Perhaps it is the lack of traffic, or its proximity to the adjacent business and entertainment quarters in Central, Tai Ping Shan Street in Poho is like no other residential street in Hong Kong. It has its dark history of the 1894 plague, and forgotten stories of the early Chinese migrant workers. It has its fair amount of heritage buildings, old temples, side street deadends and stone staircases to construct a certain kind of vintage and causal ambience. It could be precisely the unique and rich cultural history and the causal mood of the area that have attracted a diverse community to station in the area, making Tai Ping Shan Street the coolest neighborhood in Hong Kong. A few years ago, some travel magazines and websites put Sheung Wan as one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods, and it was largely due to Tai Ping Shan Street in the district. The excitement of Tai Ping Shan Street originates from the influx of artists, designers, expats, and young residents who come to look for a more tranquil alternative to the nearby Soho. Gradually, it has become an interesting example of what Jane Jacobs would describes as a successful neighborhood focused on pedestrian permeability, mixed public uses, buildings of various ages, diversity of inhabitants, vibrancy of commercial and community activities, etc. While Teakha (trendy tea shop), Homey (family run cafe), Green Ginkgo Tea (Japanese lifestyle tea house), Frantzén’s Kitchen (Michelin recommended Nordic cuisine), Crit Room (sleek Italian cuisine), Reserva Iberica (ham shop), Espana Espana (Spanish fine dining), CRAFTISSIMO (international crafted beer), support a strong contemporary culinary scene, Fo Kee(科記), Yuk Kin(郁健) and Sun Bor Kee (新波記) continue to offer local fast food (street eatery) at street corners where neighbours and pet dogs mingle throughout the day. Art galleries, fashion boutiques, designer pop up shops, and hair stylists open their business just a few meters away from a cluster of the city’s oldest temples. The juxtaposition of the old and new, east and west, reveals the core spirit of what Hong Kong culture is all about. Apart from the exciting foodie scene and designer stores, Mount Zero Books has stood out in recent years as the hub that has brought the Poho community together. Situated at a dead end, the bookstore often organizes events right outside their door, fostering a strong community bonding. This is the bygone sense of community that has somehow disappeared in time as Hong Kong is being developed into a global financial hub. All the above excitement is miraculously packed in less than 200m of the one way street, forming some lovely streetscape that won’t be found anywhere else in Hong Kong.
But Tai Ping Shan Street wasn’t always about the stylish and trendy. Lying one street lower than Po Hing Fong, Tai Ping Shan Street was once the densest neighborhood in the Victoria City during the 19th century. While the terraces around Po Hing Fong and U Lam Terrace were home to upper and middle class Chinese residents, Tai Ping Shan Street was cramped with shared housing for migrant workers arriving from Qing Imperial China seeking opportunities in Colonial Hong Kong. Most of them had families in Canton or beyond, and they hardly knew anyone when they first arrived. The Buddhist temples, especially Pak Shing Temple (百姓廟), served as the main community hub for these newcomers. Free meals and accommodation were provided for the sick. When one passed away, body of the deceased would be stored in the temple for later transport back to Mainland China, or for simple burial in the nearby Po Yan Street near the current Tung Wah Hospital. News of the poor living environment and dire treatment of the sick and dead circulated back to London, forcing the colonial government to support local charity groups to establish Tung Wah Hospital as the city’s first hospital in 1870 to treat the locals with Chinese medicine (as most Chinese refused to take Western medicine during that time). Then the plague came in 1894 and the government was determined to tackle the poor living conditions of Tai Ping Shan by clearing some buildings to make way for the Blake Garden, and building the city’s first public toilet and shower facility at Tai Ping Shan Street. The area was cleaned up as time went by, but among the older generations, Tai Ping Shan is still haunted by the memories of the sick and dead. Even today, coffin stores and funeral homes still exist around the area, reminding people its darker past despite its contemporary bohemian flair. Today, Tai Ping Shan remains as the rare location in the city where a pub or a hamburger eatery can coexist with a coffin store side by side. It is the juxtaposition of paradoxes and clashes of cultures that make Tai Ping Shan Street and the Poho area the coolest neighbourhood in Hong Kong.
