Songbirds: the analog jukebox

[Hong Kong] Welcome to the Yuen Po Bird Garden. Step into a different market, even if you are not looking to buy a songbird as a travel memento.

At first, it may seem as if you are entering a traditional Chinese garden. The short-lived tranquility soon gives way to dozens of stalls selling exotic birds, beautifully crafted bamboo cages, porcelain water dishes and other bird-care paraphernalia.

You are immediately greeted by the cacophony of songbirds and traditional Chinese music wafting in the air. In a corner, you see some elderly men feeding and preening their feathered friends in exchange for sweet tunes.

28481876 - bird in the wooden cage, taken in hong kong bird market

The voice of Hong Kong and Cantonese culture

Bird keeping had long been the favourite pastime of many in Hong Kong, though “the trend has diminished significantly since people can no longer ride public transportation with their birds,” says master birdcage crafter, Chan Lok-choi. Tight spaces in Hong Kong made it even more attractive to have them as pets. The dim-sum culture, the yearning to be outdoors went hand in hand with the art of bird keeping.

5 reasons why we prefer songbirds to digital music sources:

Long before Spotify era, the Chinese have been rearing their own entertainment – ‘live’ jukeboxes with dynamic personalities – songbirds.

1. These featherweights are lighter than a radio and they don’t need to be plugged in to a power source.

2. They have a personality – they go on strikes if they are not ‘in the mood’ to sing. No mood = no music.

3. They make the best exercise buddies – you need to walk them in parks, and keep them in happy spirits to improve the song quality. You get in shape and some quality air while you’re at it.

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4. You create your own playlist by letting them learn from their peers at the park to expand their repertoire and improve their skills.

5. Keeping songbirds is a social thing. Stop hiding behind your devices making virtual friends – strike a conversation and swap tips with other songbird owners when you walk the bird.

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These ‘jukeboxes’ can be upskilled.

If all else fails, upskill your feathered friends. Who knows, one day when they retire from their singing careers, perhaps songbirds can become lucrative ‘props’ for fortune-telling (picking out divination lots at a temple stall), or simply to annoy your frenemies by trampling all over their shoulders.

We were grateful to our local experts for giving us the bird’s eye view to this part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, and can’t wait to discover more. Join us as we continue to explore vanishing trades, and hidden gems. Till next time!


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