In late 2021, the box office success of biography movie Anita in Hong Kong has triggered the city’s renewal interest on the pop songs and films of Anita Mui (梅艷芳), the late local pop icon from 1980’s. One of her most well known films is Rouge (胭脂扣) in 1988. Adapted from a novel, Rouge is about the story of Fleur (played by Anita), the ghost of a 1930’s prostitute who wanders in the 1980’s Hong Kong searching for the ghost of her former lover, whom she has committed suicide together. Much of the movie was filmed in Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), the city’s most vibrant and glamorous red light and entertainment district between 1904 and 1935. Dressed in a 1930’s qipao dress, Fleur lingers on Shek Tong Tsui’s Hill Road and expresses frustration for the completely transformed urban scenery of the 80’s. She can hardly recognize anything in the tranquil residential neighbourhood with her 1930’s memories, from a period that many still consider to be the golden age of Shek Tong Tsui. It was the time when Shek Tong Tsui was home to dozens of large brothels (four-storey establishments each employing about 60 prostitutes) and hundreds of smaller ones, 40 high end restaurants and numerous hotels and theatres, employing more than one tenth of the city’s population (about 50,000 people in a population of less than half a million). It was the flourishing moment when wealthy merchants from all over East and Southeast Asia would come for entertainment. Wild tales of super-rich merchants contesting for their favorite top tier prostitute by competing in burning cash as fuel to make Chinese dessert from midnight till dawn, or of rich man tipping each staff in a large brothel with gold coins after marrying a popular prostitute, simply make the short-lived golden age of Shek Tong Tsui as legendary as one could imagine. It was the time when Shek Tong Tsui was a stage to showcase luxury and glamour.
The red light district of Shek Tong Tsui began in 1904, when the government relocated all Chinese brothels from Sheung Wan to this relatively undeveloped area, after the bubonic plague and a big fire devastated the densely populated Tai Ping Shan neighbourhood. Hong Kong’s history of prostitution can be traced back as far as 1840’s. Some accounts estimate that in 1844 about 10% of Chinese businesses in the Victoria City (Central and Sheung Wan) were brothels. A 1876 census indicated that out of 25,000 Chinese women in the city, more than 80% were prostitutes. This was largely due to the fact that most Chinese in 19th century Hong Kong were predominately male migrant workers from Imperial China, coming to earn a living or escape from political turmoil. This social structure was also reflected in the sex imbalance of the Chinese population during that time: from 75.4% male & 24.6% female in 1851, to 62.3% male & 37.7% female in 1901. As Hong Kong emerged as a prosperous trading hub in late 19th century, the city also became a hub for prostitution serving clients of all classes, from wealthy merchants in the region to hardworking laborers at the cargo piers.
200 years prior to the arrival of the British, Shek Tong Tsui was a hilly area at the west of Hong Kong Island. Due to its large deposit of granite stone, Hakka Chinese came to establish quarries, leaving behind many stone ponds or “shek tong” (石塘) after decades of extractions. Before land reclamation, there was a narrow peninsula sticking out the sea that resembled a beak or “tsui” (咀). Thus the area was named Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀). In 1904, land reclamation of the area was just completed, leaving a large piece of new land awaiting for opportunities. The government’s answer was the new red light district. The red light district entered its golden age in 1920’s, when the prostitution industry emerged as a strong economic driving force for large restaurant complexes, entertainment establishments, hotels, public tramway, hair salons, theatres (most prostitutes were big fans of Chinese operas), and even department stores. In fact, prostitutes from high end brothels were some of the biggest followers of fashion trends (Shanghai and abroad) at that time. They represented a large group of cliente for department stores, shopping everything from imported clothing and silk stockings to jewellery and cosmetic products. Many high status prostitutes also led glamorous lives, and some even became celebrities due to media coverage. After celebrated prostitute Fa Ying Hen (花影恨) committed suicide at the age of 23, her death was widely reported on newspapers and over a thousand people attended her memorial service. Ten years after her death, a movie was made about her life and went on to become a box office hit in 1940.
The vibrant Shek Tong Tsui red light district came to an abrupt end in 1935, when prostitution was abolished by the government in line with Britain. Today, no trace of the red light district remains in the area. It only exists in historical accounts and photos, and in films like Rouge. Hill Road (山道), a major thoroughfare that bisects the former red light district (from Po Tuck Street down to the waterfront), has become a tranquil hillside street dotted with lovely cafes and eateries, revealing nothing about its ostentatious past. Snaking overhead in dramatic fashion, the Hill Road Flyover has become an icon of modern Shek Tong Tsui, connecting Hong Kong University up the hill and the tram depot down near the Harbour.
We both felt asleep on the train back to Tokyo. The normally popular tourist district of Asakusa (浅草) was largely deserted by the time we walked out Asakusa Station at around 9pm. We didn’t want to return to our hotel yet. We decided to wander around Asakusa, from the world famous Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) to the inner streets of dining, shopping and entertainment district of Rokku. Most shops were closed except for some restaurants and street eateries.
The buildings and streetscape around Tobu Asakusa Station reveal the former glory of Asakusa when the district was a foremost area in Tokyo.
Tokyo Skytree and Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall stood out in the skyline beyond.
Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Culture and Tourist Centre (淺草文化中心) took on a different appearance under the perfect illumination.
Surrounded by scaffolding, the Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) found a moment of peace with the absence of tourists.
The 200m Nakamise (仲見世) Shopping Street closed for the night. Security guards were checking the shopping streets to ensure no visitor stayed behind.
From Nakamise (仲見世), we entered a side street (雷門柳小路) into the grid network of small streets of restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Orange Street (オレンジ通り), a street famous for its orange paint lies at the centre of the dining and entertainment area of Asakusa.
The Rokku area of Asakusa was once the biggest entertainment district in Japan before WWII. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Asakusa lies outside the city wall and was a red light and theatre district. During the prewar years of the 20th century, theatres and cinemas dominated the Rokku area. Much of Asakusa was destroyed during the war. Today, the entertainment district of Asakusa was only a shadow of its past.
Some restaurants in the area still maintains the atmosphere of the prewar days.
In contrast to the spirituality and history of Sensoji Temple just a few blocks away, the Rox Dome is a popular indoor batting stadium.
The atmospheric Dempoin Dori (傳法院通) offers a glimpse of the former theatre and entertainment district.
Not many pedestrians were around at Dempoin Dori. However some of the restaurants were still open. The traditional shopfronts reminded visitors the appearance of the lively high street during the prewar years.
Despite its decline in the postwar years, Asakusa remains an interesting place to stroll around and get a feel of Tokyo’s history and its vibrant dining scenes.
Today, the Rokku area is still a focus of dining and entertainment experience, with outdoor eateries here and there near the junction of Don Quijote Department Store.
Most shops were closed for the night, but the street-side eateries were still quite lively when we were there.
The junction in front of Don Quijote Department Store was brightly lit up by neon lights of theatres and shops.
Apart from the street eateries and traditional shops, there are also covered arcades in the area providing another alternative shopping experience.
After strolling for an hour or so, we headed back to Asakusa Station and took the metro back to Shibuya. Passing by the narrow alleyways near the station, the Tokyo Skytree across Sumida River could be clearly seen at the street end, revealing a new chapter of shopping and entertainment just a stone throw away from Asakusa.