We left Kinkakuji slightly after 4pm. With the aid of Google map on our phone, we walked southeast into a residential neighborhood along Tenjin River. Our destination was Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮). Founded in 947 AD, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was the main shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and politician in Heian Period (AD 794 – 1185). Among a number of divine identities, Michizane is best known for being the “god of academics “. Today Kitano Tenmangu is still popular with students. For tourists, Kitano Tenmangu is an interesting place to check out the flea market on the 25th of every month, and the Ume (plum) Blossom Festival on February 25 when geiko and maiko from Kamishichiken would come and serve tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) to 3000 guests. For us, we came for the annual autumn leaves when the shrine would open at night from mid November to early December. We came just in time to see the autumn colours at the second last night of the season.
We reached the side entrance of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine at about 4:30pm. The shrine was quite busy, not only with worshipers, but also visitors who came for the autumn colours and festival events. Near the main shrine courtyard there was live guitar performance at a corner. Apparently there was a two-day festival at Kitano Tenmangu called Kyoto Nippon Festival, aiming to showcase the culture, food, and music of Japan. Before checking out the 300+ maple trees in the garden, we were lured over to another courtyard where a dozen or so food stalls were set up. Since breakfast on our red-eye flight, we hardly had any food throughout the day. We were more than happy to devour a few dishes of delicious snacks prepared by staff from different restaurants in Kyoto, which included dumplings, seafood rice, and vegetable soba.
Our spirits were lifted after having the delicious snacks. The sky was getting pretty dark despite it was only 5:15pm. We headed back to the main court of Kitano Tenmangu, paid the admission for the night visit, and entered the shrine garden. Along the way, we passed by another courtyard where a stage was set up. A female pop singer was performing a lovely ballad in front of a crowd of audience. We didn’t have the concert tickets so we couldn’t get in, but the music and vocal were loud enough for everyone in the garden to enjoy. Artificial floodlights were everywhere to illuminate the colourful maples. Despite the cool weather, the atmosphere was warm with the autumn colours and lovely music. The garden was divided into two parts: the upper and lower. We started at the upper garden where the main path soared above a ravine (lower part) on one side, and overlooked the main shrine buildings on the other side. With the lights and lanterns lit up, the dark timber structures and reed roofs and the shimmering golden ornaments of the shrine buildings looked splendid. After the upper garden, we walked down the stair to the lower ravine. Walking along a small river and admiring the colourful tree canopies lit up from below was like a scene from dream. The highlight of the lower ravine was the red arched bridge. A large crowd of visitors gathered on the bridge to take photos of the surreal scenery. The path eventually brought us back up to a platform on the upper garden, where a tea shelter was set up. All visitors were free to pick up a cup of hot tea and a traditional sweet confectionery. We lingered for a little longer in the compound of Kitano Tenmangu. With all kinds of activities from garden visits, food services, Ikebana (生け花) or Japanese flower arrangement exhibition, live music, and spiritual worshiping, Kitano Tenmangu had truly become an interesting venue of autumn carnival. On our way out of Kitano Tenmangu, we dropped by the food stalls again and picked up a small plate of octopus balls.
As evening arrived, visitors flocked into the main gate of Kitano Tenmangu.
We were overjoyed to find food stalls in Kitano Tenmangu. We couldn’t resist but to check out the food before seeing anything else.
We ordered fried dumplings, vegetable soba and seafood rice.
After the delicious snacks, we reentered the main court of Kitano Tenmangu.
We immediately lined up to get the admission tickets into the garden of Kitano Tenmangu.
As we walked into the garden, we passed by a courtyard enclosed with purple and white fabric where a mini outdoor concert was taking place as part of the Kyoto Nippon Festival.
Under the lovely music, we strolled around the upper part of the garden to admire the autumn foliage.
Behind the magnificent autumn maples stood the main buildings of Kitano Tenmangu.
With floodlights and lanterns, the golden ornaments of Kitano Tenmangu glittered under the indigo sky.
Looking down to the lower ravine from the upper garden.
After walking through the upper garden we headed down to the lower ravine.
Looking up to the colourful tree canopies from the lower ravine.
The highlight of the lower ravine was the red arched bridge.
Approaching the red arched bridge.
Visitors gathered on the bridge to admire the autumn colours of the river ravine.
We completed our garden visit with a cup of hot tea and a piece of traditional snack.
After the garden visit, we headed back to the main shrine for another quick look.
