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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.

QILOU (騎樓) BUILDINGS OF CHIKAN (赤坎鎮), Kaiping, China

Chikan (赤坎) is a historical town in the County of Kaiping.  It is also a convenient hub for visiting the villages of diaolou (碉樓) in the area.  From Kaiping City, we took one of the many local buses to reach Chikan in about half an hour.  Out of the bus window, the well preserved colonnaded buildings or qilou (騎樓) took us by surprise.  The vintage atmosphere of the streets and lanes in Chikan made us imagine that we were going back in time, to the early 20th century.  Streets after streets of qilou buildings, two to three storey high, lined along the main thoroughfare.  Rusty metal doors, broken window panes, darken plaster walls, most of the qilou buildings looked well past their prime.  From the occasional stained glass windows and ornate plaster motifs, Chikan must have seen its splendid moments in the first half of the 20th century.  Despite some were fenced off, on the ground floor of qilou we could still find all sort of local shops serving the remaining population of this historical town.

During our day and a half in Kaiping, we often found ourselves returning to Chikan to switch transportation.  Many local visitors came to Chikan to visit the small but famous movie studio where a number of TV shows and movies were filmed, including Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster.  We did, however, find the streets and lanes flanked by qilou buildings far more interesting and photogenic.  During our first visit, after wandering through its streets and lanes, at the ticket office of Chikan Film Studio we bought a combined ticket that covered some of the most popular villages in the area.  We then hopped on a tourist shuttle bus for Zili Village for our first taste of Kaiping diaolou.

Qilou (騎樓), also known as tong lau (唐樓), was greatly inspired by Western arcade design and traditional Chinese mixed use buildings, exemplifying a hybrid design culture once flourished in urban areas of the Guangdong area.  During the 18th and 19th century, Guangzhou was the only port city in China designated for international trading.  European architectural styles flourished in Guangzhou and spread around the province.  Henceforth, qilou architecture emerged with shops on the ground floor and two to three levels of residences atop as the most common style of Lingnan (嶺南) architecture.  Many qilou buildings in Guangzhou and nearby cities didn’t survive to this day, but Chikan still has some of the best preserved streets of continuous qilou buildings found nowhere else in the province.  The Westernized qilou of Chikan reminded us its heyday when about 80% of the town inhabitants had connections with the Western world.  They either studied or worked abroad during the turning of the 20th century when emigration was common in this part of China.

01There are a number of local buses connecting Kaiping City with the Town of Chikan.

02There are many villages with diaolou and rice paddy fields along the way between Kaiping and Chikan.

01The first sight of the well preserved qilou of Chikan was really impressive.  Like Hong Kong and Taiwan, many shop signage were written in traditional Chinese, suggesting their long history that predated the Communist takeover in 1949.

03Many qilou arcades in Chikan are continuous and hardly changed a bit since early 20th century.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from the ground floor arcade, continuous balconies were also common in Chikan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVendors were selling dried tangerine skins (陳皮) from Xinhui (新會), fresh eggs and dried fish along the lanes of Chikan.

06The library of the surname Kwan (Guan) was one of the two well known old libraries in town.

8The splendid but abandoned buildings in the town centre revealed Chikan’s affluent past.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the morning, the street market was already quite busy.

10Some qilou arcades were used as semi-outdoor eateries.

11Traces of paint and architectural ornaments were still visible.

11bThe colonnaded arcades could be seen as a communal semi-outdoor space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhotogenic qilou arcade in morning sun.

12aThe scale of the qilou buildings is quite pedestrian friendly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe entire downtown of Chikan is like a movie backdrop.

14The continuous qilou is also a perfect backdrop for photography.

16Many of the back lanes were tranquil and peaceful in the morning.

17Quite a number of abandoned buildings could be found in the back lanes.

18Just a block away from the riverfront tourist area, pedestrians were scarce in the back lanes.

19The riverside qilou is picturesque where most visitors take their postcard-like shoot of Chikan.

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All posts on 2015 Kaping and Guangzhou

1) TWO EPOCHS OF EAST MEET WEST: Kaiping (開平) and Guangzhou (廣州), China
2) QILOU (騎樓) BUILDINGS OF CHIKAN (赤坎鎮), Kaiping, China
3) DIAOLOU (碉樓) OF ZILI (自力村) VILLAGE, Kaiping (開平), China
4) VILLAGE OF MAJIANLONG (馬降龍村), Kaiping, China
5) JINJIANGLI (錦江里村) VILLAGE, Kaiping, China
6) ZHUJIANG NEW TOWN (珠江新城) AT NIGHT, Guangzhou, China
7) SHAMEEN ISLAND (沙面島), Guangzhou (廣州), China