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.
On 2 February 2022, we had our final visit to Gia Trattoria Italiana, an Italian restaurant at Fenwick Pier in Wan Chai. Two months have passed, and we have already missed their Bistecca alla Fiorentina, lobster pasta, and all the delightful moments we spent at the restaurant. A few days after our February visit, the restaurant was closed for good, as the government decided to terminate the lease of Fenwick Pier. The pier was set for demolition and the site would be redeveloped into a fire-station. A little out of the way from the closest MTR station, the 4-storey pier building looked a little worn out, with paint peeling off here and there. Occupying a small piece of land less than 150m inland from the new Wan Chai Harbourfront, the utilitarian box structure probably wouldn’t be missed if it was just an ordinary building. But Fenwick Pier was no ordinary building. For two months before returning the closing the pier, people flocked to Fenwick Pier to photograph and bid farewell to this remnant from the colonial times. The nostalgic visitors even formed a queue outside the gate in the midst of pandemic. For the latter half of 20th Century, Hong Kong was the first port of call in Asia for many American seamen and navy personnel, while Fenwick Pier served like the arrival gateway in the city. The pier fulfilled its duty till the very end, offering foreign sailors and seamen free guidebooks, free local sim cards, transportation shuttles, tourist information, shops and services such as tailoring, hairdressing, souvenirs, etc. Local Hongkongers could also join the pier membership right at the door, so that they could enjoy the facilities in the complex. Fenwick Pier offered locals a “taste of America” from fast food to fine dining, and foreign seamen a place where they could enjoy products and services that defined the concept of East meets West.
While 2022 marks the end for Fenwick Pier, and its NGO operator, the Servicemen’s Guides Association (SGA – 香港軍人輔導會), the story began in 1953 with a humble information desk on the sidewalk next to Fenwick Street to serve the arriving American military sailors during the Korean War. Later on, the SGA was granted by the colonial government a small piece of land to establish the Fenwick Pier. The pier was moved and rebuilt a few times due to typhoon damages and land reclamation, until 1970 when the current building was erected. In 1994, Fleet Arcade (海軍商場), the 4-storey shopping centre, was founded serving mainly visiting sailors. As incoming vessels have significantly declined since 1997 and the pier became landlocked in 2016 due to land reclamation, the final demise for the pier was almost certain. At its peak, the pier received almost 100 vessels with 97,000 visitors a year. Wan Chai, the area where Fenwick Pier stood, was the official hub for all foreign sailors. Restaurants, bars, strip clubs and all sort of entertainment businesses flourished in Wan Chai, during the golden age of Fenwick Pier. After receiving 1.26 million sailors in 69 years, Fenwick Pier was finally sealed off by the government, and officially became an important piece of history for Hong Kong.
On 30th October 2021, Hoi On Cafe (海安咖啡室) opened its doors one last time to serve the Sheung Wan community. “Hoi On”, literally means “safe at sea”, was a traditional cha chaan teng (茶餐廳) or Hong Kong style cafe established by Wong Kiu (黃橋) in 1952. Known as the “Coffee King” and founder of Tsit Wing Coffee Company (捷榮咖啡), Wong was a well known figure in the coffee trading industry. His decadents still control a whopping 80% of coffee bean wholesale in the city. Began as a small cafe offering simple meals and refreshments for seamen and dockworkers from the Triangular Pier area, Hoi On had eventually outlasted all the surrounding piers. As time goes by, Hoi On became a sole survivor from a bygone era on Connaught Road West. Its retro shopfront and four-storey building stood out from the adjacent buildings. In the past few years, it was a common sight to see customers queuing up outside their glass door during breakfast hours and weekends. In the cafe, young visitors and tourists often took photos of their dishes before moving their forks, while loyal customers chit-chatted with the staff about everyday matters. It was hard to imagine that just over a decade ago, Hoi On was battling for its survival. Its change of fortune in recent years was largely due to efforts from the Au Yeung siblings, whose father was the second owner and former staff of Wong Kiu. From an aging establishment serving mainly elderly customers, the Au Yeung siblings successfully rejuvenated the cafe into a hub for nostalgic tourists, celebrating its community history, friendly ambience, and vintage decor. While preserving the old, the siblings also introduced a more diverse and innovative menu, and higher hygiene standards. Their efforts triumphantly turned Hoi On into an Internet sensation, and a mecca for the search of collective memories from a lost Hong Kong.
