ultramarinus – beyond the sea

HK Island

THE LOST LITTLE SHANGHAI, North Point (北角), Hong Kong

North Point (北角) has long been referred to as Little Fujian (小福建) and Little Shanghai (小上海) since waves of immigrants from Mainland China flocked to settle in the area during the turbulent first half of 20th century. Among the refugees came a group of cultural elites and merchants from Shanghai. Many of them chose to reside in the quiet streets at the foothill of Braemar Hill (寶馬山) in North Point, just a block or two up from bustling King’s Road. This neighborhood was once dominated by multi-storey tenement apartments, with fine terrazzo portal, Art Deco motifs and Streamline Moderne building profiles that echoed the architectural trend of old Shanghai. Today, despite most tenement buildings have been replaced by highrise apartments, these sloped streets remain tranquil most of the day, except when students get out of Kiangsu & Chekiang Primary School (蘇浙小學), Hong Kong’s first school that offer all lessons in Mandarin, at the end of school day.

In 2019, Yonfan (楊凡)’s animation No.7 Cherry Lane (繼園臺七號) won the Best Screenplay Award at the Venice International Film Festival. In the film, the stepped lane where the protagonists walk down to North Point, and the tenement apartment on Cherry Lane where Shanghaiese and Taiwanese immigrants reside, is actually based on the sloped street of Kai Yuen Street (繼園街). During the pandemic, the peaceful Kai Yuen Street has gone through drastic transformation as many old tenement buildings were locked down for new luxury apartments. The neighbourhood where renowned Shanghaiese writer Eileen Chang (張愛玲) often came to visit the family of Stephen Soong (宋淇), a famous writer and literary critic who came to Hong Kong in escape of the Chinese Civil War, is all but gone. A few blocks west of Kai Yuen Street lies another sloped street Ming Yuen Western Street (明園西街). Ming Yuen Western Street is probably one of the last spots in “Little Shanghai” where there are a few original tenement blocks still standing today. Ming Yuen Western Street and the adjacent Metropole Department Store form part of the site of the former Ming Yuen (名園) amusement park. Opened in 1918, the design of Ming Yuen was based on another amusement park in Shanghai. After the amusement went out of business, the area was soon turned into a residential neighbourhood. At nearby Ching Wah Street (清華街), a five-storey apartment with curved balconies and Art Deco motifs stands as a lone reminder of what Little Shanghai might have look like in the bygone era.

Opened in 1953 to serve the local Chinese immigrant community, Kiangsu & Chekiang Primary School (蘇浙小學) is the first school in Hong Kong to give most lessons in all Mandarin. [2022]
Built in 1949, No.2 Ching Wah Street (清華街) stands as one of the last survivor from the era of Little Shanghai. [2022]
Mak Kee offers many traditional Shanghai snacks, such as streamed dumplings and hot and sour soup. [2022]

Kai Yuen Street (繼園街)

One of the most recognizable set in Youfan’s No.7 Cherry Lane is the stepped pedestrian pavement of Kai Yuen Street (繼園街). [2020]
The retaining wall and stepped sidewalk of Kai Yuen Street is quite a photogenic backdrop. [2020]
Just 150m from bustling King’s Road, the peaceful community up Kai Yuen Street seems like another world. [2020]
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From 1957 to 2021, the Streamline Moderne tenement apartment designed by architect “Yam Koon Seng” (任冠生) was a fantastic landmark of the Kai Yuen Street neighborhood. [2017]
Before demolition, the ground floor of the tenement apartments were occupied by car mechanic, hardware and construction shops. [2020]
In 2020, I made a brief visit to Kai Yuen Street. Back then, I didn’t realize that the entire block would soon be demolished. [2020]
Architect “Yam Koon Seng” (任冠生) loves the Kai Yuen Street project and even moved into the apartment with his family. [2020]
Today, the entire block of Kai Yuen Street has become a large construction site. [2020]

Ming Yuen Western Street (明園西街)

