For a city with 1,113 sq.km of land, Hong Kong has an astonishing 1,178km (some say 733km depending if all 261 outer islands are counted) of coastline. From a fishing village to a global trading port, Hong Kong’s relationship with the sea is the most essential character for the city. Before the arrival of the British, the city was no more than a scattered collection of fishing communities across the territory. Where there were fishing villages there would also be shrines dedicated to guardian deities of the sea. Many of these communities were made up with diasporas from different regions of China, where each has their unique customs and guardian deity, thus bringing a wide range of temples to the city. Popular sea deity in Hong Kong includes Tin hau (天后), a Fujianese sea goddess also named Mazu in Taiwan and Southeast Asia; Hung Shing (洪聖), god of the southern seas originated from a Guangdong official in the Tang Dynasty; Pak Tai (北帝), a Taoist cosmological god from Northern China; Tam Kung (譚公), a sea god common in Huizhou of Guangdong; Lung Mo (龍母), another sea goddess from Southern China known as the Dragon Mother, etc.
In Wan Chi, 500m from the Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟), Pak Tai Temple(灣仔北帝廟) stands as a much bigger temple complex hidden under the shadows of an imposing old Banyan tree in a public park at the upper end of Stone Nullah Lane. Hidden at the tranquil end of the Stone Nullah neighbourhood, visiting the temple feels like entering a distinct world from the commercial district of Wan Chai, despite the iconic 78 storey Central Plaza and the waterfront skyline are just 800m to the north. Built in 1863, Pak Tai Temple is the largest temple complex on Hong Kong Island, and home to a 400 year old bronze statue and a 160 year old antique bell. Also called Yuk Hui Kong (玉虛宮), Pak Tai Temple is mainly dedicated to Pak Tai (北帝), a Taoist god from Northern China that is also called Xuanwu (玄武) or Xuantian Shangdi (玄天上帝). Pak Tai is a powerful god related to the Northern Star and one of the 28 constellations of the north, controlling the power of water in the five elements, and thus he is also considered as a sea god. Apart from Pak Tai, the temple also serves as an one stop worshipping hall for a number of traditional Chinese deities, such as Ji Gong (濟公), Eight Immortals (八仙), Guan Yu (關公), Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), City God Shing Wong (城隍), God of Wealth Choi Sen (財神), constellation deities Tai Sui (太歲), Dragon Mother Lung Mo (龍母), etc. Perhaps of its central location, Pak Tai Temple continues to attract worshippers from across the city even in the 21st century. It is definitely one of the busiest temples we have visited in Hong Kong.
In Kennedy Town, less than three hundred meters from Smithfield Municipal Market and Forbes Street Playground (site of the former slaughterhouses), a sleepy neighbourhood has been tucked away on a quiet hill slope for a hundred years. A staircase on Sands Street is all it takes to separate the two worlds, one bustling and the other tranquil. Once consisted of seven terraces built on the slope between Hong Kong University above and Belcher’s Street below, the secluded neighbourhood is commonly known as the Seven Terraces of Sai Wan (西環七臺). Also called Western District, “Sai Wan” is the general name for the area encompassing Kennedy Town (堅尼地城), Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀) and Sai Ying Pun (西營盤). The seven terraces can be traced back to Li Sing (李陞), the richest Chinese merchant in 19th century Hong Kong. One of his sons Li Po Lung (李寶龍) inherited the sloped land when his father died in 1900. Li Po Lung decided to develop the land into residential terraces and an amusement park. He named the terraces and amusement park with references to his favorite ancient Chinese poet Li Bai (李白). Chinese pavilions, outdoor stages, dance floors, merry-go-round, playgrounds, and even an artificial pond for rowing boats, coupled with street performances, handicraft fair, small fireworks, chess competitions, etc. made Tai Pak Lau (太白樓), Li’s amusement park, into a trendy destination from 1915 and on. It was especially popular with wealthy men and prostitutes coming from the nearby Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), the city’s most famous red light and entertainment district in early 20th century. Just like many places in Hong Kong, Tai Pak Lau was rather short-lived, lasting for merely nine years before closing down due to financial difficulties of Li Po Lung. The park was then converted into today’s Tai Pak Terrace (太白臺) residential street. Despite the bankruptcy of Li Po Lung in 1924, the seven terraces, especially the topmost terraces such as Academic Terrace (學士臺), To Li Terrace (桃李臺) and Ching Lin Terrace (青蓮臺), continued to thrive as an upscale residential neighbourhood for wealthy Chinese.
