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CULTURE OF DISAPPEARANCE: DAI PAI DONG (大排檔), Central (中環), Hong Kong

In 2016, “dai pai dong” was added as a Hong Kong English term in the Oxford English Dictionary, referring as “a traditional licensed street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices; (now more generally) any food stall of this type.” The term “dai pai dong” 大牌檔 literally means “big license stall”, which attributes to their bigger license paper compared to other street vendors. In Chinese, “dai pai dong” can also be written as 大排檔, meaning a “row of line-up stalls”. Street hawkers have been around in Hong Kong for over a century. The number of street hawkers increased dramatically after WWII, when unemployed citizens were eager to make a living by setting up all sort of vendor stalls on the street, including food stalls. In response, the government put forward “dai pai dong” licenses as a measure to regulate and standardize the food stalls. During its heyday between 1950’s to 1970’s, some say there were more than 3000 dai pai dongs across the city. To control street hygiene, avoid traffic congestion and give priority to urban developments, the government stopped issuing dai pai dong licenses in 1956, and restricted license transfer to spouse only, eliminating the chance of passing the business down the generation. As the city’s economy boomed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, dining options exponentially increased. Along with the government’s constraints and fierce competition of dining options, undesirable hygiene, absence of air conditioning, and the relatively crowded seating have all led to the dwindling of dai pai dongs. In 2011, there were 28 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong: Central (10 stalls), Wanchai (3 stalls), Sham Shui Po (14 stalls), and Outer Islands (1 stall). From one of the most popular causal dining options in the 1960’s to a disappearing urban heritage that appears as diorama in history museums nowadays, the rise and fall of dai pai dongs reflects the rapid evolution of Hong Kong in the latter half of the 20th century.

Often promoted as a unique component of Hong Kong’s culinary heritage, scenes of dai pai dongs are often displayed as backdrops in museums and amusement parks. A typical dai pai dong consists of a 4′ x 6′ green metal stall used as kitchen, and a long bench topped with three small wooden stools as extra seating. In the past, the number of customers was restricted to two folding tables and eight portable chairs. Opened for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late night meals, dai pai dong may serve congee, noodles, stir fry, dessert, and/or coffee/tea. Despite street stalls are disappearing fast, dai pai dong dishes and their cooking techniques have been well preserved at many neighbourhood restaurants in Hong Kong. Often described as good wok hei (鑊氣), which literally means excellent “breath of wok” or the rich aroma and flavour of the wok, the spirit of dai pai dong cuisine remains as one of the essential aspects of the local cuisine. While the taste of dai pai dong may live long, it is the vibrant street ambience, the causal interactions with vendors and fellow customers, and the carefree dining experience topped with cheap beer and loud laughter that would certainly be missed.

Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家), a former 80-year old dai pai dong in Soho, Central, was the spark that ignited the city’s attention on dai pai dong conservation. In 2005, there were 30 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong. Wong Kwong Hing (黃光慶), the license holder of Man Yuen Noodles, passed away. The Lee brothers, disciplines of Wong’s father and the operators of Man Yuen for many decades, attempted to continue the hawker license but were rejected by the government. A number of district councillors, legislators, and 3000+ Hong Kongers made a petition, urging the government to let the Lee brothers continue with the business. Their petition failed, and the famous street stall was forced to close down. Yet, the 2005 incident successfully captured the media’s attention and brought out the issue of the dying culture to the public. The conservation effort gained momentum in the next couple of years, and eventually led to the change of license regulations in 2008, allowing non spousal license transfer to be considered. Despite the effort, the numbers of dai pai dongs continue to drop. Without anyone’s notice, the end of dai pai dong could become reality in less than a generation’s time.

After their dai pai dong was forced to shut down in 2005, the elder Lee brother of Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家) reopened a 300 sq.ft restaurant just across the street from its former location. We visited this small noodle shop several times until the owners retired in March 2016. [Elgin Street (伊利近街), Central, 2016]
In 1990, Yuk Yip Dessert (玉葉甜品) moved to Elgin Street (伊利近街) right beside Man Yuen Noodles. From then on, the two stalls shared the same menu which included both noodles and Chinese dessert. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2021]
Today, Yuk Yip Dessert remains as the only dai pai dong left in Soho, Central. Some say Yuk Yip is now operated by the younger Lee brother of Man Yuen Noodles, and his wife, the fourth generation owner of the vintage dessert stall. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2021]
Today, Yuk Yip Dessert continues to serve beef brisket, pork knuckle, wanton and dumpling noodles (recipe probably from the former Man Yuen Noodles), as well as Chinese dessert. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2016]
In fact, the hundred-year-old Yuk Yip Dessert has been around in Central for several generations. They continues to offer traditional dessert such as tong but lut (糖不甩), a Cantonese dessert made of glutinous rice balls in sugar syrup and crushed roasted peanut. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2016]
A long bench with small seats at Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園) presents the old way of squeezing a few more seats beyond the official table and chair limits. These have pretty much become exterior decorations now as Lan Fong Yuen has moved into a fully enclosed restaurant space behind the street stall. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
Despite Lan Fong Yuen has become an air conditioned restaurant, their metal stall on Gage Street (結志街) continues to serve simple takeouts, including Hong Kong style milk tea which is claimed to be an invention by the owner of Lan Fong Yuen decades ago. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
Towering scaffolding and the tiny metal stall of Leung Pui Kee (梁培記) mark the entrance of Gutzlaff Street (吉士笠街) at Wellington Street (威靈頓街). Established in 1914, Leung Pui Kee Locksmith has been serving banks and shops in Central for over a century. Now the stall is being swallowed by the redevelopment construction. [Junction of Gutzlaff Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2020]
Further towards Stanley Street (士丹利街), Gutzlaff Street (吉士笠街) is home to Shui Kee (水記) dai pai dong. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
For over 60 years, Shui Kee (水記) has been serving beef brisket and entrails in Central. With construction cranes and scaffolding closing in from Graham Street and Wellington Street, over half of Gutzlaff Street, a pedestrian lane once dotted with street eateries, would eventually be demolished to make way for new hotel and office towers. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2020]
Shui Kee is situated on a slightly sloped lane. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Awning covers, folded tables and plastic chairs define the dining area of Shui Kee. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Lam Kin Wing (林健永), the third generation owner of Shui Kee, took over the business over two decades ago after his father retired. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Eating at dai pai dong offers locals and tourists a vintage dining experience. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Shui Kee is well known for its fresh beef entrails (牛雜). Unlike frozen ones, fresh beef entrails have a more chewy texture and richer favour. Due to the time and effort involved in cleaning and preparing fresh entrails, it’s quite difficult to find them nowadays. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
For those who is not a big fan of beef entrails (stomachs), beef brisket is another decent alternative at Shui Kee. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Stanley Street (士丹利街) is one of the last spots in Central where dai pai dong hawkers still set up folding tables and portable chairs daily to provide an affordable alternative to the restaurant franchises, fast food chains, and Michelin star restaurants in the area. [Stanlet Street, Central, 2014]
Dai pai dong offers some of the best opportunities for people watching and interaction with the locals. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
While dai pai dong offers a unique street dining experience, the summer heat can make it a sweaty one. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
In Central, dai pai dongs can only be found at pedestrian-only alleyways. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
Perhaps in less than a decade, this affordable dining culture will become history, and only exist in photos and movies like Chungking Express. [Stanley Street, Central, 2021]
Other than Gutzlaff Street, Staveley Street (士他花利街) is another alleyway that is facing the fate of demolition. Staveley Street was once dotted with dai pai dongs and small printing shops. Now they are mostly gone. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Small family owned printing companies once flourished in the alleyways of Central-Sheung Wan. Entering the digital era, most of these shop owners are calling it a day and close their business for good. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Most of Staveley Street will be knocked down and the alleyway would become a dead end. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Wah Kee Restaurant (華記食店) is one of the last businesses still in operation at Staveley Street. [Staveley Street, 2014]
The tri-colour cat of Wah Kee Restaurant (華記食店) watched the last customers leaving Staveley Street after lunch hour. [Staveley Street, 2021]