A few blocks west of Kai Yuen Street lies Ming Yuen Western Street (明園西街), another sloped street where several tenement buildings dated back to the Little Shanghai era are still standing today. [2022]
With a deadend at its top, Ming Yuen Western Street is a fairly quiet street away from all the actions of North Point. [2022]
Architectural details from a bygone era can still be found at Ming Yuen Western Street. [2022]
Many loves the quiet ambience of the sloped street. [2022]
Of course for most of the tenement buildings in Hong Kong, the absence of elevators or lifts is one of the biggest drawback for these old apartments. [2022]
Date back to 1954, the tenement apartment at 34 Ming Yuen Western Street is the most distinctive architecture on the street. [2022]
Like other tenement apartments from the same era, beautiful Italian terrazzo was used at the entrance portal. [2022]
Situated high on a steep street and without an elevator, living in these old tenement apartments may not fit everyone’s preference. [2022]
The glass blocks and operable windows at the stairwell facade form a remarkable feature that emphasizes on architectural verticality. [2022]

LANDMARKS FOR THE LOCALS, North Point (北角), Hong Kong

What does “fort”, “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have in common? They are all street names in North Point that reveals the neighborhood’s strategic location and utilitarian past. The “fort” or battery hill is long gone, leaving behind a parkette up on Fortress Hill Road that even local residents may not know about its existence, and the name “Fortress Hill” that defines the westernmost area of North Point District. The former oil depot, powerplant and wharf facilities that gave us the street names “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have all been replaced by high density residential developments. In the 20th century, North Point has gone through series of transformations, from just a defensive battery at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island and a cluster of infrastructure facilities that supported the adjacent Victoria City, to an area teeming with domestic life where amusement park, theatres, swim sheds, department stores, and red-light businesses sprang up and then mostly faded away. Due to a large influx of mainland immigrants in mid 20th century, especially the Hokkien Fujianese and Shanghaiese, North Point has become the most densely populated place on earth in late 1960’s, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Today, the urban density of North Point may no longer ranked top of the world, but a stroll on King’s Road, the district’s main thoroughfare where blocks after blocks of concrete apartments encroaching in all directions, can still be disorienting for many.

Published by Hong Kong Art Centre as part of “Via North Point” art programme in 2020, a local magazine did a poll with a group of local residents about their favorite landmarks in North Point. Unlike the monumental and glamorous urban icons in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, their top five selected landmarks include two theatres, a pier, a market and even a street intersection. For them, these daily scenery have defined the collective identity and a sense of belonging for the community. For us who have been working in the adjacent Quarry Bay for the past eight years, North Point is also an area we would pass by almost everyday. We share some of their sentiments and also find beauty from these what may seem like ordinary street scenery by first glance. Here are their top five favorite landmarks in North Point:

NO. 5: King’s Road (英皇道) and the North Point Road (北角道) Intersection (4.3%)

Being the most important thoroughfare in North Point, King’s Road is probably the street that most residents in the neighborhood would visit on a daily basis. [2014]
Densely packed concrete buildings abutting each other is a common scene in King’s Road. [2014]
Taking the tram is probably the best way to experience King’s Road. [2017]
With a concrete footbridge, an apartment block painted with eyecatching red outlines, and a rail junction where the tram turns into Chun Yeung Street Market, the intersection of King’s Road and North Point Road is a well recognized intersection in North Point. [2021]
Against the backdrop of eye-catching Coronet Court (皇冠大廈), even a simple footbridge can be photogenic. [2022]
Coronet Court (皇冠大廈) dominates visually at the street intersection even if one is not facing the building. [2022]
From the footbridge at North Point Road, scenery of King’s Road can be neatly framed. [2022]
Somehow, openings of the footbridge match perfectlynfine with the round corner of the adjacent building. [2021]
At North Point Road, some trams would divert from King’s Road and make a detour into Chun Yeung Street Market. [2022]

NO. 4: State Theatre (皇都戲院) 8.7%

Now under scaffolding, the listed former cinema awaits for its turn of rejuvenation. Opened in 1952, the unique concrete structural arches on the roof have make the former cinema a one-of-a-kind building in the city. [2021]

NO.3 : North Point Pier (北角碼頭) 10.9%

Offering the most prominent harbourfront promenade in the area, North Point Pier has been a local’s favourite for years. [2020]

NO. 2: Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) 17.4%

Founded by Shanghainese emigrants in the 1950’s, Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) is the most important theatre in Hong Kong to showcase Cantonese opera. [2020]
Neon sign of Sunbeam Theatre has been a prominent feature in North Point for decades. [2022]
Sunbeam Theatre features Cantonese opera all year round. [2022]