If Tai Pak Lau was an ephemeral dream of a wealthy man, the historical Lo Pan Temple (魯班先師廟) on Ching Lin Terrace (青蓮臺) has proven to be a much more resilient establishment. Listed as a Grade 1 historical building, Lo Pan Temple was erected in 1884 by the Contractor Guild, way before Li Po Lung laid hands on the area. The temple construction was supported by 1172 donors, mostly contractors and builders from all over Guangdong (Canton) and Hong Kong. The temple is the city’s only religious establishment solely dedicated to Lo Pan, the patron saint for all Chinese contractors and builders. Lo Pan (魯班) or Lu Ban in Mandarin, was a renowned structural engineer, inventor, carpenter, builder and craftsman in the Spring and Autumn Period in China. During his lifetime, (507 – 444 BC), Lo Pan was responsible for inventing a variety of tools from the saw and prototype of a kite, to military tools and seige ladder used in warfare. Lo Pan was considered to be the master of all craftsmen in the Chinese culture, and has become a deity and patron saint for all contractors.
Maintained by a very old temple keeper “Uncle Fun” (芬叔) in his late 90s, Lo Pan Temple (魯班先師廟) is a remnant from a distinct past, a time when traditional values in the three general construction trades (三行), namely carpentry, cement work, and paint work, were strong. In the old days, paying respect to Lo Pan was a common routine to start the day for all contractors. They would celebrate Lo Pan’s birthday, on the 23rd of June in the Lunar Calendar, with heart beating drums and dragon dances, and share a big pot of “Lo Pan meal” (魯班飯). It was the contractors’ respect to the Lo Pan heritage that has sustained the temple to the present day. Even “Uncle Fun” is serving his temple keeping responsibility out of appreciation for his former patron saint, after a 60-year career in the paint trade until retirement at 80. Working together with architectural conservationist and master carpenter Wong Hung Keung (王鴻強), Uncle “Fun” was also involved in the temple’s major renovation in 2007, repairing structural damages and restoring some of the magnificent wall paintings, stone carvings, and clay sculptures that make Lo Pan Temple one of the most precious architectural gem in 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.
Between Sheung Wan and Central lies a tranquil stepped alleyway known as Shing Wong Street (城皇街). In Chinese tradition, “Shing Wong” is the guardian deity of city wall, or in a broader sense, the patron saint of the neighbourhood. Shing Wong Street reminds us that there was once a Shing Wong Temple (城皇廟) stood at the site bounded by Shing Wong Street (城皇街), Staunton Street (士丹頓街), Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街), and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a relatively large plot of land in the old Victoria City. Probably built in 1843 or earlier, some consider the former Shing Wong Temple the oldest temple in colonial Hong Kong. Its importance was soon overtaken by Man Mo Temple (文武廟) further down Hollywood Road. In 1870’s, Shing Wong Temple was temporarily converted into a mental health asylum. And then in the 1880’s the government bought the temple and redeveloped it into the new campus of Central School (中央書院), the city’s first upper primary and secondary school to provide modern education. The school was later renamed as Victoria College (維多利亞書院) in 1889 and later the Queen’s College (皇仁書院). Merchant tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung, and Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China were some of the well known graduates from the college’s early years. The Neo-Classical college building was one of the most expensive construction projects in 19th century Hong Kong.
For half a century the splendid Queen’s College building stood proudly in Upper Sheung Wan, until 1941 when the school was forced to close down due to WWII. The building suffered devastating destruction during the war and became nothing more than ruins and rubble when the city was liberated from Japanese occupation. In 1948, the ruins were cleared to make way for a new era. In 1951, a functionalist building was erected for a completely different purpose: residential compound for the police force. Sitting on four levels of platforms, the Police Married Quarters offered about 170 dwelling units. The functionalist compound served its intended purpose for another half a century, until the last residents moved out in 2000. Subsequently the government rezoned the site for private residential development. The heritage site was at risk to be lost forever.
“Save the Trees” was the first slogan local resident Katty Law put up in 2005 to protest against the felling of the Hollywood Road “stone wall trees” of the Police Married Quarters. Among a few other residents from the local neighborhood, Law found a NGO known as Central and Western Concern Group (中西區關注組). The neighborhood group successfully persuaded the government to consider removing the site from residential redevelopment and engaging in archaeological examination of the site. The government agreed to study the site. This eventually led to discovering the historical foundation of the former Queen’s College. In 2009, the government finally announced preserving the former Police Married Quarters and revitalizing it into a hub for art and design that is known as PMQ today. In 2014, the PMQ reincarnated one more time. A glass canopy was constructed over the central court, where public events would now be held. The former residential units were retrofitted into studio spaces for selective tenants including designers, artists, galleries, fashion designers, jewellery designers, lifestyle shops, vintage stores, cultural institutions, cafes, bakeries, and restaurants. A new hub for tourists and art lovers has been reborn upon the legacies of a temple, school and police residence.