CULTURE OF DISAPPEARANCE: GRAHAM STREET MARKET (嘉咸市集), Central (中環), Hong Kong

2014: A stall owner was about to wrapped up his day after a long day of work. 2014 and 2015 marked the final moments of Graham Street Market before half the market was knocked down for redevelopment. In this ever-changing city, documenting a moment in time is a way to battle against the power of forgetting. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Unlike shopping in a supermarket, causal interactions with vendors of Graham Street Market is one of the most interesting experiences of living in Central. It will certainly be missed when the old market is gone. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]

In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林), actors Faye Wong and Tony Leung often show up in an outdoor wet market in Central (中環) where fresh meat, vegetables, flowers, housewares, and even goldfish can be found, and so as outdoor street eateries known as dai pai dong (大牌檔). Defined by Graham Street (嘉咸街), Gage Street (結志街), and Peel Street (卑利街) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Graham Street Market (嘉咸市集) is the city’s oldest wet market with about 160 years of history. Flanked both sides by small metal stalls, the sloped market streets present an iconic urban scenery where elderly, housewives, maids, and children rub shoulders with white-collar workers and foreign expatriates. Before the pandemic, tourists flocked to the market just to get a feel of the vibrant atmosphere and check out its decades-old shops. Artists and photographers also come to train their eyes by framing whatever that might catch their attention in a chance encounter. But it is the people from the surrounding neighbourhoods like us who regularly come for our daily needs, that have contributed in sustaining a street market culture in Central, just a block or two away from the central business district. In this ever-changing metropolis, every building, street, or neighborhood has a price tag. When the price is right, redevelopment seems to be inevitable. In 2007, a controversial announcement was made by the profit making Urban Renewal Authority to replace the Graham Street Market with HK$3.8 billion (about US$ 500 million) worth of housing, retail, office and hotel.

Months after we relocated to Hong Kong in 2014, we wrote a post on the Graham Street Market for the first time. Back then, demolition had already begun, but the majority of the market was still largely intact. 7 years have passed. While construction is still ongoing, 11 new market stores and a high rise apartment known as “My Central” have already been completed. Against the annoyance of dust, noise and construction truck traffic, Graham Street Market continues to serve the neighborhood today. In a relatively low dense neighbourhood, four new residential, hotel and commercial towers of about 30 storeys have been planned, along with their respective retail podiums. Being the heart of colonial Victoria City (維多利亞城), Central (中環) and Sheung Wan (上環) is officially the one and only old city of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is no Rome or Paris, that doesn’t mean its old city is worthless. Instead, being an international metropolis frequented by tourists, many would expect the old city should be protected by stringent restrictions such as building height limits. Rather than keeping one or two historical facades as gimmick, the overall density, neighbourhood ambience, urban scale and fabric should be respected as a whole entity. Knocking down old neighbourhoods and replacing them with new towers is not a sensible way to rejuvenate a city, as Jane Jacobs pointed out decades ago. Not only would this kills the identity, diversity and character of the area, it would also destroy the neighbourhood’s self evolving power. In the words of Aldo Rossi, this is in fact destroying the genius loci (spirit of the place) of Old Central, like pinning four 30-storey towers right at the Campo de Fiori in Rome.

When I was a child, I used to visit Graham Street Market and the nearby Central Market (中環街市) with my aunt. Back then, I didn’t know that having such a destination of living heritage a block away from home was a privilege. Nor did I know that the market was actually an iconic filming location for photographs and movies. As a tourist attraction, the market is well received by foreigners to the point that even Queen Elizabeth II has come for a visit in 1975. For me as a child, the market was just a busy, noisy and sometimes slippery and bloody place where I could witness how chickens were slaughtered, cow’s and pig’s heads were hung for display, and live fish were de-scaled on a thick wood block. It was the 1980’s when purchased meat was still wrapped in butcher paper and tied with local salt water grass instead of using a plastic bag. Graham Street Market was where I first grasped a sense of what daily living is all about: gossiping with neighbours, picking the freshest food, bargaining with the hard working vendors, day in, day out. Three decades on, these scenes of street market culture are unfortunately fading. The “renewed” Graham Market shall be cleaner, less noisy, and perhaps have a few more planters and trees, but it may turn out that only gourmet stores selling Japanese wagyu, French cheese and Tasmanian cherries could survive the rent. The street market culture of Central might continue to fade until one day it only exists in historical photos.

