Some of my earliest childhood memories of downtown Kitchener began at the Hong Kong Plaza. Back in the early '90s, my parents used to own a boutique on the top floor. I wouldn't be able tell you how many Black-owned businesses existed at this time, but I could tell it wasn't an easy task.
The shop was filled from floor to ceiling with original clothing, music and items that would be impossible to find locally. This was made possible because of my parents' efforts to make Black culture more prominent in our community. They would take night trips to New York City and Philadelphia, buying any original item that wasn't readily available in downtown Kitchener. This was during a time when shopping for certain items was limited to what our major outlets offered. My parents were able to bridge a culture that wasn't yet buzzing here in our community.
"Express Yourself Boutique" was a hub for Black culture. If I were to flip through an old photo album, I would spot photos of my older cousins from Jamaica, or local celebrities like Lennox Lewis, all gathered at this location. For my older brothers, being readily exposed to so many cultural themes only whet their creative appetite. When most kids were discovering Pogs, skateboarding and SNES, my brothers were discovering artists such as Wu-Tang and they were able to buy the same clothes as the artists they looked up to.
My brothers took it upon themselves to pass on their knowledge to me as I grew up. Imagine being in grade 1 and being told, "This is real music." The artist they were referring to was Nas. Looking at the Illmatic album cover and seeing an image of a Black child that looked like me, or looking at the Liquid Swords album cover and feeling as if I discovered something forbidden. Growing up with two brothers that were deeply immersed in hip-hop culture was a blessing and a curse (for the better).
Outside of my family, life was very alienating. It was a challenge to connect with others since most of my peers hadn't been exposed to many of these themes yet. I lived a double life very early, creating identities to feel comfortable around certain people. The benefit of being challenged at a young age is that you find ways to make it work. I was able to blend the influences from my family with the common clichés of my neighbourhood. As I grew older, I found my voice, developed my panache and learned to wear my influences like a crown. I think it's important that we never forget our roots, and to always represent the ones that have paved the way before us.
Walking by Hong Kong Plaza now feels like a scene from a nostalgic movie. It's still as unique as the first day I laid eyes on it. Shooting my video for $100 served as my way of adding my own touch to this location. It's my way of further rooting myself into my community and building upon a memory and era that's so dear to myself and my family.
— Ramsay Almighty