ultramarinus – beyond the sea

NOSTALGIA OF AN EX-RESIDENT, Tai Hang (大坑), Hong Kong

After moving out of Tai Hang in 2019, Tai Hang has changed, Hong Kong has changed, and so do we. From time to time, we would return for visits, mainly for the French pastries and Japanese sushi, or a simple stroll in the tong lau area just to check out which shops have departed and who were the newcomers. Looking back on why we chose Tai Hang as our initial home in the city may well reveal the qualities that we appreciated its sense of place: the character, comfort, sociability, access, activities, image, etc. In fact, we were attracted by Tai Hang’s diverse mix of residents, quiet setting away from major roads, convenient location between Tin Hau (merely 200m) and Causeway Bay, absence of banks, chain stores, supermarkets, and MTR station, wide range of small shops and restaurants, and its embodied paradoxes between East and West, old and new, quiet and vibrant, traditional and bohemian, local and touristic, coolest and also the warmest. When we were still semi-strangers to Hong Kong after a two-decade absence, Tai Hang offered us a haven to settle down, and inspired us how to be part of the community, to have fun in the city, to cherish things that would soon disappear, to appreciate things that resist the changes of time, and to enjoy Hong Kong in our own way. But things have changed, shops have switched hands and people have gone, including us.

200m is the distance between Tai Hang and the tram and bus lines on Causeway Road, or the closest MTR Station in Tin Hau. 200m distance is all it takes to miraculously preserve century-old heritage and a strong sense of community that hardly exist anywhere else at the heart of Hong Kong. Despite its close proximity to Causeway Bay and North Point, this 200m distance put Tai Hang in the city’s backwaters for much of the 19th and 20th century, when squatter settlements filled the slope of Red Incense Burner Hill where Lai Tak Estate now stands, and over a hundred auto repair shops ruled the neighbourhood. Wun Sha Street (浣紗街), the main street of Tai Hang, was once an open water channel, which led to the name Tai Hang, literally means “big water channel”. Since the first coffee shop opened in 2004, Tai Hang has gone through rapid gentrification. Luxury apartments and cool shops sprang up one by one across the old neighbourhood. But it was the emergence of special little restaurants (due to relatively low rents compared to adjacent Causeway Bay) that truly captured the attention of the city, who didn’t realize that at the back of “Little Ginza” there was this secret garden of Causeway Bay. Though there is one thing every Hongkongers knows about Tai Hang, and that is the Fire Dragon Dance, a traditional ceremony at Mid-Autumn Festival since 1880. The dance is now a widely advertised cultural event that draws huge crowds into the neighbourhood every year.

For a tourist, Tai Hang is a foodie paradise, hotspot for the trendy and cool, and stage for the annual Fire Dragon Dance. But for a resident, it is the sense of place and community bonding that truly count. No matter one is a 80-year-old resident who spends his whole life in Tai Hang, or a foreign expatriate who just arrives at the doorstep and hardly speaks a word of Cantonese, as soon as one enters the community, one would soon be touched by the sense of community and gradually assimilate as Tai Hang people. As rents and real estate prices fluctuate, shops and residents may come and go. But as long as its strong sense of community remains, Tang Hang is always Tai Hang. It is the simple and pure village atmosphere at the heart of a highly commercialized metropolis that makes Tai Hang unique in Hong Kong, something that could only be appreciated if one spends more time in the neighbourhood than just a fancy omakase dinner or a cup of hand drip Gesha.

***

REVISITING TAI HANG AS A TOURIST

After we moved out of Tai Hang, we would sometimes return for brief visits. More street art and new shops have emerged in recent years. [2022]
Lyrics of local singer songwriter Charmaine Fong (方皓玟)’s “All We Have is Now” is remnant from Tai Hang Festival, one of the many community events being held in the neighbourhood since our former district council representative Clarisse Yeung was elected. [2022]
New shops owned by the younger generations have emerged in recent years. [2022]
Stripping of latter additions, another old mansion in Tai Hang has returned to its former glory. The newly renovated mansion was turned into Shophouse, housing levels of exhibition and social concept space. [2021]
More old mansions were turned into cafes. [2020]
From specialty cafes to vintage shops, the bohemian air of Tai Hang remains as the main drive for the younger generation. [2020]
After vacant for years, another pre war mansion was renovated into Tai Hang Fire Dragon Heritage Centre, the official venue that tells the story of the community and its famous dragon dance. [2022]