2014: The market entrance at Gage Street is always packed with grocery shoppers and tourists. Today, the entire block beyond 7 Eleven has been demolished. [Junction of Gage Street and Cochrane Street right below Central – Mid-Levels Escalator, Central, 2014]
2014: One of the casualties in the area’s redevelopment, the 70-year-old Sun King Kee Noodles (新景記粉麵) shut its doors for good in March 2015. The entire block has since been demolished. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2021: Now wrapped in scaffolding, almost the entire northeastern half of Gage Street has been knocked down in the last few years. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: With wooden shutters and decorative roof parapet walls, a group of three pre-war shophouses at the intersection of Graham and Gage Street was a focus of discussion at the early stage of the redevelopment. Instead of fully preserving the historically listed buildings, the Urban Renewal Authority and developer had decided to demolish most of the structures and keep the outer facades only. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Formerly occupying the corner of Gage and Graham Street near the three pre-war shophouses, Yiu Fat seafood (耀發海鮮) has been relocated to a new shop below “My Central”, the first completed residential tower in the redevelopment. [Junction of Gage Street and Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Other old shops who chose to be relocated to the 11 new shops below “My Central” includes Lee Hung Seafood (利鴻海鮮). Some owners complain that the new shop is much smaller than their old ones. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2021: Six new shops on Gage Street, including Lee Hung Seafood (利鴻海鮮), are some of the earliest to reopen for business after the first phase of redevelopment. Most of these shops are former market stalls in the area. What many concern is how the three pre-war shophouses at the intersection of Graham and Gage Street would become after the green scaffolding is removed in a few years’ time. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: Before redevelopment, most buildings in Graham Street Market were less than 10 storey high. Buying the old tenement buildings and replacing them with high rise luxurious apartment is one of the quickest way to make money in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2021: At 37-storey high, “My Central” is the first residential tower completed in the market redevelopment. A 2020 property listing shows that a high level unit was selling for HK$48,960 per square feet (US$ 6,100). The asking price for the 674 sq.ft unit was HK$33,000,000 (US$ 4,255,500). To put it in context, if a tofu vendor at Graham Street Market sells a block of tofu for HK$4.00 each, she would need to sell over 12,000 blocks just to buy a square feet of residential space above her head. The HK$4.00 price has yet factored in any expense or production cost. Being the world’s most expensive property market for years, Hong Kong real estate is way out of reach for many ordinary Hong Kongers. [My Central at Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: Descending from Gage Street brings us into the crowded Graham Street Market. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Back in 2014, both sides of Graham Street were occupied by vendors and shops. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Graham Street Market has been enclosed by scaffolding and affected by construction noises in the past few years.. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Late 2014 was the last few months when Graham Street was still flanked by its old shops and market stalls. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The redevelopment has forced a number of shop owners to consider retirement. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Some shops preferred to relocate to another retail space in the same area. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Situated near the junction of Graham and Wellington Street, this stall sells all kinds of local dried ingredients, such as nuts, dried tofu, dried mushrooms and Chinese preserved sausages. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: This kind of dried good grocery was quite common at street markets in the old days, but are now disappearing fast in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Shopping in traditional market stalls offer us opportunities to chat with the vendors and asked for their recommendations on cooking techniques. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2020: For several years already, the market stalls on Graham Street have to cope with construction noises and dusts behind and above their heads. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2020: Today, between Wellington Street and Gage Street, one side of Graham Street is occupied by “My Central”, while market stalls on the opposite side are backed by a wall of construction barriers. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2021: New shops such as Smoke and Barrels, a New Orleans-style BBQ restaurant, has already moved into the podium of “My Central”. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2021: Behind the scaffolding structure and green coverings, the 140-year-old Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) awaits for its turn of makeover. [Junction of Wellington and Graham Street, Central, 2021]
2017: As the sole survivor of its architectural type in Hong Kong, the Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) building is a Grade 1 listed historical building meant to be preserved and renewed for retail use. Last year, people found that the roof of the building has been removed. [Junction of Graham Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2017]
2016: Thanks to netizen who shares a drone photograph online, we can still have a peek of what the original structure and roof were like. [Photo credit: Jack Chui at Chinese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
2009: Also thanks to netizens who share their old photos online, we can have a glimpse of what the interior of Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) was like before it closed its doors in 2009 after 80 years in business. [Photo credit: Wikipedia user -Wpcpey, WiNG, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
2020: Established at Kowloon City in 1917, Kowloon Soy Co. Limited (九龍醬園) is one of the last company still using traditional method to make soy sauce. Many of their products are exported to the overseas, while their Graham Street store is their last remaining specialty shop in Hong Kong. [Graham Street near Queen’s Road Central, Central, 2020]
2020: Apart from Graham Street, Peel Street the other sloped market street lined with small shops. [Peel Street near Hollywood Road, Central, 2020]
2014: Compared to Graham Street, Peel Street has a larger concentration of shops selling non-food merchandise. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The corrugated metal cover atop the market stall provides decent protection against dusts and debris from adjacent construction site of “My Central”. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Before popularization of supermarkets, citizens in Hong Kong relied on these small variety shop to get all sorts of household merchandise. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Not too long ago, even goldfish could be purchased from the street market stalls at Graham Street Market. [Junction of Peel Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2014]
2014: These goldfish vendors are disappearing fast across the city, especially on Hong Kong Island. [Junction of Peel Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The story of the changing Graham Street Market exemplifies the fate of many old neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]

REVERIE OF CHUNGKING EXPRESS: LAN KWAI FONG (蘭桂坊), Central (中環), Hong Kong

Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), a “L” shaped lane and its surrounding area is one of the designated places in Hong Kong for clubbing, partying and celebrating major festivals such as the New Year’s countdown. [Staff setting up festival decorations in LKF, late December, 2004]
For many decades Lan Kwai Fong was seen as the backwaters of Central, the main business district in Hong Kong. The opening of the first disco on LKF in 1978 has completely changed the fate of the sloped alleyway. [Near junction of LKF and D’Aguilar Street, 2004]

Midnight Express, a former snack bar in one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant and eccentric nightlife area Lan Kwai Fong (蘭桂坊), was one of the primary filming locations of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林). In the film, Faye (Faye Wong) works at the snack bar while policeman 633 (Tony Leung) regularly comes to order takeout for his girlfriend. Behind the snack bar counter, Faye often dreams about the American West Coast, dances in the deafening music of California Dreamin’, and watches the revelry of Lan Kwai Fong’s party crowds. Standing behind the street-facing snack counter, Faye might have seen the partying individuals as empty and lonely, drinking, dancing and spending money as if there is no tomorrow. Chungking Express is just one of many films and TV dramas that picks Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), Hong Kong designated hub for partying, drinking and clubbing, to tell their urban tales. These stories have contributed to the myth making of LKF’s wild parties and charismatic lifestyle of the city’s high earners, expatriates and socialites. Since opening the first disco in 1978, the cool partying retreat was soon developed into a popular entertainment hub, and then becoming the city’s prime tourist attraction, the evolution of LKF reflects Hong Kong’s fast changing subcultures and economic circumstances in the past four decades.

Yet, LKF is not always about the glitter and glamour. A hundred years ago, LKF was home to brothels, marriage arrangers, and hawkers, and continued to be a back alley in the shadow of Central until the late 1970’s. It all began in 1978, when Gordon Huthart, son of the director of Lane Crawford luxury department store, collaborated with Andrew Bull, the legendary DJ who came to the city in 1974, brought the culture of Saturday Night Fever to Hong Kong by opening Disco Disco in LKF. Before Disco Disco, most nightlife in the city were associated with five star hotels. Disco Disco was the avant-garde venue that opened up a new era of subculture that welcomed all cool people in the city, be it queer or straight, rich or poor, to present their stylish outfits, glamorous persona and real character on the dance floor. Disco Disco was the pioneer in Hong Kong to break the social norms, and soon became one of the most phenomenal disco in Asia. International celebrities like Andy Warhol, Madonna, Sex Pistol, Rod Steward, Sean Penn, Sylvestor Stallone, etc. who happened to be a visitor of Hong Kong, would come for a drink and rubbed shoulders with the local socialites and celebrities. Despite shutting its doors permanently in 1986, Disco Disco has undoubtedly established the mythical foundation of LKF.

