ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Po Hing Fong

FELINE SHOPKEEPERS (貓店長) 2, Hong Kong

A few years ago, Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen published a beautiful photo book Hong Kong Shop Cats. The book was an instant hit and captured the heart of people both in Hong Kong and abroad. Lovely images of cats and shop owners with backdrops of traditional shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun manifest a certain universal charm even for non cat lovers. It is the affection between shop cats and their owners that truly touch people, revealing a kind of human-animal bonding enrooted in the old shopping streets of Hong Kong. In the old neighborhoods, shop cats that linger at shopfront often become magnets that draw people from close and afar. Thanks to the social media, some celebrated shop cats (and owners) are even appear in foreign magazines or websites. While the need of mouse catching fades, the role of shop cats have shifted to sunbathing at shopfront, napping on cashier counter, patrolling the back alleys, and serving as social ambassadors to promote the business.

Other than old dried seafood or herbal medicine shops, cats also fit in well with all sort of businesses in the younger generation. Recent TV shows “Cat Shopkeepers” reveal that shops cats have become quite a phenomenon spreading to many businesses: bookstores, cafes, gyms, music schools, nail polishers, design shops, dance studios, musical instrument workshops, you name it. The cool yet lovely character of cats somehow become a perfect compliment to the warm-hearted and neighbourhood friendly identity of local small business. For returning customers or chance pedestrians, surprised encounters of shop cats may feel like discovering some sort of momentary antidotes to their otherwise stressful and monotonous daily life.

Tin Yin Coconut Co. (天然椰子號) has been around in North Point (北角) since 1964, from just a coconut supplier to selling all sort of Indonesian spices, condiments and snacks. Three cats (“Black Pepper”, “Turmeric”, “Satay”) accompany Amy, the lady shop-owner daily in the shop. But only “Black Pepper” would linger at the front desk to greet customers. [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2020]
Tin Yin Coconut Co. (天然椰子號) has moved to a new store on the same street recently. “Black Pepper” still sleeps through most of the day while customers picking spices and snacks around him. [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2021]
Ming Kee Southern Goods (銘記南貨店) at Sai Ying Pun is a traditional condiment store that we frequently visited. This is where we get our local cooking wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean curd, etc. Another reason is to check out the their big and friendly cat. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
A bowl of grass is often available as a special snacks for the cat to clear its stomach. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
As a “southern goods” store (南貨店), Ming Kee sells all sort of traditional condiments and food products that are originated from south of Yangtze River. The cat is guarding one of the most popular seasonal merchandises: the Chinese Mitten Crabs (大閘蟹) from Shanghai that are available in the autumn. [Third Street (第三街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2020]
Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun are known for the dried seafood shops that have been around for decades, when the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭) served as a main trading port in Hong Kong. Hundreds of trading companies were situated around the pier, including many dried seafood shops. Today this area is known as the Dried Seafood Street (海味街). Dried Seafood Street (海味街) has become a popular place to spot some of the more well known shop cats whose images have gone viral on the Internet. [Ko Shing Street (高陞街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
In many occasions, visitors would find a rather sleepy shop cat at the Dried Seafood Street (海味街). [Des Voeux Road (德輔道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Near the junction of Sutherland Street and Des Voeux Road West, Dai Lee Hong (大利行) dried seafood shop also has its celebrity cat known as “Fat Boy” (肥仔). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Apart from Apart from dried seafood, herbal medicine, nuts, spices and condiments are also popular in the Dried Seafood Street (海味街), such as Wing Shun Lei (永順利) dried herb shop. The beautiful cat Gum Gum (金金) of Wing Shun Lei is one of the many neighbours of “Fat Boy” (肥仔). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Another cat Ting Ting (丁丁) sometimes takes the night shift to “guard” the back door of Wing Shun Lei (永順利). [Sutherland Street (修打蘭街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
The cat at Guang Chong Hong (廣昌行), another herbal medicine in the area, loves to nap at the shopfront no matter how busy the street gets. [Queen’s Road West (皇后大道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Sometimes, it would be waken by curious pedestrians who couldn’t resist petting its head. [Queen’s Road West (皇后大道西), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
A little further uphill from Sheung Wan, a beautiful cat is waiting for its owner at a hair salon window. [Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), Sheung Wan (上環)]
The top of Ladder Street is home to a shy shop cat belonged to the street eatery Glorious Fast Food (輝煌快餐店). [Junction of Caine Road (堅道) and Ladder Street (樓梯街), Sheung Wan (上環), 2020]
Old restaurants and eateries are also good places to find shop cats, whose mice catching instinct is a big asset for the business. [Luen Wah Cafe (聯華茶餐廳), Centre Street (正街), Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), 2021]
Even household hardware shops are cat friendly these days. [Lockhart Road (駱克道), Wanchai (灣仔), 2020]
And so as household appliance shop… [Marble Road (馬寶道), North Point (北角), 2021]
Sam Kee Bookstore (森記圖書) at Fortress Hill (炮台山) is a peaceful bookstore at the basement of a small shopping arcade. Apart from its good selection of books, Sam Kee is also well known as a sanctuary for a dozen or so stray cats. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]
The lady shop owner adopted the cats one by one simply because they have no where to go. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]
These cats are used to be left alone. A sign saying “Sorry, please don’t play with cats” remind customers not to play with the cats. [King’s Road (英皇道), Fortress Hill (炮台山), 2020]

