ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “restaurant

FELINE SHOPKEEPERS (貓店長) 1, Central-Sheung Wan (中上環), Hong Kong

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.

On the sloped market street, a cat checks out the passing pedestrians in front of its dried food shop. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2021]
The tri-colour cat of Wah Kee Restaurant (華記食店) sits quietly at the now blocked off Staveley Street (士他花利街) after lunch hour. [Staveley Street, Graham Street Market, Central, 2021]
Another tri-colour cat sunbathed at a closed market stall. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
At the same stall lives another lovely market cat. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
The cats at the 80-year old Gan Kee Noodle Factory (近記粉麵廠) are quite well known at the Graham Street Market. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
The cats at Gan Kee Factory (近記粉麵廠) belong to the same family. Apparently, the father (dark colour at the back) is the shyest of them all. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
People who live in the area, including us, often stop by Gan Kee to say hello to the cats and the elderly owners. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
With over 60 years of history, Kan Kee Noodles Factory (勤記粉麵廠) is another popular noodle shop in Graham Street Market. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
Kan Kee Noodle Factory (勤記粉麵廠) is another popular shop to get traditional dried noodles. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
Near Kan Kee, the cat of a souvenir shop often comes out to chill out on the metal platform of the adjacent market stall. [Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
At a dried food stall, a cat is peacefully taking a nap on a folding table. [Graham Street (嘉咸街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
The cat falls asleep while its owner is reading newspaper when no customer is around. [Graham Street (嘉咸街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
Estabished in 1948, Kung Lee Sugar Cane Juice (公利真料竹蔗水) is one of our favorite snacks shop in our neighborhood. At Kung Lee, a kitten stands on a dining table to greet customers. [Junction of Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Peel Street (卑利街), Graham Street Market, Central, 2020]
Sasa, the fluffy master of Sing Heung Yuen (勝香園) street eatery, loves to greet customers under their tables. [Mee Lun Street (美輪街), Central, 2020]
When it’s not too crowded, Sasa prefers to stay on its “throne chair” at Sing Heung Yuen (勝香園). [Mee Lun Street (美輪街), Central, 2020]
Sometimes, customers would find Sasa of Sing Heung Yuen scratching its head under the table. [Mee Lun Street (美輪街), Central, 2020]
If we manage to arrive early for breakfast at Sing Heung Yuen, there would be a good chance to see Sasa at the eatery. [Mee Lun Street (美輪街), Central, 2020]
Apart from antique shops, the grey cat and the elderly metal worker (right side of photo) are common sights at the end of the pedestrianized Upper Lascar Row, also known as the Cat Street. [Upper Lascar Row (摩羅上街), Sheung Wan, 2021]
Since 1912, Yuan Heng Spice Company (源興香料) has been around in Sheung Wan offering all sort of international spices. Generations of cats there must have been guarding their precious merchandises from mice. [Tung Street (東街), Sheung Wan, 2021]
Today, the cat at Yuan Heng serves more as a greeter to welcome customers. [Tung Street (東街), Sheung Wan, 2021]
Apart from their famous pork chop noodles, the pair of cats at For Kee Restaurant (科記咖啡餐室) has been a big draw for visitors. [Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan, 2020]
The cats at For Kee Restaurant (科記咖啡餐室) often stand elegantly outside the restaurant. [Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan, 2020]
The cats of For Kee just know how to gather people’s attention. [Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan, 2020]
Though sometimes, they can get a little grumpy when being disturbed at the wrong moment. [Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan, 2020]

NoHo & SoHo, Central – Sheung Wan (中上環), Hong Kong

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.