NO.1: Chun Yeung Street Market (春秧街街市) 21.7%

Appeared on foreign travel shows and guidebooks, Chun Yeung Street Market is no doubt the most well known attraction of North Point. Named after a wealthy sugar tycoon Koeh Chhun-iong (郭春秧) who bought a huge lot of North Point in 1921, Chun Yeung Street Market has been a busy commercial street for a century. [2017]
Bisected by the tram railroad right in the middle, Chun Yeung Street Market is renowned as the only railroad market in Hong Kong. [2022]
Known as Little Fujian, Chun Yeung Street Market is a great place to find traditional Fujianese and Chiuchow food. [2022]
Double Happiness Noodle has been a fixture at the street market for half a century. [2015]
Many come to Chun Yeung Street Market for seafood at bargain prices in the evening. [2014]
While Chun Yeung Street Market is famous for produce, meat and seafood, the adjacent Marble Road Market is filled with stalls selling all kinds of dried goods. [2015]
To many, Chun Yeung Street is a great spot for urban photography. [2022]
Handcrafted souvenir mahjong tiles depict the landmarks of North Point, including Chun Yeung Street Market in the far left, then Sunbeam Theatre (second from left), and North Point Pier (third from left).

LANDMARKS IN FORTRESS HILL:

Situated between Causeway Bay and the heart of North Point, Fortress Hill (炮台山) has long been under the radar. In recent months, East Coast Park Precinct in Fortress Hill has emerged as one of the hottest new attractions in Hong Kong. Apart from the harbourfront lookout, the following two spots in Fortress Hill are also gaining popularity on Instagram as well.

Oi! Art Space (油街實現), Former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club

Oi! Street Art Space is housed in the former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club headquarters and clubhouse. [2022]
Serving as the former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club headquarters and clubhouse between 1908 and 1939, the masonry building is now a Grade II historic building and a popular landmark in the neighborhood. [2022]
Oi! Street Art Space is an inviting community art centre. [2017]
Small art exhibitions would sometimes be held at Oi! Street Art Space. [2017]
Open to both Electric Road and Oil Street, Oi! Street Art Space is a highly welcoming node for the community. [2017]

Staircase at Fortress Hill MTR Station

Thanks to IG and blogs, perhaps the most recognizable landmark in Fortress Hill is the checkered staircase right by Fortress Hill MTR Station. [2017]

BREAKING THE BARRIER, Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), Hong Kong

In Canada, there has long been a debate of tearing down the elevated Gardiner Expressway in Toronto waterfront. Maintaining the deteriorating and somewhat underused infrastructure has become a burden for the city. As the trend of urban sprawl reversed in recent two decades, land in downtown Toronto, especially along the waterfront of Lake Ontario, has become precious asset for the city. Since 1960’s, the Gardiner has been a prominent barrier that cut off the city from its waterfront. The uninviting wasteland underneath the expressway has prevented most pedestrians walking to the waterfront especially at night. Since 1990’s, studies have been made for replacing the expressway, such as turning it into a tunnel or an urban park like the Highline in New York. Despite all the studies and debates, most of the Gardiner Expressway still remains in Toronto waterfront today. On confronting an aging waterfront expressway that hinders urban development and pedestrian connection, Toronto wasn’t alone. Negative aspects of these waterfront expressway are quite universal: poor waterfront access, wasteland below the structure, discontinued harbourfront, undesirable air ventilation, unattractive streetscape, high maintenance cost, etc. Since 1990’s, a wave of waterfront revitalization projects and demolition of elevated expressways have sprung up across the globe. Double decker Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was torn down in 1991, and so did Rio de Janerio’s Perimetral Elevated Highway in 2014, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2019.

In Hong Kong, sections of elevated expressways flank the Victoria Harbour in Western Kowloon and Eastern Hong Kong Island. The idea of building an expressway in Eastern Hong Kong Island was brought out in 1968 to tackle the traffic problems of King’s Road. It wasn’t until 1980’s that an elevated expressway, namely Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), was erected between Causeway Bay at the centre of Hong Kong Island and Chai Wan (柴灣) at the eastern end. The expressway includes a viaduct along the harbour between Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) and Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌), passing by North Point (北角) along the way. East of Quarry Bay, the expressway shifts slightly inland from the coast, leaving a strip of waterfront promenade between Quarry Bay and Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣). Designating the waterfront for public enjoyment was never the top priority in the 1980’s. From Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay, there are only a few boat landings and viaduct pillar supports where the public can walk out to have a peek of the harbour. In 2008, the authority proposed to construct a waterfront promenade between Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and Shau Kei Wan. In the past decade, stretches of waterfront promenades have been built to connect the harbourfront from Central to Causeway Bay, up to East Coast Park Precinct. East of Causeway Bay however, the waterfront promenades remain fragmented. After years of speculations, boardwalk constructions under the expressway have finally commenced in North Point. If the works can really deliver a continuous walkway below Island Eastern Corridor, then sooner or later we can walk along the north coast of Hong Kong Island all the way from Central Pier to Aldrich Bay Promenade (愛秩序灣海濱花園) in Shau Kei Wan, via a 9.5km pedestrian path. Then the barrier that separates the harbour from Eastern Hong Kong Island would finally be broken.

