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The other side of Hong Kong

  • Old-world charm and hipster chic come together in Hong Kong's Sham Shui Po district
  • One of the top draws of any visit to Sham Shui Po is its wealth of traditional eateries offering home-cooked flavours

A grocery store in Sham Shui Po. Photo: iStock
A grocery store in Sham Shui Po. Photo: iStock

I am in vegan paradise. With old tables, folding chairs, green tiles, and vintage ceiling fans, this shop offers all forms of tofu—from deep fried to a sweet, silky tofu pudding with a sprinkling of brown sugar, and ice-cold soya milk in bottles. Kung Wo Tofu Factory is a neighbourhood landmark—an old-fashioned store with its name in red calligraphy characters over the entrance, with stacks of trays containing fresh bean curd and bottles of soya milk lining the shelves. The company is more than 120 years old, and still makes tofu and soya milk the old-fashioned way.

I am in Sham Shui Po, which translates to “deep water pier" in Cantonese, a densely packed, working-class district in Kowloon, Hong Kong, lined with apartment blocks, which have, in recent years, become a hipster hub with urban renewal and gentrification. Sham Shui Po is quintessential Hong Kong, with rows of tong lauhigh-rise flatsdotted with laundry and air conditioners, with shops at the ground level.

Long ago Sham Shui Po was a cluster of fishing villages on the shores of Victoria Harbour. Slowly it became an industrial hub under the British administration, with workshops and factories. The development had a lot to do with its position on the boundary of New Kowloon, which allowed people from Guangdong and Shanghai to come here for work. After World War II, Chinese refugees from the mainland settled here and started dressmaking boutiques and cottage garment factories. The area became a shanty town with people squeezed into tiny apartments. By 2000, the manufacturing moved to China, creating many vacant spaces around the area, and today only the fabric shops remain.

The clothing market
The clothing market

“People come here to shop as there are many lively street markets, electronics outlets, fabric stores, restaurants and food vendors," explains my local guide Fred Cheung. The Hong Kong Tourism Board advertises the area with the tag line “Every bit local" and that’s what it is. There are streets lined with small businesses, from bone setters and barbers, to shops selling vegetable seeds and canvas bags. “Its streets are reminiscent of the 1960s Hong Kong and that’s why it draws photographers, artists and film-makers," he says. “Tai Nan Street (in Sham Shui Po), for instance, featured in Transformers: Age Of Extinction, as well as Jackie Chan’s masterpiece Rush Hour 2," he says proudly.

Recently artists and entrepreneurs, drawn by the low rents here, are moving into this area. Wontonmeen is an old tailoring unit that has been converted into studio spaces, a speciality coffee shop on the ground floor and a space that hosts talks, movies and live music; an old factory building has been converted into the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre—a cluster of art studios and galleries with a coffee shop and theatre as well.

A shop selling decorations for the Lunar New Year. Photo: iStock
A shop selling decorations for the Lunar New Year. Photo: iStock

Fashion reigns supreme in the area. I walk down Nam Cheong Street—fabric shops sell beautiful material by the yard. Limitless rolls of fabrics are stacked high to the ceiling: this is heaven to local designers and aspiring fashionistas. Nam Cheong Street used to be called lace street because of the many lace and ribbon shops there. The street is named after a prominent businessman, who was the only one at that time to know English in that area! On the street is a reminder of the pawn broking industry which boomed when the government legalized it in 1926. There’s the iconic Nam Cheong Pawn Shop with its salon-style doors and a logo of an upside down bat holding a coin. Close by is Ki Lung Street, also called Button Street, named after numerous wholesale vendors selling different types of buttons, clasps and garment fasteners.

One of the top draws of any visit to Sham Shui Po is its wealth of traditional eateries offering home-cooked flavours. We start with a lunch at the iconic Tim Ho Wan set beneath a 1950s-era apartment block on Fuk Wing Street, lined with stationary and toy shops. This is known as the cheapest Michelin-starred dim sum house. Sitting at large tables, we tick off items on an itemized list to order an assortment of items—from their iconic BBQ pork buns, to steamed shrimp dumplings and served with copious amounts of Chinese tea. Our highlight is meeting the founder of the chain Mak Kwai Pui , who still works in the kitchen here sometimes, as part of his dedication to the traditional dim sum!

Recommended by the Michelin guide is my next stop, Kwan Kee on Fuk Wah Street, a traditional Chinese family-run sweet store that follows recipes that have been passed down for three generations. It sells home-made sweets like white sugar sponge cake and red bean pudding. I try a sticky rice pudding called Put Chai Ko—one of the shop’s specialties. It’s a sweet, gelatinous pudding with red beans that’s served in a porcelain bowl. It tastes divine, soft and silky.

Weaving through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways we walk to the Apliu Street Flea market that is a scene like no other. In the late 18th century, this was a small area of bucolic bliss with villagers raising ducks in ponds. Today there are stalls lining the street on both sides selling every gizmo under the sun and it’s a haven for tech geeks—from vintage cameras, typewriters and transistors to second-hand mobile phones, hand-held fans, as well as games and second-hand tools and accessories. I see shops that offer to repair anything that’s not working. In a consumerist society of “use and throw", it’s refreshing to find such an old-fashioned ethos lingering.

The urban architecture of the district is also Instagram heaven. We visit the Sham Shui Po Public Dispensary on Yee Kuk Street, which is one of the last remaining examples of art deco architecture in Hong Kong built in the 1930s. The design blends East and West architecture, with Western classical motifs on pillars and balcony railings with Chinese ceramic tiles. There is the Man Fung residential building transformed by Madrid-based Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel as part of the local street art festival called HK Walls in 2016. This provided a canvas for 31 local and foreign artists who were asked to freshen up the tired district with a burst of colour. The mural called Rainbow Thief is a three-dimensional psychedelic image done in his trademark multicoloured geometric patterns, which forms the image of a fox on the façade of the building.

“Street art has brought life into the streets with dilapidated buildings," explains Fred. “Hong Kong is not only about modernization and glitz. It has years of history and if you crave the old Hong Kong, a visit here is important," he says, and I could not agree more.

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