Looking down from PMQ, the stepped Shin Hing Street (善慶街) marks one of the entrances into Gough Street from Hollywood Road. [Junction of Hollywood Road and Shin Hing Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
An old furniture store still occupies the corner of Hollywood Road and Shin Hing Street. [Top of Shin Hing Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Many love the tranquil and “European” feel of NoHo, which is a rarity in urban Hong Kong. [Shin Hing Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Art installation related to the history of Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China, has become a playground for children. [Junction of Shin Hing Street and Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Before the pandemic, the steps of Shin Hing Street was often turned into a stepped seating and drinking area in the evening and during weekends. [Shin Hing Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
At Mee Lun Street (美輪街), a small ladder street just a few shops away from Shin Hing Street, a simple dai pai dong street eatery has been a pedestrian magnet for years. Opened in 1959, Sing Heung Yuen (勝香園) dai pai dong is a big attraction in NoHo. Before the pandemic, there would always a long queue (mainly tourists and young couples) whenever the eatery is opened. [Junction of Mee Lun Street and Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
One of the most famous dishes at Sing Heung Yuen (勝香園) is tomato beef and egg noodles. [Junction of Mun Lun Street and Gough Street, NoHo,Sheung Wan, 2020]
Sasa the cat of Sing Heung Yuen (勝香園) is a popular member of the Mun Lun Street neighbourhood. Without tourists during the pandemic, Sasa got a little more freedom to linger around. When the eatery is busy and all seats are taken, the owner would take Sasa back to their apartment nearby. [Junction of Mun Lun Street and Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Kau Kee Beef Briskets(九記牛腩) is another tourist favourite in NoHo. Kau Kee’s business during the pandemic is greatly affected. [Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2021]
Apart from food, design shops such as Homeless offers another crucial aspect of urban living in Hong Kong. [Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
One street downhill from Gough Street, Kau U Fong (九如坊) offers another clusters of tranquil options for foodies. [Kau U Fong, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
As chill as SoHo but with smaller crowds, that is the real beauty of NoHo. [Kau U Fong, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
In recent years, one of the most well known establishments in Kau U Fong is The Chairman (大班樓), a Michelin 1-star Chinese restaurant that uses mostly organic ingredients from small local suppliers and fishermen. [Kau U Fong, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
The most famous fish at The Chairman is undoubtedly steamed crab in aged Xiaoxing wine with Chan Village rice noodles. [The Chairman, Kau U Fong, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Perpendicular to Gough Street and Kau U Fong is the sloped Aberdeen Street. Despite its slope, the street is also filled with new restaurants and cafes, including Tenkai, a Japanese fine dining restaurant specialized in tempura omakase. [Aberdeen Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
Further downhill, the more causal Ode has also attracted a constant queue outside. The restaurant is specialized in ramen in sea bream fish broth. [Aberdeen Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan, 2020]
The relatively new and sleek looking Aesop store at Gough / Aberdeen Street is a neat addition to the NoHo neighbourhood. [Junction of Aberdeen Street and Gough Street, NoHo, Sheung Wan,2020]

***

Near Hollywood Road, the vivid wall paintings at Graham Street remind visitors that we are now about to enter an interesting and fun neighbourhood. [Junction of Graham Street and Hollywood Road, SoHo, Central, 2014]
Since 1993, the world’s longest covered escalator system has brought tens of thousands of pedestrians up and down the slope of Central, from 34,000 daily usage in 1996 to about 85,000 in 2010. This influx of energy has directly contributed to the development of the SoHo District. [Junction of Shelley and Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2014]
The Central – Mid Level Escalators was the unexpected driving force behind the creation of the entertainment district of SoHo in Central. [Junction of Shelley and Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2014]
Restaurants and bars cascade up along the escalator system of Shelley Street. [Shelley Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
Staunton has become the central axis of SoHo entertainment district. [Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2014]
Staunton Street ends at Old Bailey Street where Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Headquarters is situated. [Junction of Staunton and Shelley Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
A simple restaurant serving British food marks the eastern entrance of SoHo at Old Bailey Street. [Junction of Old Bailey and Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
From crafted beer to high end whiskey, sake, and wines, Staunton Street offers plenty of options to anyone looking for fun after work. [Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
A constant queue from morning till dusk, Bakehouse is the clear winner of SoHo during the Covid 19 pandemic. Operated by Grégoire Michaud, a renowned baker who has an impressive resume of work experiences in high end hotels and restaurants, the famous bakery has become an urban sensation in the past few years in Hong Kong. [Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
The former shops and Buddhist convents below old apartment blocks have been converted into restaurants and bars. [Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2021]
The ambience of Staunton Street would dramatically transformed as evening approaches. [Staunton Street, SoHo, Central, 2021]
One street further uphill from Staunton Street, Elgin Street is also at the heart of the bar hopping circuit of SoHo. [Elgin Street, SoHo, Central, 2014]
Like other old neighborhoods in Hong Kong, there is a deity shrine in SoHo that protects all in the community. [Junction of Staunton and Peel Street, Soho, Central, 2021]
Across from the shrine, a bar specialized in shesha water pipes has an interesting wall painting at its door. [Peel Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
During the Covid 19 pandemic, many bars and pubs were asked to temporarily close their doors. The restaurants remain opened have to follow strict regulations for number of customers per table, distance between seats, shorter opening times, stringent mechanical requirements for air changes, regular disinfection of spaces, etc. [Peel Street, SoHo, Central, 2020]
SoHo is not all about fine dining and bar hopping. Other businesses such as custom tailor and second hand bookstore have also left their marks. [Flow Books, Hollywood Road, SoHo, Central, 2014]
The true beauty of SoHo is about how people with different backgrounds may come and mingle in a few small streets uphill from the business district of Central. [Flow Books, Hollywood Road, SoHo, Central, 2014]

CULTURE OF DISAPPEARANCE: DAI PAI DONG (大排檔), Central (中環), Hong Kong

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.