Today, about 6.8km of Gardiner Expressway in Toronto is still elevated from the ground. [2013]
The wasteland beneath Gardiner Expressway remains as a barrier between downtown Toronto and the waterfront. [2013]
In Hong Kong, the Island Eastern Corridor begins from Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter at its western end. [2020]
Together with Central-Wan Chai Bypass and Connaught Road West Flyover, Island Eastern Corridor serves as the main artery road on Hong Kong Island known as Route 4. [2020]
From Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay, Island Eastern Corridor is mainly a viaduct that runs along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour. From East Coast Park Precinct to City Garden (城市花園), construction work of a waterfront promenade is still ongoing. [2022]
The majority of Island Eastern Corridor in North Point was built over the water. [2021]
Built in 1984, the monolithic Provident Centre (和富中心) is a spectacle when driving on Island Eastern Corridor. Back then, the building code has little restrictions on the facade length. The continuous facade of Provident Centre has led to a negative impact on ventilation of the local neighborhood. [2014]
In North Point, people can still enjoy the harbour view below the elevated expressway. [2021]
At the end of Tong Shui Road (糖水道), North Point Public Pier has become a public harbourfront lookout for the neighborhood. [2020]
Only a handful of boats would use the pier. For most of the day, the wharf serves as a gathering node for the local community. [2020]
The public pier is particular popular at sunset. [2021]
Many would come to the pier to enjoy the sunset after work. [2021]
Liking it or not, Island Eastern Corridor is part of the waterfront scenery of Eastern Hong Kong. [2021]
At a bend of Hoi Yu Street, an unofficial lookout beneath Island Eastern Corridor is frequented by people who come for recreational fishing. [2020]
The local community even set up their own “footbridge” to reach the outermost pillar support of the expressway. [2021]
The lookout is popular throughout the day. [2016]
While most come for fishing, some would come to the lookout just to chill out by Victoria Harbour. [2020]
The lookout offer fine views of Kowloon East, including the famous Lion Rock (獅子山). [2020]
Kowloon Peak (飛鵝山) is the most dominated feature in Kowloon East. [2021]
The causal lookout has come to an end in recent months, as the space has been boarded off as a construction site for future’s boardwalk project. [2016]
Since the closure of the lookout, people have shifted to other waterfront parks to fish, where proper railing and fixed benches are provided. While the level of safety has improved, the sense of freedom is inevitable compromised in the new setting. [2017]

PRESENT & FUTURE OF TYPHOON SHELTER, Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣), Hong Kong

At the east end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (銅鑼灣避風塘) sits one of the hottest attractions in recent months. Officially opened on 25 September 2021, East Coast Park Precinct is one of the several projects aiming to enhance the waterfront experience along Victoria Harbour. The main feature of the park is the 100m long breakwater that marks the eastern end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Unlike most harbourfront promenades in the city, the majority of this breakwater is handrail free to avoid interruption to the seaview. At its tip stands a cylindrical structure spiraling up two to three storey high. The strange looking tower is actually a vent shaft of the Central-Wanchai Bypass East, constantly bringing fresh air into the submerged tunnel. East of the breakwater, a harbourfront promenade may not be the biggest open space in the city, but it offers an inviting and safe space for skateboarders and roller-skaters to practice their tricks and socialize with each other. Unlike most parks in the city, there aren’t that many restrictions at this space, not a piece of lawn that cannot be stepped on, or planter edges tilted to prevent people sitting down, or signs prohibiting people to eat and drink. Although not a big park, at least East Coast Park Precinct is easily accessible and welcoming in design, drawing large crowds of visitors, either for the skyline views, or for the recreation spaces.