LADDER STREETS PART 1: COLLECTIVE MEMORY, Central & Sheung Wan (中上環), Hong Kong

Before leaving Hong Kong for Canada, I spent the first decade of my life in the same Central Sheung Wan (中上環) area where our current home is located. The sloped streets and granite stairs in the neighborhood have featured heavily in my childhood memories. Walking up and down the century-old pedestrian stairs, a unique urban feature that we call “ladder streets” (樓梯街) in Hong Kong, was part of my childhood routine. I used to hate these stairs, especially when climbing them to school during summer months. Now returning as an adult, my emotions towards ladder streets have dramatically changed. Each worn treads, old balustrade and aged retaining walls seem to be remnants from a bygone era of the city, as well as my distant childhood.

Behind the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island stands Victoria Peak, also called Tai Ping Shan (太平山) in Chinese. The once imposing ridge line is pretty much hidden nowadays, unless one ventures far enough out into the harbour for a distant view. In fact, the island’s hilly terrain once posed a big challenge for the British colonial government when founding the city in 1841. On one hand, they were determined to erect a waterfront city by land reclamation from the sea. On the other hand, they managed to conquer the unforgiving terrain of Victoria Peak, levelling slopes into terraces for housing constructions, and connecting the residential terraces with steep paths and ladder streets. From then on, the network of ladder streets connect the hillside communities of West District, Sheung Wan, Central and Wanchai with the business district along the waterfront.

No one has a concrete idea of how many ladder streets remain in Hong Kong until 2013 when Melissa Cate Christ of Hong Kong University and her team on the Stair Culture project attempted to map out the ladder streets in the city. In their mapping exercise, they found over 3000 stairs in Central-Western District (中西區) alone. Not only has their work illustrated the astonishing concentration of ladder streets in a small area of old Hong Kong (about 12.4 sq. km), they also highlighted the danger ladder streets are facing today, the importance of preserving the ladder streets and the positive impact these stairs have contributed to the livability and urban character of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Over a century of urban makeovers, many ladder streets have become obsolete when public escalators, elevators and asphalt roads were built to bring busy urbanites up and down the hill at a much faster pace. Some have been demolished to make way for modern developments, while some have been reduced to dark narrow alleyways sandwiched between highrise blocks. Functionally, the century old staircases may no longer fit well into modern urban planning. However, beyond merely moving people, the ladder streets play a crucial role in defining the historical identity of the city and providing peaceful alternative routes for pedestrians. A number of ladder streets have become iconic backdrops for tourists, filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers, who come to seek for the city’s nostalgic, peaceful and cozy ambience, in contrast to the fast-paced and somewhat stressful financial district just a stone throw away. From movies to TV shows, ladder streets have featured in a variety of media, formulating a collective memory not just for us who live in the area, but also for all Hong Kongers.