After their dai pai dong was forced to shut down in 2005, the elder Lee brother of Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家) reopened a 300 sq.ft restaurant just across the street from its former location. We visited this small noodle shop several times until the owners retired in March 2016. [Elgin Street (伊利近街), Central, 2016]
In 1990, Yuk Yip Dessert (玉葉甜品) moved to Elgin Street (伊利近街) right beside Man Yuen Noodles. From then on, the two stalls shared the same menu which included both noodles and Chinese dessert. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2021]
Today, Yuk Yip Dessert remains as the only dai pai dong left in Soho, Central. Some say Yuk Yip is now operated by the younger Lee brother of Man Yuen Noodles, and his wife, the fourth generation owner of the vintage dessert stall. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2021]
Today, Yuk Yip Dessert continues to serve beef brisket, pork knuckle, wanton and dumpling noodles (recipe probably from the former Man Yuen Noodles), as well as Chinese dessert. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2016]
In fact, the hundred-year-old Yuk Yip Dessert has been around in Central for several generations. They continues to offer traditional dessert such as tong but lut (糖不甩), a Cantonese dessert made of glutinous rice balls in sugar syrup and crushed roasted peanut. [Junction of Elgin Street and Hollywood Road, Central, 2016]
A long bench with small seats at Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園) presents the old way of squeezing a few more seats beyond the official table and chair limits. These have pretty much become exterior decorations now as Lan Fong Yuen has moved into a fully enclosed restaurant space behind the street stall. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
Despite Lan Fong Yuen has become an air conditioned restaurant, their metal stall on Gage Street (結志街) continues to serve simple takeouts, including Hong Kong style milk tea which is claimed to be an invention by the owner of Lan Fong Yuen decades ago. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
Towering scaffolding and the tiny metal stall of Leung Pui Kee (梁培記) mark the entrance of Gutzlaff Street (吉士笠街) at Wellington Street (威靈頓街). Established in 1914, Leung Pui Kee Locksmith has been serving banks and shops in Central for over a century. Now the stall is being swallowed by the redevelopment construction. [Junction of Gutzlaff Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2020]
Further towards Stanley Street (士丹利街), Gutzlaff Street (吉士笠街) is home to Shui Kee (水記) dai pai dong. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
For over 60 years, Shui Kee (水記) has been serving beef brisket and entrails in Central. With construction cranes and scaffolding closing in from Graham Street and Wellington Street, over half of Gutzlaff Street, a pedestrian lane once dotted with street eateries, would eventually be demolished to make way for new hotel and office towers. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2020]
Shui Kee is situated on a slightly sloped lane. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Awning covers, folded tables and plastic chairs define the dining area of Shui Kee. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Lam Kin Wing (林健永), the third generation owner of Shui Kee, took over the business over two decades ago after his father retired. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Eating at dai pai dong offers locals and tourists a vintage dining experience. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Shui Kee is well known for its fresh beef entrails (牛雜). Unlike frozen ones, fresh beef entrails have a more chewy texture and richer favour. Due to the time and effort involved in cleaning and preparing fresh entrails, it’s quite difficult to find them nowadays. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
For those who is not a big fan of beef entrails (stomachs), beef brisket is another decent alternative at Shui Kee. [Gutzlaff Street, Central, 2021]
Stanley Street (士丹利街) is one of the last spots in Central where dai pai dong hawkers still set up folding tables and portable chairs daily to provide an affordable alternative to the restaurant franchises, fast food chains, and Michelin star restaurants in the area. [Stanlet Street, Central, 2014]
Dai pai dong offers some of the best opportunities for people watching and interaction with the locals. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
While dai pai dong offers a unique street dining experience, the summer heat can make it a sweaty one. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
In Central, dai pai dongs can only be found at pedestrian-only alleyways. [Stanley Street, Central, 2014]
Perhaps in less than a decade, this affordable dining culture will become history, and only exist in photos and movies like Chungking Express. [Stanley Street, Central, 2021]
Other than Gutzlaff Street, Staveley Street (士他花利街) is another alleyway that is facing the fate of demolition. Staveley Street was once dotted with dai pai dongs and small printing shops. Now they are mostly gone. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Small family owned printing companies once flourished in the alleyways of Central-Sheung Wan. Entering the digital era, most of these shop owners are calling it a day and close their business for good. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Most of Staveley Street will be knocked down and the alleyway would become a dead end. [Staveley Street, 2014]
Wah Kee Restaurant (華記食店) is one of the last businesses still in operation at Staveley Street. [Staveley Street, 2014]
The tri-colour cat of Wah Kee Restaurant (華記食店) watched the last customers leaving Staveley Street after lunch hour. [Staveley Street, 2021]