Compared to most big cities in the world, Hong Kong is particularly problematic on the issue of public space. Worse than residents of Tokyo, Singapore or Shanghai, a 2018 study shows that urban Hongkongers have only 2.7 sq.m of open space per person, which is slightly larger than a toilet cubicle. In comparison, New Yorkers enjoy over 10 sq.m of public space per capita. Furthermore, these open spaces are not evenly distributed across the city. For some of the most vibrant and busy districts, such as Mongkok and Causeway Bay, the number drops to 0.6 to 1 sq.m per person. Many studies around the world have shown that having access to open spaces can bring great health and social benefits to people. Perhaps there is great opportunity for Hong Kong to tackle the open space issue today. As many old godowns and piers along Victoria Harbour become obsolete, expanding the extent of public promenade along the harbour is definite a good move to enhance the well-being for everyone.

For some of the busiest districts in Hong Kong such as Causeway Bay, residents has only 0.6 to 1 sq.m of open space per person.
Adjacent to Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, construction work is still ongoing at the newly opened East Coast Park Precinct. [2022]
At tip of the 100m breakwater stands the bullet shape vent shaft structure of the submerged Central-Wanchai Bypass East. [2022]
East Coast Park Precinct has instantly became a popular spot for sunset watching. [2022]
West of East Coast Park Precinct, the 300m+ breakwater separates Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter with Victoria Harbour. [2022]
Similar to Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, the period from sunset to dusk is the most beautiful moment to visit East Coast Park Precinct. [2022]
On a clear day, East Coast Park Precinct offers an alternative location to appreciate the city’s skyline in comparison to the more common lookouts in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. [2022]
As darkness falls upon, the LED signs and facade lighting of the distant skyline appears to be more vivid and outstanding. [2022]
Beyond the vent shaft structure stands a small light tower at the tip of the breakwater. [2022]
The breakwater tip allows visitors to take in the urban scenery of both sides of the harbour. [2022]
Compared to the commercial skyline of Wan Chai and Central in a distance, the lights from Tin Hau and Tai Hang beyond Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter is much more subtle and coherent. [2022]
Composed of plastic bottle caps of different colours, the sunshade near the vent shaft structure echoes well with the undulating water. [2022]
Though not for everyone’s taste, the vent shaft structure has become a unique new feature at Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. [2022]
At the newly opened East Coast Park Precinct, Victoria Harbour is definitely the main draw for visitors. [2022]
The Victoria Harbour installation is quite eye-catching in the evening. [2022]
The waterfront promenade is perfect to walk the dog. [2022]
Apart from visitors coming after the sunset and night scenery, the promenade is highly popular with skateboarders. [2022]
Many skateboard beginners comes to the promenade to sharpen their skills. [2022]
Tracks on the floor also encourage skateboarders and roller-skaters to have fun at the promenade. [2022]
The promenade welcomes skaters of all ages. [2022]
Fixed furniture are also present for the non active users. [2022]
Some advance skateboarders prefer to practice their skills at the curbside at the edge of the park. [2022]

***

Foggy Night at East Coast Park Precinct

Foggy night at East Coast Park Precinct. [2022]

THE HEAVENLY QUEEN OF CAUSEWAY BAY, Tin Hau (天后), Hong Kong

One stop east of Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) brings us to Tin Hau, a small MTR station that serves the easternmost neighbourhoods of Causeway Bay. At the station, it is not uncommon to see girls putting a big smile on their faces and taking selfies in front of the station name sign. In Chinese, “Tin Hau” (天后) literally means “heavenly queen”. The term is often used to name a famous diva or female pop icon. Yet for the station, “Tin Hau” actually refers to a small Tin Hau Temple at the foothill of Red Incense Burner Hill (紅香爐山). This Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay is one of the 100+ temples in Hong Kong dedicated to Tin Hau the Heavenly Queen, a Chinese sea goddess also known as Mazu (媽祖). Tin Hau is worshipped in the coastal regions of China, Taiwan, and among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The goddess is originated from the legendary shamaness Lin Mo (林默) in Fujian province of China dated back to the 10th century. Since Lin’s death, the shamaness of a local fishing village was somehow deified into Tin Hau, and spread wide beyond her home region.

At the site of an original temple dated back to 1747, the present Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay largely maintains the layout and appearance from its extensive renovation in 1868. Legend has it that local fishermen (some say a Hakka family from Kowloon Bay who often came to Causeway Bay to harvest grass) found a red incense burner in Tung Lo Wan (Causeway Bay), the former bay covering the area of today’s Victoria Park and parts of Tin Hau. They believed the incense burner was a representation of the deity Tin Hau, and thus constructed the first shrine at the temple site (previously by the shore). As believers and donors grew, the shrine soon developed into the temple that we saw today. Similar stories of fishing communities and their Tin Hau Temple are commonly found across the city, revealing the early history of Hong Kong before the British arrived.

