ultramarinus – beyond the sea

SLOW LIVING IN POHO, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Staycation has become a new normal for most of us. Since the pandemic began in early 2020, international tourism has come to a complete halt. We have taken this peculiar opportunity to explore Hong Kong, walking away from our usual routes, making detours into unfamiliar alleyways, and find out more about the city’s fading memories. In the next little while, we are going to write about Hong Kong, the city where we stationed ourselves since 2014. Out of the city’s 1,106 sq. km of land, we will first focus on places within 15 – 20 minutes of walking distance from our apartment, in a 2.5 sq.km area between Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour that we consider as our own neighborhood.

In the shadow of Hong Kong’s glittering skyline lies the historical Tai Ping Shan area (太平山) in Sheung Wan District (上環). Hundreds if not thousands of staircases crisscross the terraced terrain where streets are often narrow, steep and sometimes inaccessible to cars. Centered around the streets of Po Hing Fong and Tai Ping Shan, a fashionable neighborhood known as Poho has been the focus of the Tai Ping Shan area for quite some time. A diverse combination of fine dining restaurants, causal eateries, sleepy cafes, wine store, cheese and ham shop, antique shops, cool boutiques, bookstores, barber shops, Buddhist temples, churches, schools, small design offices, small museums, youth centres, residential apartments, etc make up a multifaceted community that is quite unique in Hong Kong, not to mention the rich architectural history and collective memories since the founding of the city. Poho is a neighborhood where east meets west, traditions collide with contemporary trends, elderly mingle with young expats, and where the beauty of urban diversity still prevails over the hustle of urban gentrification.

On 20 January 1841, the British landed on the shore of Sheung Wan and established 156 years of colonial rule on Hong Kong island. Just east of Sheung Wan, the British picked the waterfront and hillside area known as Central to established the heart of their newly founded Victoria City, the capital city of Colonial Hong Kong. On the slope of Sheung Wan just above the British landing spot, the city’s first Chinese residential neighborhood Tai Ping Shan emerged right away and soon developed into the densest place in Hong Kong. Wealthy Chinese businessmen mingled with newcomers from China looking for job opportunities in this dense neighborhood. A devastating plague in 1894 swept through the streets of Tai Ping Shan, and completely transformed the physical characteristics of the neighborhood as the British decided to tackle the density and hygiene of the area and established the first hospital catered for Chinese patients. Since then, Tai Ping Shan never looked back and has transformed into the cool Poho. With the world’s most expensive property prices, Hong Kong is a synonym for rapid urban transformations. Residents across the city are used transient living conditions throughout their lives. Poho’s narrow alleyways and staircases have somehow managed to escape dramatic changes and remained a tranquil but energetic urban oasis just a stone throw away from the world famous financial district.

Centered around the pleasant Blake Garden, the POHO area of Tai Ping Shan has become a fashionable neighborhood in recent years. While the century-old temples and trendy cafes and bookstore on Tai Ping Shan Street make up a beautifully diverse community that is rare in Hong Kong, the Old Pathological Institute (Museum of Medical Sciences), Blake Garden, Pak Shing Temple and Tung Wah Hospital have all played its crucial role in the distant memory of the 1894 plague.
The pedestrian streets and stairs in Tai Ping Shan are popular for all kinds of filming, from movies, television series to advertisements. U Lam Terrace (儒林台), one of the several pedestrian only terraces built in the early years of Hong Kong.
At the corner of U Lam Terrace and Tank Lane, the sleepy cafe Lof10 has become a popular hub for dog owners in our neighborhood.
Reached at either end by stairs only, the pedestrian only U Lam Terrace is a pleasant example of Hong Kong residential terrace from a bygone era. “U Lam” literally means “forest of scholars” in Chinese.
The vintage ambience of Poho attracts nostalgic visitors during weekends.
Once the densest neighborhood in the city, a century later Poho becomes a livable neighborhood sandwiched between the waterfront business district and the affluent Mid Levels.
Opened in 1906, the Bacteriological Institute was a medical laboratory to tackle the plague and other infectious diseases in Hong Kong. Vaccines were produced in the building until 1970s. The building was named the Old Pathological Institute in the 1960s after the main facility was moved to a newer building. It was turned into the Museum of Medical Sciences in 1996.
The 1894 plague in Hong Kong claimed thousands, and forced one third of the city’s population to flee. Originated from the Chinese province of Yunnan, the plague arrived in Hong Kong in 1894 and through Hong Kong’s maritime trade, eventually spread to all continents in the world except Antarctica.
A historical staircase adjacent to the Museum of Medical Sciences leads to Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), a century old neighborhood of wealthy Chinese.
In recent years, Po Hing Fong has been transformed into a trendy spot in recent years. Named after Po Hing Fong, this area of Tai Ping Shan is now commonly referred to as Poho, a haven of slow living: hand drip coffee, European bakery, private gallery, pottery workshop, artist studios, vintage clothing, yoga workshop, etc.
Compared to the dazzling Soho entertainment district nearby, Poho is relatively peaceful, causal, and warm.
Below Caine Lane and behind Capo pizza shop hides the lovely Tutu clay workshop.
Between Po Hing Fong and Tai Ping Shan Street lies Blake Garden (卜公花園). As the epicenter of the 1894 plague, buildings in this part of Tai Ping Shan were bought and demolished by the British colonial government and turned into Blake Garden.
Today, Blake Garden is a small urban park with hard courts for football, basketball, badminton and volleyball.
Given the density and the sloped terrain of Hong Kong Island, Blake Garden is a precious open space for the Poho neighborhood.
Sleepy cafes of Po Hing Fong have become popular gathering spots for expats, creative professionals and the young generation.
Another stair street known as Pound Lane connects Po Hing Fong to higher terraces.
Landings between stair streets have become venues for more cafes, galleries, yoga workshops in recent years.
The tranquil Tai On Terrace (大安臺) above Po Hing Fong has attracted small design companies to set up their offices in an urban oasis kind of setting in just 15 minute of walking distance to the city’s financial centre.
The western end of Po Hing Fong stands Tung Wah Hospital. Established in 1870, Tung Wah Hospital was the first hospital in Hong Kong to receive Chinese patients. Due to the mistrust to Western medicine in the past, the hospital originally treated patients with Chinese medicine. Before Tung Wah Hospital, Chinese patients preferred going to Pak Shing Temple in Tai Ping Shan Street for treatment and a peaceful death.
A 1870 photograph taken from Tung Wah Hospital looking southeast towards Po Hing Fong and Caine Road. A group of houses in the left part of the photo would be torn down in 1894 to tackle the plague outbreak.
[Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]

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