In 1983, the former Club 97 and Allan Zeman’s California Restaurant opened in LKF, and soon developed LKF into a prime nightlife destination, and a special venue for wild parties and celebrations for the New Year, Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The sloped lane of LKF and the adjacent D’Aguilar Street (德己立街) were proved too small for the overwhelming crowds in 1993’s New Year’s Day, when a stampede accident killing 21 and injuring 62 shocked the whole city. Since then, stringent crowd control measures have been introduced by the police in LKF at every major festivals. Despite the tragic incident, nightlife continue to flourish in LKF and remain popular among expatriates, high earners, and tourists. Under the business vision of Allan Zeman, the biggest landlord in the area, LWF has become a unique business model that can be exported to other cities in China and Thailand. Today, a little more than a year since the first case of Covid 19 appeared in Hong Kong, LKF is facing its biggest challenge since 1978. Long periods of compulsory closure have shattered the entertainment businesses. From the coolest clubbing venue to a business formula that can be appropriated elsewhere in Asia, and from the designated party floor to one of the biggest business victims in times of the pandemic, LWF has seen its ups and downs. How may the partying ground adjust to the new order of post-pandemic Hong Kong is yet to be seen.

After 27 years, Midnight Express, the snack bar appeared in Chungking Express, has been converted into a 7/11 convenient store. [Lan Kwai Fong, 2021]
In times of the pandemic, the florists on LKF are relatively less affected by the government’s restrictions. [Junction of LKF and D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
Jewish Canadian businessman Allan Zeman has replaced his legendary California Restaurant (also a filming location of Chungking Express) with the mixed use California Tower [Junction of LKF and D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
According to their website, the 26 storey California Tower is home to some of the city’s finest restaurants, bars, clubs, lifestyle, fitness and creative commerce. [Junction of LKF and D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
In times of the pandemic, the legendary nightlife lane of LKF has become a shadow of its past. [LKF, 2021]
Whether the shuttered nightclubs and bars would reopen their doors after the government restrictions have been lifted is yet to be seen. [D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
LKF tried their best to convince the government that they would ensure their customers to keep social distancing and mask wearing, but that didn’t prevent the government to temporarily shutter all the bars and clubs. [D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
Branches off from D’Aguilar Street, the deserted Wing Wah Lane (榮華里) was once a cozy lane filled with dining tables on Friday night. [Wing Wah Lane, 2021]
Today in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, Wing Wah Lane is pretty much vacant. [Wing Wah Lane, 2021]
Serving lunch and takeouts to office workers in Central, restaurants at Wo On Lane (和安里) are perhaps some of the least affected business in LKF during the pandemic. [Junction of Wo On Lane and D’Aguilar Street, 2021]
A small deity shrine dedicated to the patron saint of the area marks the end of Wo On Lane. [Wo On Lane, 2021]
Beyond the deity shrine is Lan Kwai Fong Amphitheatre. [LKF Amphitheatre, 2021]
Lan Kwai Fong Amphitheatre has been a popular venue for parties, live performances and community events such Christmas Carols and outdoor movie screenings. Today, as all gyms and sporting venues are closed due to the Covid 19 pandemic, LKF Amphitheatre has become an outdoor exercise area for the community. [LKF Amphitheatre, 2021]
From boxing to weight lifting, LKF Amphitheatre has become a hot spot for exercising during the pandemic. [LKF Amphitheatre, 2021]
Built in 1892, the brick and stucco building was a cold storage depot for Dairy Farm, Hong Kong’s first local dairy company. The NGO arts organization Fringe Club (藝穗會) is housed in the South Block of the listed old Dairy Farm Depot, offering venues for art exhibitions, theatre performances, restaurant, and roof garden to support emerging artists in the city. [Junction of Wyndham Street, D’Aguilar Street and Lower Albert Road, 2020]
The North Block of the old Dairy Farm Depot is occupied by Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC), where foreign journalists and local media workers mingle after work. [Junction of Ice House Street and Lower Albert Road, 2020]
The FCC has occupied the North Block of the old Dairy Farm Depot since 1982. [Junction of Ice House Street and Lower Albert Road, 2020]
In 2020, the year when the whole world was overshadowed by the Covid 19 pandemic, most public festival celebrations in Hong Jong had been called off. 2020’s Halloween fell between Hong Kong’s third and fourth wave of Covid 19, offering a moment of relaxation for some minor celebrations to happen. [Looking towards D’Aguilar Street from Theatre Lane in Central, 2020]
On Halloween night, neighbourhoods in Central were filled of festive joy near Soho and LKF. [Pottinger Street in Central, Halloween night 2020]
Despite lack of large scale celebration due to the pandemic, the joyful crowds still dressed up in costumes and gathered around LKF for the annual Halloween celebrations. [Pottinger Street in Central, Halloween night 2020]
The street get more crowded as we approached LKF. [Wellington Street in Central, Halloween night 2020]
The police crowd control measures didn’t defer the crowds from entering D’Aguilar Street towards LKF. [D’Aguilar Street, Central, Halloween night 2020]
For many, it was time to party in LKF after many months of social distancing. [D’Aguilar Street, Central, Halloween night 2020]
Many ended up waiting in queues to enter the clubs and bars. In less than a month’s time after the Halloween, bars and clubs were shut down once again due to the fourth wave of Covid 19 in Hong Kong. [LKF, Halloween night 2020]
For those who couldn’t get into the clubs and bars, just dressing up in Halloween costumes, greeting pedestrians in laughter, and chilling out on the party street would easily put the night as one of the most memorable moments in the year of lockdowns and social distancing. [LKF, Halloween night 2020]

REVERIE OF CHUNGKING EXPRESS: URBAN ESCALATORS, Central – Mid Levels (中環-半山), Hong Kong

Moving up the hill on the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator is a pleasant way to experience the urban scenery of Hong Kong. [Escalator at Soho, 2014]
From vibrant city scenes to quiet residential neighborhoods, the escalator journey offers visitors a continuous sequence of moving pictures. [Escalator near Caine Road, 2014]
The higher the escalator reaches, the more residential the scenery gets. [Escalator near Mosque Street, 2014]

Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.

Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.

Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.