For two years in a row in 2017 and 2018, part of Hollywood Road in Old Central was closed off to host an one-day street carnival known “Heritage Vogue • Hollywood Road”. Live performances, activity booths, and temporary displays were set up to promote heritage preservation in Hong Kong. Being the second oldest street in the city and home to a range of heritage buildings, Hollywood Road in Central and Sheung Wan offers the perfect venue for such an event. In fact, Hollywood Road has long been an urban magnet for all history buffs and foreign tourists. Completed in 1844, Hollywood Road in Central – Sheung Wan was the vital connection linking the military barracks at Possession Point and the city centre in Central during the early colonial times. Today, it passes by some of Hong Kong’s most well known attractions and heritage buildings: Hollywood Park (荷李活道公園), Lascar Row antique market (摩羅街), Man Mo Temple (文武廟), Former Police Married Quarters PMQ (元創方), and Former Central Police Station Tai Kwun (大館), and also popular areas including the foodie paradise of NOHO, the entertainment Mecca of SOHO, and the vibrant Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市). To the disappointment of some people, Hollywood Road has nothing to do with the Hollywood in LA. Instead, there are two main theories behind the street’s naming. First, some say there were once holly trees, also known as Christmas berries, planted along the road. However, historical accounts dispute that holly trees were actually imported to Hong Kong years after the road was built and named. One type of holly tree (冬青) were actually widely planted in the Tai Ping Shan area as a type of Chinese medicine when Western medicine has yet being widely accepted by the people in Hong Kong. The second theory refers to the Hollywood House in Henbury, which was the former residence of John Francis Davis, the second governor (1844 – 1848) of colonial Hong Kong.
For decades, visitors coming to Hollywood Road would notice the abundance of antique shops and art galleries. Before massive land reclamation took place over a century ago, Hollywood Road was not far from the waterfront. Traders, sailors and smugglers would bring their overseas merchandises to sell at Hollywood Road. Gradually, Hollywood Road has become a vibrant marketplace for trading all sorts of curios and antiques from China and around the world. Today these antique shops and galleries continue to attract tourists from all over the world. The former Police Married Quarter, a listed modernist building, was preserved, renovated and opened to the public in 2014 as a mixed use art and design compound known as the PMQ. The project has brought new life into the historical street. In 2018, the long awaited Tai Kwun, or the former Central Police Station Compound also opened its doors to the public. Took 8 years and HKD 3.8 billion to complete, Tai Kwun is the most extensive conservation and revitalization project in Hong Kong. World renowned architect Herzog & de Meuron was involved in the master planning and architectural design of Tai Kwun, transforming the former police compound into a welcoming heritage and art centre. The completion of Tai Kwun and PMQ have dramatically transformed the cultural scenery of Hollywood Road, consolidating Hollywood Road as a primary tourist attraction in Hong Kong.
Out of the many ladder streets in Central and Sheung Wan (中上環), the roughly 350m Ladder Street (樓梯街) in Tai Ping Shan is the longest and one of the oldest. While “ladder street” is a general term for all pedestrian stair streets in Hong Kong, “Ladder Street” is also the name of a specific 316-steps stair street running from Caine Road (堅道) in the Mid Levels (半山) down to Queen’s Street Central (皇后大道中) in Sheung Wan. On its way, Ladder Street intersects with Bridges Street (必列者士街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), and several smaller pedestrian lanes. It also passes by a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions, including the Museum of Medical Sciences (香港醫學博物館), Chinese YMCA (中華基督教青年會), Man Mo Temple (文武廟) and Upper Lascar Row Antique Street Market / Cat Street Market (摩羅上街). Construction began in 1841 in the same year when the city was founded, Ladder Street is an iconic urban artefact of Hong Kong.
For many, Ladder Street is an iconic backdrop that represents a bygone Hong Kong. Throughout the years, Ladder Street has featured in uncounted films, TV shows (often involves chasing scenes), advertisements, photographs, etc. For foreigners, Ladder Street may be best known as one of the main filming locations of The World of Suzie Wong, a 1960 American/ British movie that tells the story of a American painter Robert Lomax (WilliamHolden) falling in love with a Hong Kong prostitute Mei Ling (Nancy Kwan). For filming, the section of Ladder Street around Hollywood Road was converted into the set of Nam Kok Hotel, a fictional hotel where the two main protagonists stay hang around. The streetscapes of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road in the movie were “enriched” with extra street vendors, Chinese signage, pulled rickshaws, and lots and lots of people.
