Social history through the eyes of a gardener
For Mr. Yau, the shape of the flower bunch matters; he has learned most of the shaping skills from his father, Old Mr. Yau. When it comes to the art of pruning flowers, Mr. Yau always says: “My dad is even more skillful, you should ask him.” In fact, it was Old Mr. Yau who cultivated the land and started growing at “Wah Lee Yuen” 70 years ago.
A native of Huiyang, Old Mr. Yau started out as a gardener. When Mainland China was at war in the 1950s, he moved to Hong Kong and took his first job at an established restaurant in Shek Tong Tsui. In the old days of Hong Kong, flowers were part of city life: restaurants and Mahjong parlours hired gardeners to take care of their plants for decoration. “The rooftops of restaurants were covered with flowers, and we would grow whatever kind of flowers the owner wanted.” Although Old Mr. Yau has difficulty walking around the flower fields today, he is still in high spirits when he talks about his time as a gardener.
In the 1960s and 1970s, people from all walks of life valued flowers in indoor and outdoor spaces more than they do nowadays. Wealthy families hired experienced gardeners to set up garden plots and floral displays with different patterns and letterings, or to help cultivate bonsais and shape their flowers. “You have to take time shaping the flowers, you can’t do it in a hurry. You have to prune a little at a time, wait overnight until new leaves grow, then continue pruning. During the old days when I worked as a gardener, you had to live in the employer’s house and prune the flowers regularly every day to achieve the perfect look,” Old Mr. Yau says with pride.
In days gone by, even though the general public were not enjoying an elaborate lifestyle, they often bought flowers to decorate their homes: Chinese New Year citrus plant, chrysanthemums and peach blossoms in winter, and Lucky Bamboo and Ginger Lily in spring and summer. “In the old days, people in Hong Kong regarded growing flowers as a kind of entertainment and amusement, but also with a practical purpose. Some households had a lot of family members living in a small place, so in summer it could get smelly and sweaty! If people wanted to freshen the air, they would grow or buy flowers. But nowadays, people are used to instant entertainment such as watching TV and playing video games, and they can’t stand the slow pace of growing flowers. It’s not even necessary to keep the smell away by growing flowers, as air conditioning is available everywhere, and it’s even more convenient to use an air purifier.” Mr. Yau says there was a high demand for flowers in the past, so “Wah Lee Yuen” used to grow different kinds of flowers and even ran a small stall in the market selling home-grown flowers throughout the year. “I remember when I was a kid, I would go to the stall after school to help my mother sell flowers.”