Cochrane Street (閣麟街) is one of the hilly streets going uphill from Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中). Today, the junction of Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central is where the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator begins to climb uphill.
[Cochrane Street: Wellcome Library, London. By John Thomson, 1868 / 1871. http://wellcomeimages.org. Creative Commons CC BY 4.0]
The streetscape of Cochrane Street (閣麟街) has completely transformed after the escalator was built in 1993. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central, 2014]
Looking down from the escalator, Stanley Street (士丹利街) is one of the last few spots in Central that dai pai dong (大排檔) or street eateries can still be found. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Stanley Street, 2016]
In Chungking Express, Tony Leung often comes here for lunch and Faye Wong would come by after getting grocery from Graham Street Market just around the corner. [Street eateries near the junction of Stanley Street and Graham Street, 2014]
Apart from distant traffic noises and pedestrian chattering, live music is occasionally heard on the escalator. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Wellington Street, 2018]
Stairs and elevators are provided at street intersections for access to the escalator system. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Gage Street, 2020]
The escalator reaches Gage Street (結志街) at the end of Cochrane Street (閣麟街). Gage Street has long been part of the Graham Street Market, the oldest open market in Hong Kong with 160 years of history. Today, the once vibrant street market has been partially demolished by the profit making Urban Renewal Authority for residential developments. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Gage Street, 2020]
Near the intersection of Gage Street (結志街), Cochrane Street (閣麟街) and Lyndhurst Terrace (擺花街), an old Hong Kong-style cafe called Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園) is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. Established in 1952, Lan Fong Yuen is known as the place where Hong Kong style milk tea was invented. [Junction of Cochrane Street, Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2020]
Below the escalator, tourists and locals queued outside Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園). [Junction of Cochrane Street, Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2014]
Sometimes the Lan Fong Yuen queue can get a little chaotic, especially when there are trucks coming into Gage Street. [Junction of Cochrane Street, Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2014]
The two seats outside Lan Fong Yuen are probably the smallest dai pai dong or street vendors I have seen in the area. Watching pedestrians moving on the escalator would probably distract the customers from their meal. [Junction of Cochrane Street and Gage Street, 2014]
At many occasions, the escalator would get awfully close to the adjacent buildings. Sometimes, escalator pedestrians can make direct eye contact with people inside the building. [Junction of Cochrane Street, Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2020]
At many occasions, pedestrians on the escalator system can make direct eye contact with people inside the building. [Junction of Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2021]
The one-way escalators move downhill everyday from 6 to 10am, and uphill from 10am to midnight. [Junction of Lyndhurst Terrace and Gage Street, 2020]
When the escalator reaches Hollywood Road (荷李活道), the scenery from the escalator is dominated by the former police headquarters known as Tai Kwun (大館). Tai Kwun has been converted into a cultural and entertainment complex in recent years. [Junction of escalator and Hollywood Road, 2018]
A connection bridge was built a few years ago to link up the escalator and the side entrance of Tai Kwun. [Junction of Hollywood Road and Old Bailey Street, 2018]
The Central – Mid-Levels Escalator and Soho entertainment district are popular among tourists ever since its completion. [Junction of Shelley and Hollywood Road, 2014]
The escalator brings office workers from the financial district up to the bars and restaurants in Soho. [Near junction of Shelley Street and Staunton Street, 2020]
In the heart of Soho, the escalators is cut off at Staunton Street (士丹頓街). [Junction of Shelley Street and Staunton Street, 2014]
Fancy restaurants and lively bars have transformed the once peaceful residential Elgin Street (伊利近街). [Junction of escalator and Elgin Street, 2020]
The pace of the escalator is ideal for a leisure wander in the hilly neighbourhoods. [Escalator near Elgin Street, 2014]
The Central – Mid-Levels Escalator is a modern alternative of the old ladder streets of Hong Kong. [Escalator near Elgin Street, 2014]
Above Hollywood Road (荷李活道), the escalator continues up the sloped Shelley Street (些利街) in segments. [Shelley Street as viewed from landing at Caine Road, 2020]
Above Caine Road (堅道), the escalator entered the district of Mid-Levels (半山), an affluent residential district right above Downtown Hong Kong. [Escalator south of Caine Road, 2020]
Before hitting Mosque Street (摩羅廟街), the escalator passes by the entrance Jamia Masjid Mosque, the oldest mosque in Hong Kong. [Jamia Masjid Mosque, north of Mosque Street, 2020]
Jamia Masjid Mosque is also called Lascar Temple. Built in 1849 and rebuilt in 1915, the beautiful mosque is listed as a Grade 1 historical building. [Jamia Mosque, 2020]
Built in early 20th century, the three storey building offered free accommodation to mosque worshipers. [Jamia Mosque, 2014]
Around Jamia Masjid Mosque, the escalator snakes through clusters of apartments. [Escalator at Mosque Junction, 2014]
Beyond Jamia Mosque, the escalator continued to climb up the slope towards Robinson Road (羅便臣道) and Conduit Road (干德道). [Escalator at Mosque Junction, 2014]

LADDER STREETS PART 3: A NOSTALGIC JOURNEY, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Construction began in 1841, the same year of founding the city, Ladder Street is one of the oldest streets in Hong Kong. [Near the intersection of Ladder Street and Bridges Street in 1927. Various online sources.]

Out of the many ladder streets in Central and Sheung Wan (中上環), the roughly 350m Ladder Street (樓梯街) in Tai Ping Shan is the longest and one of the oldest. While “ladder street” is a general term for all pedestrian stair streets in Hong Kong, “Ladder Street” is also the name of a specific 316-steps stair street running from Caine Road (堅道) in the Mid Levels (半山) down to Queen’s Street Central (皇后大道中) in Sheung Wan. On its way, Ladder Street intersects with Bridges Street (必列者士街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), and several smaller pedestrian lanes. It also passes by a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions, including the Museum of Medical Sciences (香港醫學博物館), Chinese YMCA (中華基督教青年會), Man Mo Temple (文武廟) and Upper Lascar Row Antique Street Market / Cat Street Market (摩羅上街). Construction began in 1841 in the same year when the city was founded, Ladder Street is an iconic urban artefact of Hong Kong.

For many, Ladder Street is an iconic backdrop that represents a bygone Hong Kong. Throughout the years, Ladder Street has featured in uncounted films, TV shows (often involves chasing scenes), advertisements, photographs, etc. For foreigners, Ladder Street may be best known as one of the main filming locations of The World of Suzie Wong, a 1960 American/ British movie that tells the story of a American painter Robert Lomax (William Holden) falling in love with a Hong Kong prostitute Mei Ling (Nancy Kwan). For filming, the section of Ladder Street around Hollywood Road was converted into the set of Nam Kok Hotel, a fictional hotel where the two main protagonists stay hang around. The streetscapes of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road in the movie were “enriched” with extra street vendors, Chinese signage, pulled rickshaws, and lots and lots of people.

Walking down the Ladder Street to Sheung Wan Station every morning is a pleasant start to our daily routine. Away from rush hour traffic, Ladder Street offers us a moment of relaxing air before diving ourselves into the bustling dynamics of the city. Singing birds, shadows of swaying trees, rustic balustrades, old brick walls, incense smoke from Man Mo Temple, and scenes of vendors setting up their antique market stalls, every little detail of Ladder Street come together in a poetic picture. In the past two decades, many low rise tenement buildings in the area have been torn down for new apartment towers. Many vendors have retired, and old shops being replaced by new ones. No matter how much has changed, the intimate and tranquil scenery of Ladder Street remains as an icon of an old Hong Kong. Late poet Yesi (也斯), Leung Ping Kwan, in his 1990 poem Ladder Street, imagines himself on a pair of wooden clogs wandering in Ladder Street like a flaneur, mourning for the loss of the old days and yearning for a re-connection to bygone voices. Who knows, we probably would share a similar sense of loss in a few years’ time.

