I'd heard about places like this before; where old men gather in the early morning hours, admiring each other's prized winged possessions. A strap-like handle under each ornate bamboo cage allows the owner to slip a hand through, palm-up, and proffer the contents of the cage to peering enthusiasts.
While thinking of the next place to draw at, I happened to see a spot on a documentary about the Bird Garden at Yuen Po Street, Prince Edward, Hong Kong, A quick Google search later, and I knew I had to go there. Arrangements with my sketcher friends were quickly made, and so, early on Saturday morning, I found myself strolling past the bustling vendors on Flower Market Street, en route to the Bird Garden, located at the end of the street.
I didn't need directions. There were several men shuffling ahead of me, covered cages in hand, like old waiters about to serve up dinner. At the red-gated entrance, more old men stood around in noisy camaraderie, admiring birds while loudly trading opinions on the government's latest faux pas. They hung their birds on nearby branches; some for sale, some to be admired. I wondered that these men could caw so loudly and roughly at each other but coo with such gentleness when dealing with their darling birds. The other fascinating fact is that the hobby of songbird-raising looks to be completely dominated by men.
While waiting for my sketch mates, I wandered around, exploring. Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is perhaps 100m long, with no vehicular access. Surrounded by mature trees that dapple the pavement with a patchwork of shadows, the short street houses two rows of single-storey stores facing each other. Poles with convenient hooks for cages dot the carefully landscaped green-spaces, awaiting singing occupants.
Most of the little stores were not yet open for business. A few had begun to raise their shutters, and store owners could be seen stacking cages of little finches and budgies for cleaning.
In bins at another store, recycled egg crates housed thousands of feeding crickets; live bird food. Mealworms squirmed in another bin, and on a nearby table, bags blown up into triangles held fat grasshoppers among a few green leaves. "HK$20" said the battered cardboard sign propped up close by. I'd heard of bird owners buying these little bags and feeding their birds with chopsticks, and hoped that I'd be witness to this sight. That didn't work out, but for the next few hours, joined by a group of sketcher friends, we drew snippets of scenes from this fascinating place.
The average tourist with trigger-finger might be happy perusing the Bird Garden for about an hour. We stayed the entire morning, sketching and watching an ever-growing stream of visitors flow past, taking snapshots and peering at the birds. The stall owners were obviously used to the sight, only perking up when their experienced eyes spied potential customers looking for an ornate bird cage to take home.
The bird owners however, would raise an eyebrow on occasion then return to their animated discussions on birds, feed and of course, politics.
My main goal was to capture the early morning atmosphere when the old men would first get together to greet each other. This first sketch took me about 1.5 hours, and I wanted to supplement it with some close-ups and different views. The plummage of the scarlet macaw proved irresistible to draw. By the time I looked up around lunch time, I felt that there was so much to draw, so many angles and details I could do, but hadn't a chance to even contemplate yet. I guess I'll just have to go back another time!