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.
For a whole year we walked by the junction of Ladder Street (樓梯街) and Circular Pathway (弓弦巷) every morning and never did we notice Nhau, a new contemporary Vietnamese restaurant just 30m down Circular Pathway, until one Saturday morning when we decided to give it a try after reading about it on the Internet. We ended up enjoying the lovely food by Chef Que Vinh Dang and the relaxing ambience of the restaurant. But what truly amazed us was the fact that we have never noticed the restaurant’s existence despite it is just 3 minute walk away from our apartment and we passed by the junction almost everyday. In fact, Nhau was not the only pleasant surprise we have encountered during our strolls in Tai Ping Shan. Be it a hidden restaurant, or a tiny vintage shop, or a new hand-drip coffee house, or an alleyway full of street art, the labyrinth network of ladder streets in our neighborhood are full of hidden treasures. Every spontaneous detour we make may end up a journey of discoveries. Being a flaneur in our own neighborhood has become our weekend pastimes, as if a recurring treasure hunt that brings us delightful surprises from time to time.
Tai Ping Shan in Sheung Wan has been a treasure trove for several generations. The area around Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) have long been the largest antique market in Hong Kong. Today, the area still host a large concentration of antique stores. Apart from traditional antique shops, new vintage shops have emerged in recent years, attracting nostalgic vintage lovers across the city coming over to test their luck. Film directors and designers in particular love to linger in the area to search for inspirations and film production props. Select 18 at Tung Street has an impressive collection of vintage objects from jewellery, posters, photos, vinyls, toys, housewares to furniture. We can easily spend hours just to go through every single items that might have appeared somewhere in our childhood memories. Recently, it is Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person at Water Lane that has captured our attention. Housed in a metal shed measured no more than 1.5 x 2.5m in a 3m wide alleyway, Chenmiji truly epitomizes the tiny living conditions in Hong Kong, where the average living space per capita is 160 sq.ft (compared to 220 in Japan, 323 in Singapore, and 800 in the United States. Space is intimate at Chenmiji, and the atmosphere is cozy and the collection personal but charming, especially attractive for people who adores the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong. Checking out these vintage shops have become another hobby of ours recently. Just a gentle touch of an old toy or movie ticket would trigger distant memories that we haven’t recalled for years, reminding us how we used to live in an era without smartphones, computers, and the internet.
Treasures for All
Checking out the vintage store You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) would bring us to a popular community gathering spot at Shing Wong Street (城皇街), another famous ladder street between Hollywood Road and Caine Road. In the midst of “30 House” (卅間), an old community of tenement buildings, or tong lau (唐樓) in Chinese, a series of pedestrian landings and steps have become a causal meeting place for the community, as if a small piazza in Europe. Surrounded by two coffee shops and the vintage store You Wu Studio, these landings can be considered as the community’s “third place”, which sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes as a relaxing mingling place away from our home and office. Every weekend, You Yu Studio would set up chairs and tables outside their store, encourage members of the community to sit down for a causal chat, or a cup of locally made ice cream, or a handicraft workshop. Such breathing space just a stone throw away from the business district is truly a treasure for Tai Ping Shan community, and a valuable open space for all pedestrians to enjoy. As a dense and vertical city, Hong Kongers are unfortunately enjoying far less open spaces than residents in many other Asian cities. A study in 2017 reveals the average open space per capita in Hong Kong is about 2.8 sq.m, way behind Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore (ranging from 5.8 to 7.6 sq.m). Without adequate outdoor spaces for social activities, Hong Kongers have long been using the streets creatively for both commercial and social purposes. This is the case for You Yu Studio at Shing Wong Street, and so as the tiny Chenmiji at Water Lane.