At one end of the shrine there was a Ikebana (生け花) or Japanese flower arrangement exhibition.
On a side door of the shrine, there was a sign indicating the autumn colour was at its peak.
We exited the main hall to check out the other buildings in the shrine compound of Kitano Tenmangu.
We walked by the temizuya, or water pavilion when we exited Kitano Tenmangu.
Before leaving, we walked by the festival stalls and had an order of octopus balls.
The banners of Kyoto Nippon Festival was hung on the torii gate of Kitano Tenmangu.
Our posts on 2016 Kyoto and Nara:
OUR FIRST KYOTO STORY, Japan
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: RYOANJI TEMPLE (龍安寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NINNAJI TEMPLE (仁和寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE (金閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE (北野天満宮), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NIGHT AT KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: MORNING STROLL IN SOUTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA to KENNINJI, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: ○△□ and Chouontei Garden and Ceiling of Twin Dragons, KENNINJI TEMPLE (建仁寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: SFERA BUILDING (スフェラ・ビル), SHIRKAWA GION (祇園白川), KAMO RIVER (鴨川) & DOWNTOWN, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: YAKITORI HITOMI (炭焼創彩鳥家 人見), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: MORNING IN NORTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (北東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: NANZENJI (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: PHILOSOPHER’S PATH (哲学の道), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: HONENIN (法然院), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: GINKAKUJI (銀閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: CRAB AND SAKE, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 4: HORYUJI (法隆寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: TODAIJI TEMPLE (東大寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KASUGA TAISHA (春日大社), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KOFUKUJI (興福寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: NAKAGAWA MASASHICHI SHOTEN (中川政七商店 遊中川), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: RAMEN & CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 1, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 2, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 5: FAREWELL KYOTO, Kyoto, Japan
Going to a flower fair (花市) or new year fair (年宵) on the Lunar New Year’s Eve is a common tradition in Hong Kong. Among all flower fairs in the city, the one at Victoria Park 維園 in Causeway Bay is the biggest and busiest. Nowadays, all sorts of merchandises are being sold in the flower fair, from fresh flowers to traditional snacks, classic New Year’s gifts to trendy toys, and just about anything that may make one laugh. Never mind the crowd. The later it gets into the night the more fairgoers flock into the park. It’s the joyful atmosphere, the sense of participation and the feel of being jammed in the mass that draws friends, families and couples to visit the fair every year. It is the prelude of Spring holiday, and the biggest party in Hong Kong to welcome the lunar new year. Floral colour was the first thing that caught the eyes of fairgoers when entering the park. Peach blossom has always been the most iconic flower of the Chinese New Year. Other than peach, water narcissus, pussy willows, lilies, and orchids were among people’s favorites. New Year Fruits might look funny but its golden colour made it a delightful New Year’s decoration at home. Shoppers often compared prices and the qualities of flowers from one vendor to another. Traditional snacks and sweets attracted both tourists and local visitors. The fair get much busier as the clock edged closer to midnight. In recent years, the Lunar New Year’s Fair at Victoria Park has become a testing ground for young entrepreneurs and amateur designers, many of whom are students from universities or secondary schools. Stuff toy and cushions are common in the fair. Young vendors make their best effort to capture fairgoers’ attention. Popular slang in Cantonese inspired a whole lot of fair merchandises. Some vendors positioned themselves in the middle of the aisle to advertise their booths. To stand out among the vendors was not an easy task. Among all the new merchandise this year, the cola-like stuff toys with trendy slogans made the news by walking the thin ice of copyright infringement. Other than young vendors, many politicians and political parties also had booths set up in the fair. Some politicians made new year couplets as free gifts for supporters. Satirical merchandises targeting the chief executive of Hong Kong CY Leung could be found throughout the fair. Merchandise related to the Umbrella Movement (Occupy Central) reminded us the delicate political situation of Hong Kong in recent months. Other politically charged merchandise include the inflated fence (related to the protests of Umbrella Movement) and the thick toast (related to a recent conflict between the locals and visitors from Mainland China). Many merchandise reflected a considerable level of disapproval of the current government. Nonetheless, most fairgoers did put aside their political differences and anguish in order to enjoy a night of joy. The fair at Victoria Park lasted until dawn of the Lunar New Year’s Day.