Despite there are many Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong, there is only one Tin Hau MTR Station. After the station’s opening in 1985, the surrounding neighbourhood was soon named as Tin Hau as well. Adjacent to the shopping district of Causeway Bay, Tai Hang, and North Point, and encompassing half of Victoria Park, Tin Hau has been developed into an affluent residential area today. Most visitors come to Tin Hau either for Victoria Park, or for the restaurants along Electric Road (電氣道) and Tsing Fung Street (清風街). Named after photos depicting a Swedish lake taken by photographer Kim Holtermand, a touch of Scandinavian minimalism has been introduced to Tsing Fung Street in 2015 at TUVE Hotel. The hotel’s rustic interiors made of grey bricks, textured concrete, timber, white marble, oxidised metals and raw brass is like a world apart from the busy streets of Tin Hau and Causeway Bay, inviting visitors to experience the beauty of simplicity and tranquility at the heart of a bustling city.

Tin Hau Temple in 1868. [Photo by John Thomson, Wellcome Collections, public domain]
Lying 300m inland from Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, the Tin Hau Temple was once just 30m away from the waterfront. [Photo: Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay, 2022]
Series of small renovations since 1868 have largely preserved the century old building. [Photo:Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay, 2022]
The temple may not be as famous as Wan Chai’s Pak Tai Temple or Tai Hang’s Lin Fa Temple, Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay has its decent number of worshippers. [Photo: Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay, 2022]
The temple contains a fair amount of historical artefacts dated back to the 19th century. [Photo:Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay, 2022]
Viewed from Red Incense Burner Summit, the residential buildings of Tin Hau (foreground) and the commercial buildings of Causeway Bay (centre of photo) are largely separated by the greenery and open space of Victoria Park, Causeway Bay Sports Ground and Chinese Recreation Club (中華遊樂會). [Photo: View of Tin Hau and Causeway Bay from Red Incense Burner Summit, 2020]
Separating the core shopping district of Causeway Bay and Tin Hau, Victoria Park is the most popular park in Hong Kong. [Photo: Victoria Park, 2022]
With height of over 30m, the eight Kapok Tree or Silk Cotton Trees (吉貝 or 美洲木棉) at the Tin Hau end of Victoria Park are some of the tallest trees in Hong Kong. [Photo: Causeway Road, 2022]
The Kapok Tree or Silk Cotton Trees (吉貝 or 美洲木棉) are around 60 years old. [Photo: Causeway Road, 2022]
Across Causeway Road from Victoria Park stands Hong Kong Central Library. [Photo: Central Library, 2014]
Moved to its current Tin Hau’s location after the war, Queen’s College (皇仁書院) is the first public secondary school in the city. [Photo: Causeway Road, 2022]
Sandwiched between the Central Library and Queen’s College, Causeway Bay Sports Ground and Chinese Recreation Club offer a pleasant green buffer between the main thoroughfare of Causeway Road and the neighbourhood of Tai Hang. [Photo: Causeway Road, 2022]
Established in 1910, Chinese Recreation Club (中華游樂會) is one of the earliest sport recreation club for the Chinese community in Hong Kong. The club received the land adjacent to the village of Tai Hang from the colonial government. [Photo: Tung Lo Wan Road, 2022]
Chinese Recreation Club sits along Tung Lo Wan Road, where the original coastline of Causeway Bay was located. [Photo: Tung Lo Wan Road, 2022]
The tennis courts of Chinese Recreation Club (CRC), the field of Causeway Bay Sports Ground, and the Victoria Park beyond create a precious opening in the densely built up Causeway Bay. [Photo: View of CRC and Causeway Bay Sports Ground from Tai Hang, 2019]
Lying at the eastern limit of Causeway Bay, Tin Hau was actually the original spot of Causeway Bay or Tung Lo Wan. On the other hand, the area around Causeway Bay MTR Station was previously called East Point. [Photo, Electric Road, 2014]
Just like many areas in Hong Kong, the old neighbourhood of Tin Hau is changing fast in the recent decade. [Photo: Wing Hing Street, 2014]
One thing remains unchanged in Tin Hau is its well mix of new and old eateries and restaurants, including the traditional bakery Violet Cake Shop (惠籮餅店). [Photo: Electric Road, 2022]
One of the most famous eateries in Tin Hau is the Michelin recommended Sister Wah Beef Brisket (華姐清湯腩). [Photo: Electric Road, 2014]
During our years in Tai Hang, one eateries that we visited the most in Tin Hau is Kwan Yu Roasted Meat (君御燒味). [Photo: Electric Road, 2022]
For more specialty restaurants, we would sometimes head to the Tsing Fung Street Flyover. [Photo: Tsing Fung Street, 2017]
Under Tsing Fung Street Flyover, the minimalist and rustic aesthetics of Tuve Hotel express their theme of “timeless, placeless and genderless” through architectural design. [Photo: Tsing Fung Street, 2022]
With its sleek and minimalist design, the 64 rooms of Tuve Hotel offer a unique experience of Tin Hau. [Photo: Tsing Fung Street, 2022]