Ladder Street contains 316 steps running from Queen’s Road Central to Caine Road. [Sectional Diagram of Ladder Street, steps and landings are indicative only]
A small street eatery (popular with construction workers in the area) marks the top entrance of Ladder Street. [Junction of Caine Road and Ladder Street]
Decades ago, Victoria Harbour was clearly visible from the upper sections of Ladder Street. [Ladder Street between Caine Road and Caine Lane, 1954. Various online sources.]
Viewing from the same spot today, the sea is completely hidden by layers of modern buildings. [Junction of Caine Road and Ladder Street]
At night, a moody tone of yellow blankets much of the Ladder Street. [Junction of Caine Lane and Ladder Street]
The curved retaining wall between U Lam Terrace and Rosario Street remains as one of the few things that we can pick out in historical photos. [Junction of Rosario Street and Ladder Street]
Branching off from Ladder Street to Tank Lane, U Lam Terrace, a residential lane with only five apartment blocks, exemplifies a middle upper Chinese neighbourhood in the 19th century. [Junction of Tank Lane, U Lam Terrace and Rosario Street]
For 10 days in March each year, blossoms of tabebuia chrysantha would completely transform the scenery of the terrace. Native to South America, the deciduous tree was introduced to Hong Kong for aesthetic reasons. [U Lam Terrace]
Further down from U Lam Terrace is Bridges Street. In 1883, American missionary Rev. Dr. Charles Robert Hager arrived at Bridges Street in Tai Ping Shan and embarked on the Hong Kong Mission. In 1898, he bought the land at Ladder Street and Bridges Street and established the China Congregational Church. Charles Robert Hager is well known for baptizing Dr. Sun Yatsen in 1884. [Junction of Bridges Street and Ladder Street]
Linking the artsy Tai Ping Shan Street to the west and SOHO to the east, the 300m Bridges Street is frequented by tourists to check out the historical buildings in the area. [Outside Island Christian Academy on Bridges Street]
Completed in 1918, Chinese YMCA at Bridges Street was designed by American architect Harry Hussey in an attempt to integrate the style of the Chicago school with traditional Chinese features. As a result, red bricks, concrete and green glazed roof tiles were used. [Junction of Bridges Street and Ladder Street]
Currently a community centre, the building houses Hong Kong’s first indoor swimming pool and the last surviving running track made from wood. [Junction of Bridges Street and Tank Lane]
Constructed with the most modern facilities at its time, YMCA building has witnessed a century of changes in Hong Kong. Being a community hub for the locals ever since completion, Famous Chinese writer Lu Hsun once hosted a lecture at the YMCA building’s auditorium in 1927. [The cornerstone of the 1st Hong Kong YMCA was laid, 1917. University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives.]
Further down from Bridges Street, the upper section of Ladder Street ends at Man Mo Temple (文武廟), where Square Street makes a sharp turn out to Hollywood Road. This historic street junction featured frequently in films, including American/ British movie The World of Suzie Wong. [Junction of Square Street and Hollywood Road]
A century ago, the very same spot at the junction of Square Street and Ladder Street was home to street vendors. Looking upwards, the profile of Victoria Peak could still be seen. Today, the hill is totally hidden behind tall apartments. [Ladder Street as viewed from Square Street near Hollywood Road, with the side wall of Man Mo Temple on the left, 1920, copyright expired]
Situated at the junction of Square Street, Ladder Street and Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple (文武廟) is one of the oldest temples in the city. Based on inscriptions on a brass bell, the temple was presumably built in 1847. [Man Mo Temple from corner of Hollywood Road and Ladder Street]
Not much has changed for Man Mo Temple in the past 150 years. But the urban context surrounding the temple has dramatically evolved. [The Joss House temple ornamented with lions and Chinese dragons, by William Pryor. Floyd, 1873. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)]
Yue Po Chai Curios Store (裕寶齋) occupies the corner of Hollywood Road and Square Street, where the filming spot of the fictional Nam Kok Hotel in The World of Suzie Wong was once located. Today, the circular shop entrance is a popular spot for Instagram selfies. [Corner of Hollywood Road and Square Street]
Another landing or two down the Ladder Street from Hollywood Road would get us to Upper Lascar Row (摩羅上街) and Circular Pathway (弓絃巷). Upper Lascar Row is a major antique market street in Hong Kong. East Indian sailors known as Lascar in the colonial era once lived in the street during the 19th century. As the Indians moved to other areas in the city, the small street was transformed into a shopping street for antiques and curios merchandises in the 1920’s. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Ladder Street]
In the old days, all kinds of merchandise could be found at Upper Lascar Row. Merchandise from illegal origins were referred as “mouse goods”. Shoppers who came seeking for these goods were nicknamed “cats”. Thus Upper Lascar Row was also called Cat Street by Westerners. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Tank Lane]
Hidden in the antique shops of Upper Lascar Row is June Woonamy, a bespoke tailor shop specialized in making “sleekly vintage” suits. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row and Luk Ku Road]
In the midst of old shops, Halfway Coffee has emerged as an urban magnet attracting the younger generation coming into the antique market. [Halfway Coffee’s exterior seating area in Upper Lascar Row]
Before the shops open for business, Upper Lascar Row is a peaceful venue for morning stroll. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Tank Lane]
The Ladder Street landing cthat branches off to Upper Lascar Row and Circular Pathway is a popular spot to get “fai chun” (揮春), traditional calligraphy decorations used during Chinese New Year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
The landing of Ladder Street that branches off to Upper Lascar Row and Circular Pathway is a popular spot to get “fai chun” (揮春), traditional calligraphy decorations used during Chinese New Year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
As Chinese New Year is approaching, four temporary “fai chun” (揮春) booths were being set up at Ladder Street. These booths would usually last for about two weeks each year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
All of the fai chun writers are elderly, with the oldest being almost 96. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
After 316 steps, the Ladder Street reaches Queen’s Road Central, the first main street in Hong Kong. [Junction of Queen’s Road Central and Ladder Street]

LADDER STREETS PART 2: TREASURE HUNT, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Surprise Encounters

For a whole year we walked by the junction of Ladder Street (樓梯街) and Circular Pathway (弓弦巷) every morning and never did we notice Nhau, a new contemporary Vietnamese restaurant just 30m down Circular Pathway, until one Saturday morning when we decided to give it a try after reading about it on the Internet. We ended up enjoying the lovely food by Chef Que Vinh Dang and the relaxing ambience of the restaurant. But what truly amazed us was the fact that we have never noticed the restaurant’s existence despite it is just 3 minute walk away from our apartment and we passed by the junction almost everyday. In fact, Nhau was not the only pleasant surprise we have encountered during our strolls in Tai Ping Shan. Be it a hidden restaurant, or a tiny vintage shop, or a new hand-drip coffee house, or an alleyway full of street art, the labyrinth network of ladder streets in our neighborhood are full of hidden treasures. Every spontaneous detour we make may end up a journey of discoveries. Being a flaneur in our own neighborhood has become our weekend pastimes, as if a recurring treasure hunt that brings us delightful surprises from time to time.