Despite knowing their name for quite a while, it wasn’t until we moved to Central/ Sheung Wan in 2019 that we paid our first visit to Hoi On. Maybe it was the nostalgic ambience, or the convincing quality of food, or the relatively tidy interiors given its age, we immediately fell in love with the cafe. Hoi On was not the closest cha chaan teng from our home, but it was one of our favorites. It even made us getting up earlier to make a breakfast detour before going to work. Given their busy scenes, affirmative online comments and media coverage, few would have predicted that Hoi On could suddenly close for good. Many netizens expressed sadness to the news. Some old customers (including ones from Taiwan and Malaysia) even offered to take over the business. Many thought it was due to an unreasonable rent increase, but according to some online sources, that wasn’t the case here. It was a personal decision from the owners. Bidding farewell to an community icon is always difficult, but we respect the owners’ decision, and admire their heartfelt efforts for writing a brilliant finale for the age-old business. Hong Kong is never a place known for permanence. Seizing the moment to enjoy while it lasts is always the key for living in an ever-changing place. As customers and members of the Central/ Sheung Wan community, we are grateful that Hoi On has left us some fond memories, no matter how brief our encounter was.
The first 130 or so small units of Kennedy 38, a new residential development in Kennedy Town, went on sell in November 2021 during the pandemic. Ranging from 229 to 332 sq.ft with an average price of HK$27,522 per sq.ft, 1400 interested parties registered as potential buyers, translating to about 10 bids for each available flat. A few days later, prices went up even higher for the upper floor units. A 287 sq.ft unit was selling for HK$10.24m (US$1.31m). While this may not match the most pricey developments in Hong Kong, US$1.31m for 287 sq.ft is not a friendly price tag either, especially for Kennedy Town, a neighbourhood that not long ago was still considered as Hong Kong’s de facto back-of-house. Today, things have obviously changed. Kennedy Town is now marketed as the up and coming neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island accessible by the mass transit railway (MTR), and a destination where the Harbour, Mount Davis and HKU are just minutes of walk away.
Gentrification has been happening in many parts of the city, but not that many places can match the 180 degree makeover of Kennedy Town, not only for its appearance, but also its identity. The westernmost settlement on Hong Kong Island was named after Arthur Edward Kennedy, the 7th governor of colonial Hong Kong in 1870’s who was responsible for substantial land reclamation and developments in Kennedy Town. Due to its considerable distance (3.5km, not that far in today’s standards) from Central, the city’s central business district, Kennedy Town was seen as an outpost in the early days. From late 19th century to the hundred years that followed, Kennedy Town was home to all sorts of the city’s undesirable but necessary supporting facilities: infectious disease hospital, mortuary, cemeteries, mental health hospital, poultry houses, depots for cattle, pigs and sheep, massive slaughterhouses, battery factories, waste incinerator, etc. From 1894 when the first slaughterhouse began operations, to 2007 when the demolition of Kennedy Town Abattoir and Incinerator finally took place, the impression that combines foul smell, animal whimpers, polluted air, and streets of blood and feathers on Kennedy Town have deeply imprinted in the collective psyche of many Hongkongers.
Then everything changed almost overnight on 28th of December 2014, when the MTR finally opened the Kennedy Town Station, bringing flocks of outsiders into the westernmost neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island. Then suddenly everyone realized that at only four stops west of Central, Kennedy Town is in fact a tranquil neighborhood where a less crowded waterfront and friendly old shops await for visitors to explore. Unsurprisingly, real estate developers were the first to arrive, tapping in the neighbourhood’s potentials by erecting blocks after blocks of luxury sea-facing apartments. Then came fancy restaurants, pubs, cafes, bakeries, cinema, lifestyle shops, etc. To maximize development potentials for the area, buildings in Kennedy Town associated with its dark past were all but wiped out. Shadows of the past have quietly faded away under collective oblivion. Yet if one looks careful enough, traces of the past are still visible in hidden corners and fenced off brown sites. Under the warm afternoon sun, the air is full of distant laughter from cafes, sport bars and waterfront promenade. Even a ruined slaughterhouse or a roadside tombstone of a 19th-century plague victim may not seem that spooky anymore.
In a spring Saturday afternoon, we went to a familiar stall at Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市集) to pick up some fruits. While the male owner gathered the fruits we wanted, his wife was busy feeding a big cat tuna-like snacks with a small spoon. The cat sat gratefully on the table to chew on its snacks with its eyes closed. The lady gently stroked the cat’s back and proudly praised about its silky fur. We soon found out that the cat actually didn’t belong to the fruit stall owners. It was a guest from the adjacent dried goods stall. Like many other cats in the open street market, the lucky one we encountered that day would roam freely and welcomed by different stall owners in the area everyday.