LADDER STREETS PART 2: TREASURE HUNT, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Surprise Encounters

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.

Treasure Troves

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.

Circular Path (弓絃巷) was once a lively street with shops and vendors lined along both sides of the street. Decades of urban redevelopment, street alterations and relocation of most street vendors, vibrant scenes of Circular Path have long gone. Today, only two street stalls remain, and one of the vendors is already 96 years old. The opening of Nhau Vietnamese restaurant has injected a new stream of energy into the stepped alleyway.
Occupying a quiet location at Circular Path, Nhau Vietnamese restaurant was a pleasant surprise for us in a lovely June morning.
Ping On Lane (平安里), a narrow ladder street a little more than 1m wide between Hollywood Road and Bridges Street, is another hidden alleyways in Sheung Wan.
Just 10m in from the entrance of Hollywood Road stands a stone gateway inscribed with two Chinese characters 蹈和, pronounces “dou woo”, referring to an old Chinese idiom meaning one should walk straight peacefully in life. The old stone doorway is a remnant from the former Chung Wah College (中華書院), a charity school established by Tung Wah Hospital Group in 1880 to provide free education to low income citizens operated with public donations from the adjacent Man Mo Temple(文武廟).
Just a landing up from the stone doorway leads a rustic entrance with a cool bulldog graphic. Hidden from daily vehicular and pedestrian traffic, SHBJJ is a martial art school training students on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). A popular martial arts with a solid base of practitioners around the world, including Hollywood actors Keanu Reeves and Naomi Watts, BJJ itself is another story of East meets West, where the Carlos brothers of Brazil were taught by Mitsuyo Maeda (前田 光世), a master of Japanese Judo at the turning of the 20th century.
About 100m from Ping On Lane, another hidden ladder street between Queen’s Road Central and Gough Street is home to Sleeep, an award wining capsule hotel that promotes what many Hong Kongers are lacking in their busy life, the culture of sleep.
In the antique market area of Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a series of narrow ladder streets have become treasure troves for vintage collectors.
Select 18 is one of the most well known vintage store in Sheung Wan. Many filmmakers and art directors would come to search for furniture or household objects for filming.
No matter the age, visitors would likely find objects that belong to their childhood years.
All objects in the shop come from the colonial years of Hong Kong.
From the objects on display, it’s not difficult to see the British influences to the city.
Everything has a price tag, and so as one’s memories.
Just 20m from Select 18, hidden in the narrow Water Lane (水巷) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) is the super cool Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person. Chenmiji is managed by two interesting owners: a designer/ vintage furniture collector and a vintage book collector.
A signed photograph of famous Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin from the 1970s guards the entrance of Chenmiji.
Probably due to spatial restrictions, most items at Chenmiji are small.
Displayed on the ledge against the shop window include vintage board games and pencil sharpeners from the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from vintage stationery, games, and household items, Chenmiji also offers a selection of vintage books.
It is amazing to see such a cozy and personal space emerges in the middle of a hidden alleyway.
Tuck in a side alleyway off Shing Wong Street stands a traditional barber shop. With only two seats, the old-school barber shop has become an one of the kind in the neighborhood.
East of Shing Wong Street between Staunton Street and Hollywood Road stands the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a listed historical building converted into a mixed-use art and design centre. It stands on the former site of Queen’s College, the city’s largest building complex during late 19th century. Before erection of the Queen’s College, Shing Wong Temple, the earliest temple in the Victoria city, occupied the very same site in mid 19th century.
Shing Wong Street (城皇街) is the central axis of an old neighborhood known as Thirty Houses (卅間), a battleground between the profit making Urban Renewal Authority and the local community who is fighting for the conservation of historical buildings in the area.
In recent years, the vintage shop You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) has become a focal point in the neighborhood.
According to their website, “You Wu Studio provides a place for fun. People are able to re-create their own space here: organize exhibitions, workshops, or just come and taste our tea, read books and enjoy life.” Shing Wong Street has become a stepped piazza where the community would gather and interact outside the shopfront of You Yu Studio.
A few steps further up from You Wu Studio, another landing is often used as an outdoor patio for the two adjacent cafes.