Treasure Troves

Tai Ping Shan in Sheung Wan has been a treasure trove for several generations. The area around Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) have long been the largest antique market in Hong Kong. Today, the area still host a large concentration of antique stores. Apart from traditional antique shops, new vintage shops have emerged in recent years, attracting nostalgic vintage lovers across the city coming over to test their luck. Film directors and designers in particular love to linger in the area to search for inspirations and film production props. Select 18 at Tung Street has an impressive collection of vintage objects from jewellery, posters, photos, vinyls, toys, housewares to furniture. We can easily spend hours just to go through every single items that might have appeared somewhere in our childhood memories. Recently, it is Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person at Water Lane that has captured our attention. Housed in a metal shed measured no more than 1.5 x 2.5m in a 3m wide alleyway, Chenmiji truly epitomizes the tiny living conditions in Hong Kong, where the average living space per capita is 160 sq.ft (compared to 220 in Japan, 323 in Singapore, and 800 in the United States. Space is intimate at Chenmiji, and the atmosphere is cozy and the collection personal but charming, especially attractive for people who adores the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong. Checking out these vintage shops have become another hobby of ours recently. Just a gentle touch of an old toy or movie ticket would trigger distant memories that we haven’t recalled for years, reminding us how we used to live in an era without smartphones, computers, and the internet.

Treasures for All

Checking out the vintage store You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) would bring us to a popular community gathering spot at Shing Wong Street (城皇街), another famous ladder street between Hollywood Road and Caine Road. In the midst of “30 House” (卅間), an old community of tenement buildings, or tong lau (唐樓) in Chinese, a series of pedestrian landings and steps have become a causal meeting place for the community, as if a small piazza in Europe. Surrounded by two coffee shops and the vintage store You Wu Studio, these landings can be considered as the community’s “third place”, which sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes as a relaxing mingling place away from our home and office. Every weekend, You Yu Studio would set up chairs and tables outside their store, encourage members of the community to sit down for a causal chat, or a cup of locally made ice cream, or a handicraft workshop. Such breathing space just a stone throw away from the business district is truly a treasure for Tai Ping Shan community, and a valuable open space for all pedestrians to enjoy. As a dense and vertical city, Hong Kongers are unfortunately enjoying far less open spaces than residents in many other Asian cities. A study in 2017 reveals the average open space per capita in Hong Kong is about 2.8 sq.m, way behind Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore (ranging from 5.8 to 7.6 sq.m). Without adequate outdoor spaces for social activities, Hong Kongers have long been using the streets creatively for both commercial and social purposes. This is the case for You Yu Studio at Shing Wong Street, and so as the tiny Chenmiji at Water Lane.

Circular Path (弓絃巷) was once a lively street with shops and vendors lined along both sides of the street. Decades of urban redevelopment, street alterations and relocation of most street vendors, vibrant scenes of Circular Path have long gone. Today, only two street stalls remain, and one of the vendors is already 96 years old. The opening of Nhau Vietnamese restaurant has injected a new stream of energy into the stepped alleyway.
Occupying a quiet location at Circular Path, Nhau Vietnamese restaurant was a pleasant surprise for us in a lovely June morning.
Ping On Lane (平安里), a narrow ladder street a little more than 1m wide between Hollywood Road and Bridges Street, is another hidden alleyways in Sheung Wan.
Just 10m in from the entrance of Hollywood Road stands a stone gateway inscribed with two Chinese characters 蹈和, pronounces “dou woo”, referring to an old Chinese idiom meaning one should walk straight peacefully in life. The old stone doorway is a remnant from the former Chung Wah College (中華書院), a charity school established by Tung Wah Hospital Group in 1880 to provide free education to low income citizens operated with public donations from the adjacent Man Mo Temple(文武廟).
Just a landing up from the stone doorway leads a rustic entrance with a cool bulldog graphic. Hidden from daily vehicular and pedestrian traffic, SHBJJ is a martial art school training students on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). A popular martial arts with a solid base of practitioners around the world, including Hollywood actors Keanu Reeves and Naomi Watts, BJJ itself is another story of East meets West, where the Carlos brothers of Brazil were taught by Mitsuyo Maeda (前田 光世), a master of Japanese Judo at the turning of the 20th century.
About 100m from Ping On Lane, another hidden ladder street between Queen’s Road Central and Gough Street is home to Sleeep, an award wining capsule hotel that promotes what many Hong Kongers are lacking in their busy life, the culture of sleep.
In the antique market area of Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a series of narrow ladder streets have become treasure troves for vintage collectors.
Select 18 is one of the most well known vintage store in Sheung Wan. Many filmmakers and art directors would come to search for furniture or household objects for filming.
No matter the age, visitors would likely find objects that belong to their childhood years.
All objects in the shop come from the colonial years of Hong Kong.
From the objects on display, it’s not difficult to see the British influences to the city.
Everything has a price tag, and so as one’s memories.
Just 20m from Select 18, hidden in the narrow Water Lane (水巷) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) is the super cool Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person. Chenmiji is managed by two interesting owners: a designer/ vintage furniture collector and a vintage book collector.
A signed photograph of famous Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin from the 1970s guards the entrance of Chenmiji.
Probably due to spatial restrictions, most items at Chenmiji are small.
Displayed on the ledge against the shop window include vintage board games and pencil sharpeners from the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from vintage stationery, games, and household items, Chenmiji also offers a selection of vintage books.
It is amazing to see such a cozy and personal space emerges in the middle of a hidden alleyway.
Tuck in a side alleyway off Shing Wong Street stands a traditional barber shop. With only two seats, the old-school barber shop has become an one of the kind in the neighborhood.
East of Shing Wong Street between Staunton Street and Hollywood Road stands the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a listed historical building converted into a mixed-use art and design centre. It stands on the former site of Queen’s College, the city’s largest building complex during late 19th century. Before erection of the Queen’s College, Shing Wong Temple, the earliest temple in the Victoria city, occupied the very same site in mid 19th century.
Shing Wong Street (城皇街) is the central axis of an old neighborhood known as Thirty Houses (卅間), a battleground between the profit making Urban Renewal Authority and the local community who is fighting for the conservation of historical buildings in the area.
In recent years, the vintage shop You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) has become a focal point in the neighborhood.
According to their website, “You Wu Studio provides a place for fun. People are able to re-create their own space here: organize exhibitions, workshops, or just come and taste our tea, read books and enjoy life.” Shing Wong Street has become a stepped piazza where the community would gather and interact outside the shopfront of You Yu Studio.
A few steps further up from You Wu Studio, another landing is often used as an outdoor patio for the two adjacent cafes.

LADDER STREETS PART 1: COLLECTIVE MEMORY, Central & Sheung Wan (中上環), Hong Kong

Before leaving Hong Kong for Canada, I spent the first decade of my life in the same Central Sheung Wan (中上環) area where our current home is located. The sloped streets and granite stairs in the neighborhood have featured heavily in my childhood memories. Walking up and down the century-old pedestrian stairs, a unique urban feature that we call “ladder streets” (樓梯街) in Hong Kong, was part of my childhood routine. I used to hate these stairs, especially when climbing them to school during summer months. Now returning as an adult, my emotions towards ladder streets have dramatically changed. Each worn treads, old balustrade and aged retaining walls seem to be remnants from a bygone era of the city, as well as my distant childhood.