***

MEMORIES OF TAI HANG AS A FORMER RESIDENT

2019.09.13_21:45
2019 Mid Autumn Festival was the last Fire Dragon Dance we watched in Tai Hang.
2017.10.05_20:58
A strong sense of comradeship would be built up among dancers, who were made up of volunteers from residents of Tai Hang. Volunteer dancers were busy inserting burning incense sticks into the dragon body.
2017.10.05_21.27
2017 was the 138th Tai Hang Fire Dragon Festival. As usually about 300 volunteers would participate for the three days festival.
2016.09.16_21:48
2016 was our third time watching the dance. We made a donation that year and picked up our Tai Hang Fire Dragon t-shirt.
2016.09.16_22.10
Apart from t-shirt, we also went to the community centre pick up a pack of “dragon cookies”.
2016.09.16_22:11
Everyone was still out on the streets participating in the festival when we picked up the cookies from the community centre.
2016.09.16_22:18
The community at Wun Sha Street was still overwhelmed by the energy of the festival after we exited the community centre.
2016.09.16_22:19
Despite exhausted, the dancers still went through the dance routine one more time before calling it a day.
2015.09.27_20:58
Hassun Japanese Restaurant (八寸料亭), one of our closest neighbours in Tai Hang, offered free sake for the community just before the fire dragon dance.
2015.09.27_21:03
After having a sip of sake in the stomach, our excitement for the night grew even stronger.
2015.09.28_21:38
Every year, volunteers would give their best in the dragon dance, which is a sweaty and pretty physical demanding task that lasts for three nights.
2015.09.27_22:35
After the dragon dance, children would gather on streets and the nearby Victoria Park to light candles and play with lanterns to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival.
2015.09.27_22:40
For adults, the best festival celebrations would always involve food, from BBQ on the streets to having traditional food at places like Hong Kee Congee (康記粥店)
2015.09.27_22.51
We wouldn’t want to call it a day yet after the dragon dance. We walked out of Tai Hang via Fire Dragon Path (火龍徑) to Victoria Park to check out the lantern displays.
2015.01.01_00:07
We still remember the excitement we had for the first fireworks outside our bedroom window.
2015.02.18_23:07
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, we braved the crowds to enter our neighbouring temple Lin Fa Temple.
2015.02.18_23:09
At Lin Fa Temple, we paid respect to Gwan Yin (觀音) for our smooth settling in Tai Hang. In 2019, we also visited the temple on our moving date just to bid farewell to our neighbouring deity.
2014.08.09_19:12
Opposite to our flat, I loved to watch people walk up the stairs at Lin Fa Kung Garden to Lai Tak Estate (勵德邨). Built in 1975, two of the blocks are the only bicyclindrical public housing in Hong Kong.
2016.08.01_21:46
As Severe Tropical Storm Nida approached Hong Kong, Typhoon Signal No. 8 was issued on 20:40. We took the opportunity to wander in the relatively deserted Tai Hang. The storm was nowhere near the anticipated force and every Hongkonger had a relatively quiet night at home.
2018.03.28_22:36
After overtime work, we used to have late dinner at one of our favorite Japanese skewer restaurants in Tai Hang, including Moto Yakitori & Sake Bar.
2015.07.24_09:32
Before Hong Kee Congee moved to their current new store and the two elderly owners were still around, their boiling hot congee, hand made rice noodle roll, fried dough, and raddish cakes were fantastic for a winter morning.
2019.08.17_09:37
Forgot since when, Bing Kee Cha Dong (炳記茶檔) has become the most popular tourist attractions in Tai Hang.Their pork chop noodles and causal atmosphere have become an Internet sensation for both local visitors and foreign tourists. Living in the neighbourhood meant we could usually beat the crowds on weekends, when the queue became unbelievably long for just a simple breakfast.
2018.05.19_09:49
Just around the corner from our apartment, BlissHIVE, a bakery cafe that no longer exists, was the takeout breakfast solution that we usually went to on any normal work day.
2018.05.19_09:52
Only occasionally during weekends, we would sit in at BlissHIVE for a full breakfast.
2019.11.24_10:31
Plumcot remains as our favorite pastry shop in town since it opened in summer 2017. Chefs Camille Moënne-Loccoz and Dominique Yau from Paris brought a taste of French to Tai Hang each morning.
2017.02.11_13:34
Shops and restaurants come and go in Tai Hang. Only “Wong Jai” (黃仔) taxi seat remains as if a permanent fixture in the neighbourhood. His shop is a reminder of the era when there were about a hundred auto repair shops in Tai Hang (now less than 20).
2018.09.25_17:28
With over 50 years of experience in Tai Hang, Mr. Wong is one of the last 3-4 craftsmen that still repair car seats by hand in Hong Kong. We often walked by his shop, and he was always busy with his work.
2017.07.28_07:57
When passing by Allure Hair Salon, we would sometimes hear the owner playing Mozart while the client was having a haircut in one of Tai Hang’s charming historical mansions.
2018.12.13_08:14
For 6 out of 10 chance we would bump into this Shiba Inu dog at Fire Dragon Path on our way to work. Among all dogs we have seen in Tai Hang, this is the only one that loves sit still and watch people playing tennis every morning.
2018.09.27_22:36
From small poodle to large husky, every night there would be a mass gathering of dogs and dog owners at Fire Dragon Path (火龍徑). Whenever we walked by, we would always slow down and see if any one dog would approach us.
2015.06.20_05:44
Victoria Harbour outside our former bedroom window in Tai Hang has an eerie beauty that seems so distant to us nowadays.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s