MINISTRY OF CRAB, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.16

Day 12 (3 of 3).

On our last evening of the trip, we had a few hours to spare in Colombo before heading to the airport.  From online research, we learnt about the widely acclaimed seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab, which is famous for their giant lagoon crabs caught in the mangrove lagoons of Sri Lanka, and prepared in a selection of Asian cooking methods such as Sri Lankan pepper, Indian curry, Japanese garlic chilli, Singaporean chilli, etc.  For decades, Sri Lankan lagoon crabs have been prized for their size and tasty meat.  Almost all of the decent sized lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) have been exported to Singapore (90%) and other parts of Asia and Europe.  Ministry of Crab is one of the few restaurants in the nation that offers giant lagoon crabs, and has been named Asia’s 50 best restaurants for several years in a row.  In less than ten years, the restaurant has expanded to Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, Maldives, and Bangkok.  The Ministry of Crab in Colombo is located at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a retail complex housed in the oldest building compound in Colombo Fort, dated to 1681 in the Dutch Era.  The Ministry of Crab is a success story of Dharshan Munidasa, the celebrity owner of the restaurant.

The success of Dharshan Munidasa exemplifies how Sri Lanka may find its footing in today’s world by absorbing techniques and cultures from other countries, promoting themselves on mass media, making use of the local natural resources, and gaining global recognition by competing on the international stage.  Born in Tokyo from a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother, and graduated in The Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Dharshan Munidasa returned to Sri Lanka in 1994.  He came back with his Japanese cooking techniques and American way of thinking, and opened his Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in 1995 and then Ministry of Crab in 2011, both have subsequently become the first Sri Lankan restaurants made to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.  Munidasa appeared on BBC Rick Stein’s program in 2009, then in 2010, Munidasa produced and hosted a culinary travel show called “Culinary Journey’s with Dharshan” on Sri Lanka’s ETV.  He has also featured on Nippon Shokudo for TV Tokyo, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN.

While the fascinating Buddhist moments in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa showcase the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, and the colonial legacies in the Hill Country and South Coast reveal the nation’s difficult first encounter with the West, Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab on the other hand demonstrates how a contemporary Sri Lankan identity is taking shape and how a new culture can be confidently exported to the outside world.  From Anuradhapura to the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, we felt that we had gone through a 2000-year chronicle of Sri Lanka in a matter of 12 days.

IMG_9247The old Colombo Lighthouse or Clock Tower was a lighthouse in Colombo and still serves as a clock tower today.  It signifies the bygone era of colonial Ceylon.

IMG_9242Now converted into a popular shopping and dining venue in downtown Colombo, the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in Colombo Fort.

IMG_9243In the era of commercialism, Christmas is celebrated in Metropolitan Colombo despite the nation’s Buddhist background.

IMG_9250Just two blocks west of the Dutch Hospital lies an enormous construction site: 269 hectares of reclaimed land in the Indian Ocean designated for Port City, an ambitious construction project targeted to establish a new central business district with glassy towers that resemble a small Singapore.  The $1.4bn Chinese state-owned investment has been controversial: non transparent contract agreement between investors and the former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa, environmental impact of the massive land reclamation including potential damage on the fishing industry and burden on the limited natural resources to sustain the new downtown, and the unclear operation plan in the future.

IMG_9252In the midst of bustling commercial activities of downtown Colombo lies the peaceful courtyards of the Dutch Hospital, where the Ministry of Crab is situated.  At the restaurant entrance, a display menu shows visitors the size range of local lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) and prawns (150g to 500g+).

IMG_9255We left our luggage at the reception and sat down at our reserved table.

IMG_9265There were foreign visitors and expats as well as local business people in the restaurant.

IMG_9257The restaurant is causal and pleasant, and decorated with the orange theme colour.

IMG_9260From floral arrangement to dining utensil, everything in the restaurant was cheerful.

IMG_9264Prawns of different sizes were on display.

IMG_9266We started the meal with giant prawns.

IMG_9270As well as king prawn bisque.

IMG_9275Then we finished the meal with two giant lagoon crabs, one made with Sri Lankan pepper sauce and the other garlic chilli.  They were perhaps the most tasty crabs we had for a long long time.