Before the emergence of modern skyscrapers, the hilly terrain of Hong Kong Island was much more prominent. With only a narrow strip of flat land between the hill and the sea, the British Colonial government had little options but to rely on land reclamation and altering the sloped terrain to establish Victoria City.
[1880s skyline of Hong Kong with Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right), credit: Lai Afong, 1880s, public domain]
Today, one can hardly see the ridge line of Victoria Peak unless viewing from a distance. Almost all commercial skyscrapers are situated on reclaimed land that once belonged to the sea. [Skyline of Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right) as viewed across Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui of Kowloon]
The old residential neighborhoods on the slopes of Central, Sheung Wan and Western District lie peacefully behind the modern skyline. [Looking downhill from Peel Street (卑利街) and Caine Road (堅道) towards the 346m The Centre (中環中心), Central (中環)]
Many ladder streets and sloped streets begin at Queen’s Road, the first major waterfront road in Hong Kong. In fact, just by mapping where the ladder streets begin can give us a rough idea on where the original shoreline of Hong Kong Island was located. After over 150 years of land reclamation, Queen’s Road has become a busy inland street with the sea nowhere to be seen. [The stepped section of Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) where it meets Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Sheung Wan (上環)]
Layers of retaining walls from different periods in history are visible at some ladder streets. Landslides have been a constant issue in the past. Over a century of experiences and painful lessons, the city’s slope management techniques have become one of the most sophisticated in the world.[The retaining structure of Ladder Street (樓梯街) at U Lam Terrace (儒林臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]
In the past, some ladder streets have served as boundary line between two communities, such as Pottinger Street and Shing Wong Street that once separated British and Chinese communities. A ladder street might represent a means of separation, but also a venue of social mingling. Today, many ladder streets reveal the diversity of cultures where local traditions collide with contemporary trends. [A traditional temple and mural of a shisha smoking panda occupy opposite sides of Peel Street (卑利街), Central (中環)]
Ladder streets feature extensively in movies and TV shows in Hong Kong, including the 2013 movie The Way We Dance (狂舞派). A remarkable dance scene that combined Tai Chi with Hip-hop and a red balloon (essence spirit of Hong Kong: East meets West) was filmed at the steps of On Wo Lane. [On Wo Lane (安和里) as seen from Kau U Fong (九如坊), Central (中環)]
Opened in 1993, the Central – Mid Levels escalator has provided a more efficient means for pedestrians to travel up and down the lower slope of Victoria Peak. At certain areas, ladder streets have become obsolete as modern developments continue to transform the urban landscape. [Intersection of Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) and Mosque Street (摩羅廟街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
There are always options in Hong Kong. On the same route, pedestrians may choose between taking the escalator on the upper deck, or take relaxing steps on the lower deck. [Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) between Robinson Road (羅便臣道) and Mosque Junction (摩羅廟交加街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
Often appearing in local films and TV shows, one of the most recognizable ladder streets in Hong Kong is Duddell Street (都爹利街) and it’s four historic gas lamps in Central (中環). [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Manufactured by William Sugg & Co. in England, the four gas lamps of Duddell Street were erected in the early twentieth century. The colonial ambience of the Duddell ladder street reveals a form of urban aesthetics that once defined the entire Victoria City. [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Pottinger Street, commonly known as Stone Slabs Street (石板街), is undoubtedly the most iconic ladder street in Hong Kong. It remains as one of the top attraction for tourists visiting Central, the commercial heart of Hong Kong. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
At the junction of Pottinger Street and Wellington Street once stood the first Roman Catholic cathedral of Hong Kong. Built in 1843, the church was destroyed in a fire in 1859, and was rebuilt at another site on Caine Road. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街) in junction with Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
Today, Pottinger Street is a popular tourist attraction and a place to shop for Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Wellington Street (威靈頓街) and Stanley Street (士丹利街), Central (中環)]
During Chinese New Year, Pottinger Street near Queen’s Road Central would turn into a sea of red. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Stanley Street (士丹利街) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
French artist Invader’s pixelated dragon gives the century-old Pottinger Street a playful touch. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), near its terminus at Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
Connecting Hollywood Road, Po Hing Fong and Bonham Road, Pound Lane was once the site of a government pound that kept cows and sheep in the 19th century. Whoever translated the street name from English to Chinese must have misinterpreted the meaning of “Pound” as in weight measurement. Late Canto-pop singer Leslie Cheung recorded the iconic music video of the song “Stand Up” with a dance troupe on the steps of Pound Lane in 1986. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), Sheung Wan (上環)]
The tranquil Pound Lane made news in 2013 when some pro-government politicians advocated to construct an escalator to replace the the steps. Many residents from the neighborhood opposed the idea. Not only might the proposal transform the area into a second Soho (noisy entertainment district), it might also invite developers to tear down the existing low rise apartments and replace with 30-storey luxury apartments. [Pound Lane (磅巷), between Po Hing Fong (普慶坊) and Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan (上環)]
A landing above Po Hing Fong, Pound Lane reaches a small community piazza at Tai On Terrace. Today, Tai On Terrace is home to a cafe, photography gallery, health food store, yoga studio, etc. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Tai On Terrace (大安臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]

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]