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.
Smell of the sea fills the air between concrete building blocks along both sides of Des Voeux Road West. In the midst of busy traffic, wholesale workers quickly unload truck loads of dried seafood and large plastic bags of herbs at curbside and trolley them to different nam pak hongs (南北行), skillfully avoiding pedestrians, trams and buses along the way. Watching these hectic actions from the upper tram deck as a child, I used to dislike all the disorder on the Street of Dried Seafood (海味街). Revisit these streets three decades later, my feelings have completely changed. What I considered chaotic in the past actually looks full of life and energy to me now. What I saw as untidy now seems to be a precious connection to a bygone era, when the bustling docks at the Triangular Pier area was just right around the corner. Not to mention that I now find the natural odour of dried scallops and mushrooms smell much better than the artificial fragrances in shopping malls. The Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are long gone. Where the shore once was has become an arterial road and concrete overpass. It is amazing to see that after a century of urban transformations, the seafood shops and nam pak hong wholesale companies are still thriving. Time may have changed, but the demands for traditional taste seems to have passed on.
Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) in China, a large group of merchants, mainly from Chiu Chow (潮州) in Eastern Guangdong, have migrated to various locations in Southeast Asia. The growing diaspora communities generated a great demand of Chinese goods in Southeast Asia, while there is also a strong demand in China and elsewhere for rice, spices and other products from Southeast Asia. As a free port situated right in the middle between China and Southeast Asia, Hong Kong was the perfect place for Chinese merchants (especially Chiu Chow businessmen) to set up their trading companies. These have become the original nam pak hongs (南北行), literally means ”south north companies). Situated in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, these nam pak hongs were the most influential Chinese businesses in the first century of colonial Hong Kong. With fleets of junk boats and aid of the monsoon winds, these companies established Hong Kong as a hub in the midst of trading routes. Some of their shipped products, such as dried seafood, were also sold by wholesale and retail shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. Clustered in several streets near the former Triangular Pier, many of these shops survived till the present day and have been promoted as the famous Street of Dried Seafood and Tonic Food (海味參茸燕窩街). As time goes by, some of their merchandises have also evolved to cater for modern lifestyle, but dried seafood, herbs, and traditional tonic food (such as ginseng) still remain popular along locals, especially as gifts during Chinese New Year.
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.
Under the scotching sun in the summer morning of Dragon Boat Festival (端午節), former villagers and outside visitors gather along the the narrow waterways and mangrove channels of Tai O to take part in the annual Dragon Boat Water Parade and Race. The sleepy and somewhat touristy fishing village once again fills with laughter and rhythmic drum beats, reminding elder villagers how vibrant Tai O fishing village used to be decades ago. Now a popular sporting and recreational event that held in many cities around the world, dragon boat is actually originated right here, from the fishing communities in the Pearl River Delta where Hong Kong is located.
In the old days, young men in fishing communities in the region, like Tai O, would volunteer to join the Dragon Boat Festival. While most would enter the boat race, a small group would participate in the religious parade, in which small statues of local deities are brought out from temples and paraded around the village in decorated dragon boats. The dragon ritual is meant to cast away evil spirits in the village with heavy drum beats, synchronized paddling, and incense smoke. Unlike modern dragon boats made of lightweight materials such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, traditional dragon boats are constructed using teak wood. Each 65-ft boat takes 32 paddlers, 2 drummers, 1 gong striker, and 1 steerer. During the Dragon Boat Festival, modern dragon boat races are held in rivers, beaches and the harbour allover Hong Kong. Yet to get a taste of century-old dragon boat tradition, there is no better place than Tai O, where old rituals are still performed every year.
After an hour of ferry and 40 minutes of bus, we finally arrived at Tai O where the Dragon Boat Water Parade was about to begin at 10am. Organizers were busy putting on the last bits of decorations onto the traditional dragon boats.
Flanked both sides by old stilt houses, the main waterways of Tai O provide the best setting for the dragon boat parade.
Decorated deity boat was always led by a long traditional dragon boat.
The Tai Chung Bridge opened up only in the Dragon Boat Festival for the passing deity boats.
The busy Tai Chung Bridge often serves as the visual focus of the entire fishing village of Tai O.
Despite the annual parade, fishermen were still selling fresh seafood right by the waterfront.
Statues of deity from three different temples were brought out for the parade.
Behind the designated dragon boat, the colourful deity boat was led around the waterway network.
Many paddlers of the traditional dragon boats came from the older generation of the local Tai O villagers.
The river mouth served as the main venue for dragon boat races.
Larger fishing boats served as the base of different racing teams.
It was fun to watch the dragon boat race from the spectator jetty at the waterfront.
All paddlers gave their best effort during the dragon boat race.