IMG_9284After dinner at 21:15, we had trouble locating our online pre-booked cab at the Dutch Hospital.  A restaurant staff helped us to talk on phone with the driver to resolve the issue.  We ended up finding the right car behind the restaurant.  At the departure concourse in the airport, we once again passed by the advertisement of Ministry of Crab, the same one that we saw 12 days ago.   What a satisfying meal and a fruitful journey!  This concludes our December 2019 journey to Sri Lanka.


PARADISE BY THE INDIAN OCEAN, Mirissa, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.14

Day 10 (2 of 2).

In 1995, world renounced photographer Steve McCurry immortalized the South Coast of Sri Lanka with his iconic photograph Stilt Fishermen, capturing four local fishermen sitting on wooden stilts and fishing at the shore of Weligama.  The mid-1990s also marked the beginning of tourism at the fishing town of Weligama and the adjacent Mirissa.  Mirissa, historically known as the south’s largest fishing port for tuna, mullet, snapper and butterfish, was soon developed into a paradise-like holiday destination.  Between Mirissa and Weligama, there are plenty of pristine beaches, decent seafood restaurants, accommodations of all sorts, good surfing spots, hidden coves for snorkeling with sea turtles, and the world famous whale watching waters.  The Sri Lankan South Coast has all the essentials of a tropical holiday destination except the large partying crowds like Full Moon parties at Koh Phangan in Thailand.  In fact, in Sri Lanka alcohol is prohibited during Uposatha, or the full moon days.  Despite the lack of vibrant nightlife and the destructions and loss of lives caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, tourism in Mirissa and the South Coast continues to thrive solely because of the area’s natural beauty.

Many travelers prefer to stay in the South Coast for days if not weeks, especially if one is interested in surfing.  We didn’t have such luxury in terms of time, but could only spare two days to chill out by the sea, including a 7-hour boat ride out in the rough waters to seek for marine mammals.

01Beautiful, laid back, and has plenty of space to just sit down to enjoy a fresh coconut drink, Mirissa Beach should meet most people’s expectations.

05The quality of both the sand and water at Mirissa Beach is top notch.

02Just months after the terrorist attacks in Colombo and Negombo, the number of foreign visitors might not match the previous year.  Nonetheless, the beach was filled with the laughter of local beachgoers.

06The Parrot Rock Bridge, a rock island accessible by a short walk in shallow water, is an iconic feature in Mirissa Beach.

03Climbing the Parrot Rock Bridge allowed us to have an overview of Mirissa Beach.

04The Mirissa Beach is one of the many resort beaches in the South Coast of Sri Lanka.  In fact, the entire South Coast of Sri Lanka has a series of fine beaches along the Indian Ocean.

07Two bays east of Mirissa Beach, we arrived at Coconut Tree Hill, a small peninsula topped with a grove of coconut trees that was made famous in recent years by Instagram users and online bloggers who post selfies taken from the hill.

08Despite the poor weather, the Coconut Tree Hill was nonetheless a lovely place for us to enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding beaches.

09All tourists chose to stand at the centre of Coconut Tree Hill to take selfies with the sea as the background.

10There is a local old man lingering around the Coconut Tree Hill.  He loves to interact with tourists and showed them good spots for photo shooting.

11In the evening, most tourists sat down at the outdoor restaurants along the beach, while the locals continued to have fun in the waves.

12The last moment of sunlight created a dramatic moment at Mirissa Beach.

13The locals refused to leave despite it was getting really dark.

14A group of locals requested us to take a photo of them.

15In the evening, most tourists would sit down at a beach restaurant for a seafood dinner.

16We picked Zephyr Restaurant & Bar near Parrot Rock Bridge for dinner.

17The staff at Zephyr brought out a plate of catches of the day for us to choose.

18We sat down at a table on the beach.

19One of us picked lobster as the main dish.

20Another main dish we ordered was a grilled spangled emperor fish.  Fresh and great ambience.

 


SLEEPY TOURIST TOWN IN THE HILLS, Ella, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.11

Day 7 (2 of 2).

In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands.  Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country.  Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism.  Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.

01Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.

02Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.

03Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.

IMG_7268We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights.  A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.

05Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.

06The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.

07It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.

08The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.

09Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions.  Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.

10From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.

12Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists.  The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.

13 Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.

14Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.

IMG_7600Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.

15From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.

16Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.

18 We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.

IMG_7649AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.

19We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.

IMG_7659At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.