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.

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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]

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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.

THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE GINZA, Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣), Hong Kong

It is no coincidence that Hong Kong was able to establish itself as an international shopping destination. Without sales tax and tariffs on most goods, geographical proximity to China and other manufacturing Asian countries, decades of expertise in sourcing, trading and global logistics, large demand on products from all over the world and at every price ranges, all contribute to the relatively low consumer prices and high merchandise variety in Hong Kong. Bilingual with English and Chinese also help to cement Hong Kong as a popular shopping paradise for international tourists, receiving over 65 million visitors a year (2018). To talk about the development of the retail scene in Hong Kong, it is impossible not to touch upon Causeway Bay, the city’s prime shopping district. And to talk about the emergence of Causeway Bay, the story should trace back to 1960.

On 3rd of November 1960, thousands of spectators arrived at the intersection of Great George Street (記利佐治街) and Paterson Street (百德新街) to witness a 4000-guest cocktail party for the grand opening of Daimaru (大丸). Back then, little people would foresee that a new upscale Japanese department store in the warehouse dominated East Point (東角) would rapidly and dramatically transform the urban landscape into a vibrant shopping hub that we now call Causeway Bay. It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of Daimaru was revolutionary to most Hongkongers: 400 staff trained in Japanese etiquette, row of staff bowing at entrance to greet customers, customer-first services, fixed prices, delivery services, split payments, trial eats, attractive displays, soft background music, facial care services, 60% products made in Japan, and even ladies dressed in kimono to serve customers for trial makeups. These may sound no big deal today, but in 1960 the innovative shopping experience has become an instant legend, drawing almost 100,000 customers on the second day of business. After Daimaru, the next two decades saw another three Japanese department stores arriving in Causeway Bay. In its heyday, over 500,000 sf of retail space in Causeway Bay were split among the four department stores: Daimaru (大丸 1960 – 1998), Matsuzakaya (松坂屋 1975 – 1998), Mitsukoshi (三越 1981 – 2006) and SOGO (崇光 1985 – present). From then on, Causeway Bay has become the most essential shopping district in Hong Kong nicknamed as Little Ginza. The Japanese department stores have become synonymous to fancy home appliances, trendy fashion, delightful toys and mouthwatering food-hall, just as Daimaru has become synonymous to Causeway Bay, where public minibuses designated to the area would simply put Daimaru’s Chinese name dai yuen (大丸) as the destination.

Japan’s “Lost Decade” economic stagnation in 1990’s and the shift of consumer culture towards shopping malls significantly affect the Japanese department stores. After 38 years, Daimaru ended its business in Hong Kong in 1998, the same year when Matsuzakaya also closed its store at Patterson Street. Mitsukoshi was doing fine in Causeway Bay, generating 40% of its overseas earning from Hong Kong alone, but was forced to exit the city in 2006 due to demolition of its host building, Hennessy Centre, to make way for the much taller Hysan Place Shopping Centre. Thanks to a takeover by a local billionaire, SOGO remains as today’s anchoring landmark at the iconic street crossing that defines the very heart of Causeway Bay. With Asia’s largest LED screen installed in 2017, SOGO and the little triangular patch of pedestrian entrance forecourt remain as the most popular meeting spot in the area. Apart from financial crisis and change of consumer taste, one of the biggest issues behind the department stores’ inevitable demise was probably Hong Kong’s skyrocketing real estate price and retail rent in the past two decades, especially in Causeway Bay. In 2011, a 1000 sf (plus 600 sf mezzanine) noodle shop near Times Square was sold for a whopping HK$100m (US$ 12.7m). Without factoring in salary and utility expenses, the shop would need to sell 500 noodle bowls each day for 19 years in order to see the same HK$100m on their balance sheet. Eight years later in 2019, the same retail space changed hands again for HK$180m (US$ 22.9m). 2019 also saw Causeway Bay having the world’s most expensive retail rent for the sixth time since 2013, at US$2,671/ sf annually. In comparison, Upper 5th Avenue in New York was at US$2,250, London’s New Bond Street at US$1,744, Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysées at US$1,519, Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone at US$1,466, and Tokyo’s Ginza at US$1,219. At such rate, not many shops, especially a multi-level department store, can manage a consistent revenue to commit a long term lease. Interestingly, the rent has dramatically dropped in recent years due to the pandemic.