Walking down the Ladder Street to Sheung Wan Station every morning is a pleasant start to our daily routine. Away from rush hour traffic, Ladder Street offers us a moment of relaxing air before diving ourselves into the bustling dynamics of the city. Singing birds, shadows of swaying trees, rustic balustrades, old brick walls, incense smoke from Man Mo Temple, and scenes of vendors setting up their antique market stalls, every little detail of Ladder Street come together in a poetic picture. In the past two decades, many low rise tenement buildings in the area have been torn down for new apartment towers. Many vendors have retired, and old shops being replaced by new ones. No matter how much has changed, the intimate and tranquil scenery of Ladder Street remains as an icon of an old Hong Kong. Late poet Yesi (也斯), Leung Ping Kwan, in his 1990 poem Ladder Street, imagines himself on a pair of wooden clogs wandering in Ladder Street like a flaneur, mourning for the loss of the old days and yearning for a re-connection to bygone voices. Who knows, we probably would share a similar sense of loss in a few years’ time.
Perhaps it is the lack of traffic, or its proximity to the adjacent business and entertainment quarters in Central, Tai Ping Shan Street in Poho is like no other residential street in Hong Kong. It has its dark history of the 1894 plague, and forgotten stories of the early Chinese migrant workers. It has its fair amount of heritage buildings, old temples, side street deadends and stone staircases to construct a certain kind of vintage and causal ambience. It could be precisely the unique and rich cultural history and the causal mood of the area that have attracted a diverse community to station in the area, making Tai Ping Shan Street the coolest neighborhood in Hong Kong. A few years ago, some travel magazines and websites put Sheung Wan as one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods, and it was largely due to Tai Ping Shan Street in the district. The excitement of Tai Ping Shan Street originates from the influx of artists, designers, expats, and young residents who come to look for a more tranquil alternative to the nearby Soho. Gradually, it has become an interesting example of what Jane Jacobs would describes as a successful neighborhood focused on pedestrian permeability, mixed public uses, buildings of various ages, diversity of inhabitants, vibrancy of commercial and community activities, etc. While Teakha (trendy tea shop), Homey (family run cafe), Green Ginkgo Tea (Japanese lifestyle tea house), Frantzén’s Kitchen (Michelin recommended Nordic cuisine), Crit Room (sleek Italian cuisine), Reserva Iberica (ham shop), Espana Espana (Spanish fine dining), CRAFTISSIMO (international crafted beer), support a strong contemporary culinary scene, Fo Kee(科記), Yuk Kin(郁健) and Sun Bor Kee (新波記) continue to offer local fast food (street eatery) at street corners where neighbours and pet dogs mingle throughout the day. Art galleries, fashion boutiques, designer pop up shops, and hair stylists open their business just a few meters away from a cluster of the city’s oldest temples. The juxtaposition of the old and new, east and west, reveals the core spirit of what Hong Kong culture is all about. Apart from the exciting foodie scene and designer stores, Mount Zero Books has stood out in recent years as the hub that has brought the Poho community together. Situated at a dead end, the bookstore often organizes events right outside their door, fostering a strong community bonding. This is the bygone sense of community that has somehow disappeared in time as Hong Kong is being developed into a global financial hub. All the above excitement is miraculously packed in less than 200m of the one way street, forming some lovely streetscape that won’t be found anywhere else in Hong Kong.
But Tai Ping Shan Street wasn’t always about the stylish and trendy. Lying one street lower than Po Hing Fong, Tai Ping Shan Street was once the densest neighborhood in the Victoria City during the 19th century. While the terraces around Po Hing Fong and U Lam Terrace were home to upper and middle class Chinese residents, Tai Ping Shan Street was cramped with shared housing for migrant workers arriving from Qing Imperial China seeking opportunities in Colonial Hong Kong. Most of them had families in Canton or beyond, and they hardly knew anyone when they first arrived. The Buddhist temples, especially Pak Shing Temple (百姓廟), served as the main community hub for these newcomers. Free meals and accommodation were provided for the sick. When one passed away, body of the deceased would be stored in the temple for later transport back to Mainland China, or for simple burial in the nearby Po Yan Street near the current Tung Wah Hospital. News of the poor living environment and dire treatment of the sick and dead circulated back to London, forcing the colonial government to support local charity groups to establish Tung Wah Hospital as the city’s first hospital in 1870 to treat the locals with Chinese medicine (as most Chinese refused to take Western medicine during that time). Then the plague came in 1894 and the government was determined to tackle the poor living conditions of Tai Ping Shan by clearing some buildings to make way for the Blake Garden, and building the city’s first public toilet and shower facility at Tai Ping Shan Street. The area was cleaned up as time went by, but among the older generations, Tai Ping Shan is still haunted by the memories of the sick and dead. Even today, coffin stores and funeral homes still exist around the area, reminding people its darker past despite its contemporary bohemian flair. Today, Tai Ping Shan remains as the rare location in the city where a pub or a hamburger eatery can coexist with a coffin store side by side. It is the juxtaposition of paradoxes and clashes of cultures that make Tai Ping Shan Street and the Poho area the coolest neighbourhood in Hong Kong.