Behind the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island stands Victoria Peak, also called Tai Ping Shan (太平山) in Chinese. The once imposing ridge line is pretty much hidden nowadays, unless one ventures far enough out into the harbour for a distant view. In fact, the island’s hilly terrain once posed a big challenge for the British colonial government when founding the city in 1841. On one hand, they were determined to erect a waterfront city by land reclamation from the sea. On the other hand, they managed to conquer the unforgiving terrain of Victoria Peak, levelling slopes into terraces for housing constructions, and connecting the residential terraces with steep paths and ladder streets. From then on, the network of ladder streets connect the hillside communities of West District, Sheung Wan, Central and Wanchai with the business district along the waterfront.

No one has a concrete idea of how many ladder streets remain in Hong Kong until 2013 when Melissa Cate Christ of Hong Kong University and her team on the Stair Culture project attempted to map out the ladder streets in the city. In their mapping exercise, they found over 3000 stairs in Central-Western District (中西區) alone. Not only has their work illustrated the astonishing concentration of ladder streets in a small area of old Hong Kong (about 12.4 sq. km), they also highlighted the danger ladder streets are facing today, the importance of preserving the ladder streets and the positive impact these stairs have contributed to the livability and urban character of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Over a century of urban makeovers, many ladder streets have become obsolete when public escalators, elevators and asphalt roads were built to bring busy urbanites up and down the hill at a much faster pace. Some have been demolished to make way for modern developments, while some have been reduced to dark narrow alleyways sandwiched between highrise blocks. Functionally, the century old staircases may no longer fit well into modern urban planning. However, beyond merely moving people, the ladder streets play a crucial role in defining the historical identity of the city and providing peaceful alternative routes for pedestrians. A number of ladder streets have become iconic backdrops for tourists, filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers, who come to seek for the city’s nostalgic, peaceful and cozy ambience, in contrast to the fast-paced and somewhat stressful financial district just a stone throw away. From movies to TV shows, ladder streets have featured in a variety of media, formulating a collective memory not just for us who live in the area, but also for all Hong Kongers.

Before the emergence of modern skyscrapers, the hilly terrain of Hong Kong Island was much more prominent. With only a narrow strip of flat land between the hill and the sea, the British Colonial government had little options but to rely on land reclamation and altering the sloped terrain to establish Victoria City.
[1880s skyline of Hong Kong with Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right), credit: Lai Afong, 1880s, public domain]
Today, one can hardly see the ridge line of Victoria Peak unless viewing from a distance. Almost all commercial skyscrapers are situated on reclaimed land that once belonged to the sea. [Skyline of Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right) as viewed across Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui of Kowloon]
The old residential neighborhoods on the slopes of Central, Sheung Wan and Western District lie peacefully behind the modern skyline. [Looking downhill from Peel Street (卑利街) and Caine Road (堅道) towards the 346m The Centre (中環中心), Central (中環)]
Many ladder streets and sloped streets begin at Queen’s Road, the first major waterfront road in Hong Kong. In fact, just by mapping where the ladder streets begin can give us a rough idea on where the original shoreline of Hong Kong Island was located. After over 150 years of land reclamation, Queen’s Road has become a busy inland street with the sea nowhere to be seen. [The stepped section of Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) where it meets Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Sheung Wan (上環)]
Layers of retaining walls from different periods in history are visible at some ladder streets. Landslides have been a constant issue in the past. Over a century of experiences and painful lessons, the city’s slope management techniques have become one of the most sophisticated in the world.[The retaining structure of Ladder Street (樓梯街) at U Lam Terrace (儒林臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]
In the past, some ladder streets have served as boundary line between two communities, such as Pottinger Street and Shing Wong Street that once separated British and Chinese communities. A ladder street might represent a means of separation, but also a venue of social mingling. Today, many ladder streets reveal the diversity of cultures where local traditions collide with contemporary trends. [A traditional temple and mural of a shisha smoking panda occupy opposite sides of Peel Street (卑利街), Central (中環)]
Ladder streets feature extensively in movies and TV shows in Hong Kong, including the 2013 movie The Way We Dance (狂舞派). A remarkable dance scene that combined Tai Chi with Hip-hop and a red balloon (essence spirit of Hong Kong: East meets West) was filmed at the steps of On Wo Lane. [On Wo Lane (安和里) as seen from Kau U Fong (九如坊), Central (中環)]
Opened in 1993, the Central – Mid Levels escalator has provided a more efficient means for pedestrians to travel up and down the lower slope of Victoria Peak. At certain areas, ladder streets have become obsolete as modern developments continue to transform the urban landscape. [Intersection of Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) and Mosque Street (摩羅廟街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
There are always options in Hong Kong. On the same route, pedestrians may choose between taking the escalator on the upper deck, or take relaxing steps on the lower deck. [Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) between Robinson Road (羅便臣道) and Mosque Junction (摩羅廟交加街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
Often appearing in local films and TV shows, one of the most recognizable ladder streets in Hong Kong is Duddell Street (都爹利街) and it’s four historic gas lamps in Central (中環). [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Manufactured by William Sugg & Co. in England, the four gas lamps of Duddell Street were erected in the early twentieth century. The colonial ambience of the Duddell ladder street reveals a form of urban aesthetics that once defined the entire Victoria City. [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Pottinger Street, commonly known as Stone Slabs Street (石板街), is undoubtedly the most iconic ladder street in Hong Kong. It remains as one of the top attraction for tourists visiting Central, the commercial heart of Hong Kong. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
At the junction of Pottinger Street and Wellington Street once stood the first Roman Catholic cathedral of Hong Kong. Built in 1843, the church was destroyed in a fire in 1859, and was rebuilt at another site on Caine Road. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街) in junction with Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
Today, Pottinger Street is a popular tourist attraction and a place to shop for Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Wellington Street (威靈頓街) and Stanley Street (士丹利街), Central (中環)]
During Chinese New Year, Pottinger Street near Queen’s Road Central would turn into a sea of red. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Stanley Street (士丹利街) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
French artist Invader’s pixelated dragon gives the century-old Pottinger Street a playful touch. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), near its terminus at Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
Connecting Hollywood Road, Po Hing Fong and Bonham Road, Pound Lane was once the site of a government pound that kept cows and sheep in the 19th century. Whoever translated the street name from English to Chinese must have misinterpreted the meaning of “Pound” as in weight measurement. Late Canto-pop singer Leslie Cheung recorded the iconic music video of the song “Stand Up” with a dance troupe on the steps of Pound Lane in 1986. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), Sheung Wan (上環)]
The tranquil Pound Lane made news in 2013 when some pro-government politicians advocated to construct an escalator to replace the the steps. Many residents from the neighborhood opposed the idea. Not only might the proposal transform the area into a second Soho (noisy entertainment district), it might also invite developers to tear down the existing low rise apartments and replace with 30-storey luxury apartments. [Pound Lane (磅巷), between Po Hing Fong (普慶坊) and Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan (上環)]
A landing above Po Hing Fong, Pound Lane reaches a small community piazza at Tai On Terrace. Today, Tai On Terrace is home to a cafe, photography gallery, health food store, yoga studio, etc. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Tai On Terrace (大安臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]