chan and his team – six full-time and about 20 freelance tour guides – spotted a traditional letterpress printing shop. They talked to the shop owner Yam Wai-sang and learned that the area used to be home to over 200 such shops, but most of them have faded out, having being supplanted by desktop publishing. Yam’s shop, Kwong Wah Printing Company, is the only one left on Hong Kong Island.
Chan and his team incorporated the printing shop in their Sheung Wan tour and let Yam, a printing master of over 60 years’ experience, tell visitors his stories and show them the traditional techniques.
“The shop is like a living page of the city’s printing history,” says he. “We believe that all students, tourists and even local residents should have a chance to know about this surviving cultural heritage.”
Chan and his tour guides, all natives of the city, also share their own personal stories with tourists.
Chan recalls his time in secondary school near the Yau Ma Tei Theatre – the only surviving pre-war theatre in Kowloon. Opened in 1930, the theatre was once popular with working class audiences, but over the years customer numbers fell, especially in the 1980s when faced with competition from home video entertainment. In an effort to stay in business, the theatre started showing blue movies.
“Schoolboys would crack jokes when passing by the theatre but didn’t dare to go in,” he recalls.
Tourists appreciate the stories. About 7,000 joined the company’s walking tours last year, half of them from overseas, mostly from Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and Singapore. But there was also a large local contingent among them, says Chan.
He remembers one local man in his 30s, working in investment banking, who joined many of the tours.
“When I asked him why, he told me that though he had lived in Hong Kong for many years, he still felt like a traveller,” says Chan. “We show them things they seldom notice in daily life and arouse their curiosity.”
Chan sees his walking tours as complementary to conventional tours, rather than being competition, offering people more choices to explore the city.
“We are one of the earliest players to have initiated change and, hopefully together with others, the ripple effect will continue,” he says.