One of the most important aspect of dragon boat paddling is the quality of their synchronized movements.
The exciting shouts of loyal supporters offers outside visitors a glimpse of the community spirit of Tai O.
At the end, an award ceremony was held at the spectator area.
While the dragon boat race captivated the hearts of spectators at the river mouth, the deity boats and traditional dragon boats continued to parade around Tai O’s waterways.
At around noontime, the dragon boat parade was coming to an end.
Wooden dragon boats were once again put into storage along the waterways.
Until next year’s Dragon Boat Festival, visitors coming to Tai O can visit the small community museum to learn more about the traditions of dragon boat.
In less than an hour of ferry from the commercial centre of Hong Kong lies the island of Cheung Chau, home to a former fishing community, a legendary pirate treasure trove, dozens of seafood restaurants, and the biggest annual Taoist Dajiao (打醮) festivals in Hong Kong, the Bun Festival (太平清醮). Originated from a series of religious rituals seeking for protection from local deities after a plague broke out in the 19th century, the Bun Festival held annually on Buddha’s Birthday has been simplified and evolved into one of Hong Kong’s most famous intangible cultural heritage events, along with Tai Hang’s Fire Dragon Festival, Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade, etc.
In 2014, I came to Cheung Chau during the Bun Festival to watch the Bun Snatching Race at night. This time, we arrived at Cheung Chau during the day to watch the afternoon parade. Known as the Parade of Floats (飄色), the parade included a combination of religious statues of deities, lion and qilin (麒麟) dances, and children dressed in costumes raised in mid air.
The parade began at Pak Tai Temple, the patron god of the fishermen community of Cheung Chau.
In the back lanes we chanced upon a workshop making the festival’s fortune bun. The workshop owner suggested the plaza where the parade groups would make a turn as ideal spot to watch the parade.
We met a local lady at the plaza and she kindly found us a chair at the front row sitting right beside her. The first thing that caught our eyes was a qilin dance from one of the street communities on the island.
Basically the parade consisted of groups from different street communities of Cheung Chau.
Small statues of deities were taken out from temples and paraded around the main streets of the island.
Local children were dressed in traditional costumes and gave out souvenirs.
All parading groups were dressed in vivid colours.
Beautiful banners of the festival are taken out once a year.
Known as Parade of Floats (飄色), selected children are dressed in different costumes and raised with hidden metal supports. Along with the ones in traditional costumes, each year some children would dress in costumes related to contemporary trends or current affairs.
This year, two were dressed like the chief executive of Hong Kong, one as Theresa May, one Buddha, one Super Mario, a group of characters from Jin Yong (金庸)’s The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龍記), etc.
A girl dressed in costume related to a historical TV series.
Another girl dressed as the chief executive of Hong Kong.
Two children dressed like a traditional princess.
Another one dressed like Super Mario.
Though the traditional lion dances on bamboo were even more impressive.
Brave lion dancer performed different moves on tall bamboo poles that were controlled and moved by his other teammates on the ground.
Dancing traditional large flags were also fun to watch.
The parade was a mixture of traditional heritage, current affairs, and community groups.
Parade band dressed in yellow and black performed along the street of Cheung Chau.
Inevitably, buns were used as a parade feature.
After the parade, we met the qilin dance group once again in the side street.
Approaching sunset, we returned to the forecourt in front of Pak Tai Temple.
Similar to 2014, there were three big traditional paper figures in the festival ground.
Some of the paper figures were moved to the waterfront for the burning rituals.
By the sea, offerings and lanterns were placed for all wandering ghosts.
In October 2014, we stumbled upon a small shop in the shopping centre Tokyo Midtown. Utensils, furniture, cloths, and other miscellaneous household items were on display on wooden shelves and stands. Merchandises were displayed in clusters according to brands from different parts of Japan. The design of that attractive small shop in the middle of a high-end shopping arcade, according designer Yusuke Seki, was inspired by shotengai (traditional shopping street). We stayed at the shop for quite some time, and ended up picking up a blue umbrella with a nice wooden handle. At its underside, there was a small label with an illustration of two deer and a traditional logo saying Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten (中川政七商店). Later on, we did some online research and realized that Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten originates in Nara, and has been around for three centuries.
Opened in 1716, Nara’s Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten just celebrated its 300th anniversary. Originally, the small Nara shop produced hand woven textiles for samurai and monk ceremonial robes. The textile was known as Narazashi, or sarashi bleached hemp textile. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the society went through a dramatic change. Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten was forced to diversify its focus on other products such as table cloths and handkerchief. Entering the modern age, the shop defied all odds of modernization, persistently remained faithful to its traditional techniques and craftsmanship. Nakagawa, the 13th president who joined the family business in the last 15 years or so, tested the potentials of his traditional shop to a new level. Not only did he opened new shops outside of Nara like Tokyo and Osaka, Nakagawa also re-branded the company, and gave new life to old products such as using the old technique of mosquito net making for the new best selling fukin (Japanese style table cloth). Furthermore, Nakagawa proactively engaged in fruitful collaborations with other craft companies across the country to come up with new brands and merchandises suitable for the contemporary era.