From the rise of Daimaru, to establishing Causeway Bay as a shopping paradise and the world’s highest retail rental market, to the declining retail scene due to overinflated rents and recent pandemic, a cycle might have come to a full circle. Not only did the Japanese department stores help to define the development and urban landscape of Causeway Bay, they also contribute on establishing Hong Kong’s consumer culture that worth US$5.2 billion a month (2016), and successful build up Hongkongers’ common interest on Japanism, from consumer products and hospitality to food and culture. A generation has gone by since the closure of Daimaru, Japan remains as the no. 1 travel destination for Hongkongers, even for youngsters who have never experienced Little Ginza in Hong Kong.

A shopping centre known as Fashion Walk now occupies the space of the former Daimaru. [Photo: Great George Street, 2020]
Across from Fashion Walk, another shopping centre Causeway Place (銅鑼灣地帶) [Photo: Great George Street, 2020]
Diagonally across from the former Daimaru stood the site of the former Matsuzakaya (松坂屋) Department Store. The multi level space is now home to a flagship store of H&M. [Photo: Intersection of Great George Street and Paterson Street, 2022]
Just 30m west of Fashion Walk, the entrance of SOGO Department Store at East Point Road and the busy pedestrian crossing in front have become the most iconic urban scenery of Causeway Bay. [Photo: Hennessy Road/ Yee Wo Street crossing, 2020]
Outside of SOGO, a large crowd gathers in front of the LED screen of Island Beverley Shopping Mall (金百利中心) on 30th of April 2022 to celebrate the birthday of Keung To’s (姜濤), a local celebrity from the popular boy group Mirror. [Photo: East Point Road, 2022]
The streets surrounding SOGO are some of the busiest streets in the area. [Photo: East Point Road, 2020]
In the years before the pandemic, only shops catered for Mainland Chinese tourists, such as pharmacies and jewellery shops, could afford the outrageous high rents surrounding SOGO. [Photo: Lockhart Road, 2014]
From SOGO, the pedestrianized East Point Road extends below Laforet (東角) shopping centre to World Trade Shopping Centre and the former Excelsior Hotel. [Photo: East Point Road, 2014]
Billboards and LED screens are everywhere in the area surrounding SOGO. [Photo: East Point Road, 2014]
Measured 72m x 19m with a surface area larger than five full sized tennis courts, the LED screen on the building facade of SOGO Department Store facing Hennessy Road is the largest LED outdoor screen in the Asia Pacific. [Photo: bend of Hennessy Road and Yee Wo Street, 2020]
SOGO’s large LED screen can be fully appreciated further down the road from Yee Wo Street. [Photo: Yee Wo Street, 2020]
Replacing the 41-storey Hennessy Centre (興利中心) where the former Mitsukoshi Department Store was located with today’s Hysan Place was a bet on the success of a vertical shopping centre. [Photo: Hennessy Road, 2022]
Appeared as facade features facing Hennessy Road, the express escalators provide convenient access to different vertical shopping zones in Hysan Place. [Photo: Hysan Place, 2022]
Look down from Hysan Place, the forecourt of SOGO and the Hennessy Road/ Yee Wo Street crossing always look busy. [Photo: Hysan Place, 2022]
Most of the building facade of Hysan Place on Hennessy Road is reserved for the office lobby entrances. [Photo: Hennessy Road, 2021]
Social unrest and the pandemic in recent years have greatly impacted the retail business in Causeway Bay. [Photo: former Nike flagship store at intersection of Hennessy Road and Percival Street, 2022]
Situated across Paterson Street from the former Daimaru Department Store, the 4-storey Don Don Donki at Pearl City was the most recent introduction to the area. Opened in 2020 during the pandemic, the Japanese discount shop seems to be quite confident in Causeway Bay’s retail scene in the near future. [2022]