Hong Kong welcomes visitors to enjoy its iconic attractions, both new and old
WAITING AT Bangkok’s Suvaranabhumi Airport as typhoon Mangkhut ravages the Philippines before heading Hong Kong in less than three days, I can’t help wondering whether this trip to the SAR might not be better postponed.
Landing at Chek Lap Kok three hours later after a smooth flight, we are greeted by local guide Zelo Dai, who reassures us that the airport weather advisory board is still showing level 3.
“The typhoon is coming but it’s still far from Hong Kong’s coastline. We have time to get around town. Don’t you guys worry,” Zelo says with a bright smile.
“For us, this is normal because Hong Kong always encounters typhoons during summer (June to September). When the typhoons intensify to level 10, everyone stays home and all shopping malls and restaurants are closed,” he adds, as he leads us to Tai Kwun, in the heart of Old Town Central.
After 10 years of renovation works, the Central Police Station has become the Tai Kwun contemporary art centre.
Opened in May, Hong Kong’s new iconic landmark is home to the new incarnation of the 170-year-old Central Police Station, which thanks to an investment of HK$48 million (Bt1.98 billion) by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, has been turned into a creative contemporary art centre.
It took full 10 years to transform the Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison into this new centre for heritage and the arts and the results are impressive.
“Constructed in 1845 under British colonial rule, this was only compound in Central district that had a police station, prison and court in the same area. Initially, it served as a prison before the police station and court were built. The facility was closed because it was too small and some prisoners tried to escape,” Esther Lui, marketing officer of Tai Kwun, tells us.
“Now the compound features 16 buildings which house exhibition galleries, auditoriums and stages for performing arts as well as several outdoor spaces. The original colonial structures have been retained. We tried to find the materials similar to the original, even importing the roofing from Scotland. We also have several restaurants and teahouses that are popular hangouts for artists and art lovers.”
One of the oldest properties is the four-storey Barrack Block built between 1862 and 1864. Inside are the Tai Kwun Store, the visitor centre and two exhibition galleries, where guests can come and learn about the history of the Central Police Station compound.
Block 12, B Hall was built during the expansion of Victoria Gaol to house prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes including murder and armed robbery. The ground floor serves as an interactive exhibition gallery, with the walls of 16 old cells used as a big screen to project the daily life of prisoners. Visitors can travel back to 1910 to its days as a high-security cellblock, witness a jailbreak and sample life behind bars.
Completed in 1919, the neo-classical, red brick Police Headquarters presents the inaugural “100 Faces of Tai Kwun” exhibition, in which some 100 local residents share their childhood memories of the complex and the Central neighbourhood though such mixed media as illustrations and voice stories.
Tai Kwun also offers a programme of indie musical performances by local and international artists every first Saturday afternoon of the month while every Sunday the semi-out-door Laundry Steps has free screenings of movies in collaboration with the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
The next morning we skip the hotel’s breakfast buffet and head out to find something more interesting at Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong in Sham Shui Po district. Famous for its delectable tofu pudding and snacks, this 100-year-old shop relocated from Tsim Sha Tsui to its new home on Pei Ho Street in the 1960s and is now operated by Renee So, the fourth generation of the family.
So uses high-quality imported soybeans from Canada to create her tofu pudding and fresh soy milk, which are not too “beany” in terms of flavour and have super smooth texture.
She puts this down to the continued use of traditional techniques. “A decade ago, we had only tofu pudding and soy bean milk. The whole process takes 18 hours. Soybeans are soaked in water for seven to ten hours before being ground, boiled and mixed with gypsum powder for a tender texture. We try to keep the original taste but we allow customers to add some sugar cane for sweetness,” she says.
Renee So, owner of the 100yearold Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong shop, specialises in tender tofu puddings and deep-fried tofu snacks.
“There are around 10 tofu shops in Hong Kong but the new generation is not interested in this industry because the process takes too long. Every day, we make between 400 and 1,000 cups of tofu pudding. It’s a healthy dish, ideal for people of all ages and particularly for vegetarians.”
Today, the menu also boasts deep-fried tofu, deep-fried tofu puffs and deep-fried golden fish and soya cake, plus a selection of dumplings, congee and steamed noodle rolls. Prices range from HK$6 to $27.