This time around, we were in Nara after a long day of temple hoping. We promised ourselves that we couldn’t leave the city without visiting the Yu Nakagawa Main Shop (遊中川本店), the flagship store of Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten located at a tranquil alleyway near Sanjo Dori. At one corner of the shop, several merchandises commemorating the 300th anniversary of Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten were on display. A beige cloth with beautiful embroidery was a reproduction of their 1925 product exhibited at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, the design world fair that gave birth to Art Deco. 90 years on, Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten is still standing at the crossroad between the old and new, advocating a good mix of traditional crafts and contemporary aesthetics. At their 300th anniversary, their locally made fabrics and household merchandises are as cool and modern as ever.
The subtle wooden machiya (町屋) facade of Yu Nakagawa Main Shop provides a perfect fit for the shop that advocates high quality local crafts and products.
The design of Yu Nakagawa is a comfortable blend of traditional and contemporary elements.
The signage of Yu Nakagawa Main Shop (遊中川本店) with the iconic deer symbolizing the city of Nara.
Rows of colourful textiles behind the cashier counter attracted our attention right from the beginning.
Cloths, bags, paper products, socks, scarfs, utensils, etc were on display in the pleasant interior.
Most items on display came from their own brands, such as 2&9, their line of well made socks.
It was already dark by the time we left Yu Nakagawa Main Shop.
Before we left Nara, we also stopped by Nipponichi (日本市) at Sanjo Dori. Nipponichi is also a brand from Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten focused on selling Japanese made souvenirs.
As the eastern terminus of the former Silk Road, Changan (now Xian) of the Tang Dynasty was a melting pot of different cultures and religions. A number of Middle Eastern and Central Asian religions entered China during that time, some of which had survived and remained strong even today. Dated back to many centuries, Xian’s Muslim Quarter and the Great Mosque revealed an interesting cultural fusion that is not commonly seen in other parts of China. Xian’s Great Mosque is the largest mosque in China. The buildings in the traditional courtyard complex were mainly constructed in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644). Earlier religious complexes, Tanmingsi and Huihui Wanshansi, were established on the same site dated as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Our taxi dropped us off at one end of the Muslim Quarter, where we began our brief meandering through the crowded Muslim market streets and alleyways before reaching the Great Mosque. From the first glance, the mosque looked very similar to a traditional Chinese courtyard complex, consisting of houses, pavilions, pagodas, gardens, and courtyards. We took our time to wander around the courtyards. As we looked closely at the building decorations, we could find Islam functions and design elements incorporated in the traditional Chinese architecture, with the most obvious being the Arabic inscriptions on walls. The entire complex faces west towards Mecca. Artefacts related to Chinese Islam were on displayed in some of the buildings that were open to visitors. However, the largest prayer hall at the far end of the complex was restricted for Muslims only. We could only peek through the doors to have a glimpse of the colourful carpets and delicate wooden screens in the hall, where worshipers would have prayers sessions. It was interesting to see the fusion of Islam and Chinese design elements combined into one single complex. Before sunset, we left the Great Mosque behind for our last designation in Xian, the Ming city walls.
We entered the Muslim Quarter from the main market street.
There is still a significant population of Muslims in Xian.
Cars, motorcycles, and people packed the main market street.
The market street of Xian’s Muslim Quarter is a good place for people watching.
An awfully tall steamer in front of a local eatery.
A street vendor put different topping on a local dessert called “jing gao” which is a steamed glutinous rice cake.
A wonton vendor managing her charcoal stove.
Lamb skewers vendors could be seen everywhere.
The entrance gate of Xian’s Great Mosque.
The interior of an old study room looks very much like a traditional Chinese house, but all the paintings and calligraphy on displayed were Islam related.
Islamic components were incorporated in the Chinese architecture.
The mosque complex is made up of a series of courtyards.
“Examining the Heart Tower” in the third courtyard.
The main prayer hall at the far end of the complex.
Richly decorated pendant lamps at the veranda of the main prayer hall.
Peeking inside the main prayer hall.
Wooden clock and timber screens of the main prayer hall.
Leaving the Great Mosque behind, we exited the Muslim Quarter from another end of the market street.
It was approaching supper time when we left the Muslim Quarter, and the food vendors were all geared up for their night of business.