Such beautiful human-cat relationship is not uncommon in the old neighbourhoods of Central-Sheung Wan (中上環) and adjacent Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), where decades old shops and market stalls provide the perfect havens for cats to linger. In return for all the food and love from shop owners, the cats would catch mice, attract pedestrian’s attention, and most importantly, keep the shop owners company during the day. Similar to Japan, where the belief of maneki-neko or “beckoning cat” (招き猫) has been around since the Edo Period, shop cats in Hong Kong are often regarded as an integral member of the business. In recent years, these shop cats are often referred to as “feline shopkeepers” (貓店長). These cute shopkeepers have become beloved mascots of the old neighbourhoods, where shop doors are always kept open to the street from morning till dusk.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.
In 2016, “dai pai dong” was added as a Hong Kong English term in the Oxford English Dictionary, referring as “a traditional licensed street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices; (now more generally) any food stall of this type.” The term “dai pai dong” 大牌檔 literally means “big license stall”, which attributes to their bigger license paper compared to other street vendors. In Chinese, “dai pai dong” can also be written as 大排檔, meaning a “row of line-up stalls”. Street hawkers have been around in Hong Kong for over a century. The number of street hawkers increased dramatically after WWII, when unemployed citizens were eager to make a living by setting up all sort of vendor stalls on the street, including food stalls. In response, the government put forward “dai pai dong” licenses as a measure to regulate and standardize the food stalls. During its heyday between 1950’s to 1970’s, some say there were more than 3000 dai pai dongs across the city. To control street hygiene, avoid traffic congestion and give priority to urban developments, the government stopped issuing dai pai dong licenses in 1956, and restricted license transfer to spouse only, eliminating the chance of passing the business down the generation. As the city’s economy boomed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, dining options exponentially increased. Along with the government’s constraints and fierce competition of dining options, undesirable hygiene, absence of air conditioning, and the relatively crowded seating have all led to the dwindling of dai pai dongs. In 2011, there were 28 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong: Central (10 stalls), Wanchai (3 stalls), Sham Shui Po (14 stalls), and Outer Islands (1 stall). From one of the most popular causal dining options in the 1960’s to a disappearing urban heritage that appears as diorama in history museums nowadays, the rise and fall of dai pai dongs reflects the rapid evolution of Hong Kong in the latter half of the 20th century.
Often promoted as a unique component of Hong Kong’s culinary heritage, scenes of dai pai dongs are often displayed as backdrops in museums and amusement parks. A typical dai pai dong consists of a 4′ x 6′ green metal stall used as kitchen, and a long bench topped with three small wooden stools as extra seating. In the past, the number of customers was restricted to two folding tables and eight portable chairs. Opened for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late night meals, dai pai dong may serve congee, noodles, stir fry, dessert, and/or coffee/tea. Despite street stalls are disappearing fast, dai pai dong dishes and their cooking techniques have been well preserved at many neighbourhood restaurants in Hong Kong. Often described as good wok hei (鑊氣), which literally means excellent “breath of wok” or the rich aroma and flavour of the wok, the spirit of dai pai dong cuisine remains as one of the essential aspects of the local cuisine. While the taste of dai pai dong may live long, it is the vibrant street ambience, the causal interactions with vendors and fellow customers, and the carefree dining experience topped with cheap beer and loud laughter that would certainly be missed.
Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家), a former 80-year old dai pai dong in Soho, Central, was the spark that ignited the city’s attention on dai pai dong conservation. In 2005, there were 30 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong. Wong Kwong Hing (黃光慶), the license holder of Man Yuen Noodles, passed away. The Lee brothers, disciplines of Wong’s father and the operators of Man Yuen for many decades, attempted to continue the hawker license but were rejected by the government. A number of district councillors, legislators, and 3000+ Hong Kongers made a petition, urging the government to let the Lee brothers continue with the business. Their petition failed, and the famous street stall was forced to close down. Yet, the 2005 incident successfully captured the media’s attention and brought out the issue of the dying culture to the public. The conservation effort gained momentum in the next couple of years, and eventually led to the change of license regulations in 2008, allowing non spousal license transfer to be considered. Despite the effort, the numbers of dai pai dongs continue to drop. Without anyone’s notice, the end of dai pai dong could become reality in less than a generation’s time.