After a truly delicious breakfast, we delve into the history of Sham Shui Po and discover the original model of Hong Kong’s public housing project at Mei Ho House. Built in the mid-1950s, it is only remaining six-storey Mark I H-shaped resettlement block and today serves as a museum and Youth Hostel.
“During the British-China War in 1930, plenty of people emigrated from China to Hong Kong and settled in this neighbourhood. This is a place where the Hong Kong character was developed,” says illustrator Eric Wan, who serves a special guide for Walk in Hong Kong.
“Initially, thousands of refugees built their huts on the sides of the mountain because this land was close to the water. The government under British colonial rule didn’t care about their lives.”
Mei Ho House has been turned into a live museum to document the development of Hong Kong's public housing projects.
The first exhibition zone depicts how people lived on the hillside and transports visitors back to Christmas Eve in 1953 where a fire at a shoe shop spread quickly, resulting in the houses of most of the residents being destroyed.
“Some 50,000 people lost their home overnight. The fire forced the British government to build the structures. They spent just one year building eight housing states that borrowed from the prison model,” he says.
The second zone is designed as a mock-up of public housing estates in different designs that show how Hong Kong residents lived – and continue to live – in compact but functional apartments.
“The first design allowed people to live, work, cook and more in the housing state. There was even a school on the roof and some people lived in the hallways, so the building was very crowded,” he adds.
Renowned Chinese director John Woo also lived here and has drawn on his experiences in the less than salubrious conditions – the shared cooking spaces, public bathrooms and occasional gangster attacks – for his films.
Wan also takes us to Apliu Street Flea Market, which reminds me of Bangkok’s Khlong Thom market with its second-hand electronic appliances, audio equipment, hardware, clothes and TV remotes.
Apliu Street Flea Market has a wide range of secondhand electric appliances, clothes and home furnishings.
Nearby is the popular Shia Wong Hip restaurant, which specialises in herbal snake soup. It belongs to Miss Chow, dubbed Hong Kong’s queen of snake, and offers a choice of snake and turtle soup, snake wine and snake skin products.
“My husband is a snake trader, travelling around Southeast Asia to find snakes. We use both water and land snakes for our soup. The Chinese consider the snake as a very hot element, so it’s a popular dish in the winter to warm the blood. During winter, I cook more than 2,000 snakes a day,” she says.
Shia Wong Hip shop is much loved for its snake soup and wine.
Popular with young travellers around Asia, the Hong Kong-based Doughnut backpack brand also set up its first shop in Sham Shui Po. It’s the brainchild of new-wave entrepreneurs Rex Yam and Steven Cheng, who started their business while at university.
“We want to offer a collection of functional and durable backpacks that everyone can afford. All bags are made with quality rain-resistant nylon imported from Korea. Our designs focus on the lifestyle of young travellers, so our bags have a lot of compartments for the laptop, camera, passport and other accessories,” Rex says.
Designer Rex Yam offers a collection of functional backpacks under the brandname Doughnut.
“These days our products are available in Bangkok, Taiwan, the Philippines and Europe. Over the years, Sham Shui Po has become a hub for start-ups, creative artists and designers. Walking around here, visitors can really experience a way of local life and culture.”
That evening, with the sky still clear, we climb up to the summit of the Garden Hill. It takes us 15 minutes to get to the top from where we admire Sham Shui Po spread out below.
As the sun begins to fall and the typhoon continues its approach, I realise that this literally is the calm before the storm.
The writer travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of Hong Kong Tourism Board.
IF YOU GO
>> Tai Kwun is on Hollywood Road, Central and is open daily from 11am to 11pm. Find more details at www.Taikwun.hk.
>. Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong tofu shop is at 118 on Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po district. It’s open from 6am for breakfast and again at 2pm for afternoon tea.
>> Mei Ho House is at 70 Berwick Street, Shek Kip Mei. Find out more at www.Yha.org.hk.
>> Shia Wong Hip snake eatery is on the ground floor of Pei Ho Building, Sham Shui Po.
>> Doughnut is at 68 Fuk Wa Street, Sham Shui Po. Visit DoughnutOfficial.com.