After moving out of Tai Hang in 2019, Tai Hang has changed, Hong Kong has changed, and so do we. From time to time, we would return for visits, mainly for the French pastries and Japanese sushi, or a simple stroll in the tong lau area just to check out which shops have departed and who were the newcomers. Looking back on why we chose Tai Hang as our initial home in the city may well reveal the qualities that we appreciated its sense of place: the character, comfort, sociability, access, activities, image, etc. In fact, we were attracted by Tai Hang’s diverse mix of residents, quiet setting away from major roads, convenient location between Tin Hau (merely 200m) and Causeway Bay, absence of banks, chain stores, supermarkets, and MTR station, wide range of small shops and restaurants, and its embodied paradoxes between East and West, old and new, quiet and vibrant, traditional and bohemian, local and touristic, coolest and also the warmest. When we were still semi-strangers to Hong Kong after a two-decade absence, Tai Hang offered us a haven to settle down, and inspired us how to be part of the community, to have fun in the city, to cherish things that would soon disappear, to appreciate things that resist the changes of time, and to enjoy Hong Kong in our own way. But things have changed, shops have switched hands and people have gone, including us.
200m is the distance between Tai Hang and the tram and bus lines on Causeway Road, or the closest MTR Station in Tin Hau. 200m distance is all it takes to miraculously preserve century-old heritage and a strong sense of community that hardly exist anywhere else at the heart of Hong Kong. Despite its close proximity to Causeway Bay and North Point, this 200m distance put Tai Hang in the city’s backwaters for much of the 19th and 20th century, when squatter settlements filled the slope of Red Incense Burner Hill where Lai Tak Estate now stands, and over a hundred auto repair shops ruled the neighbourhood. Wun Sha Street (浣紗街), the main street of Tai Hang, was once an open water channel, which led to the name Tai Hang, literally means “big water channel”. Since the first coffee shop opened in 2004, Tai Hang has gone through rapid gentrification. Luxury apartments and cool shops sprang up one by one across the old neighbourhood. But it was the emergence of special little restaurants (due to relatively low rents compared to adjacent Causeway Bay) that truly captured the attention of the city, who didn’t realize that at the back of “Little Ginza” there was this secret garden of Causeway Bay. Though there is one thing every Hongkongers knows about Tai Hang, and that is the Fire Dragon Dance, a traditional ceremony at Mid-Autumn Festival since 1880. The dance is now a widely advertised cultural event that draws huge crowds into the neighbourhood every year.
For a tourist, Tai Hang is a foodie paradise, hotspot for the trendy and cool, and stage for the annual Fire Dragon Dance. But for a resident, it is the sense of place and community bonding that truly count. No matter one is a 80-year-old resident who spends his whole life in Tai Hang, or a foreign expatriate who just arrives at the doorstep and hardly speaks a word of Cantonese, as soon as one enters the community, one would soon be touched by the sense of community and gradually assimilate as Tai Hang people. As rents and real estate prices fluctuate, shops and residents may come and go. But as long as its strong sense of community remains, Tang Hang is always Tai Hang. It is the simple and pure village atmosphere at the heart of a highly commercialized metropolis that makes Tai Hang unique in Hong Kong, something that could only be appreciated if one spends more time in the neighbourhood than just a fancy omakase dinner or a cup of hand drip Gesha.
Despite staying in nearby Tai Hang (大坑) for five years and have regularly taken walks in the adjacent Victoria Park (維多利亞公園), we hardly cross the busy Gloucester Road to visit Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (銅鑼灣避風塘). Only twice during evening walks did we cross the footbridge from the park to get a closer look at the yachts and fishing boats. Two years ago, in a late summer afternoon, I made a visit to the shelter when there was still light to project beautiful reflections on the placid water. Half an hour after sunset, feature lights of distant skyscrapers lit up one by one, both on the Island and Kowloon side. Near Tin Hau (天后), I walked out to one of the concrete bases of Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) via a few wooden planks, to get a little closer of the boats. To my surprise, on one of the fishing boats there were two elderly making dinner on the boat deck. They seemed to have no interest in me, nor anything onshore. It seemed that the boat deck was their living room and kitchen, and the typhoon shelter, their safe haven in the city.
Typhoon shelter (避風塘), a cove separated from the sea with a breakwater and a narrow passageway, can be found in a number of places in Hong Kong. The shelters protect fishing boats and yachts from stormy weather, especially during the typhoon season. In the old days when fishery was still a vital industry for Hong Kong, many fishermen would actually live on their boats. Apart from the time out in the sea, the fishermen would call the typhoon shelters home. Most of these fishermen were known as Tanga (蜑家) or simply the “boat people”. Often referred as “sea gypsies” in the past, the boat people were a group of nomadic people who spent most of their living on boats. They were originated from a minority ethnic group in Southern China over a thousand years ago. Throughout centuries, the boat people spread along the coastal regions and river deltas in China. They had their own customs, rituals, beliefs, cuisine, and dialect. Due to the decline of fishery, poor living conditions, and high illiteracy rate, the boat people of Hong Kong have largely relocated onshore in 1990’s by the colonial government. As descendants of the boat people assimilated into mainstream Hongkongers, their unique culture has gradually faded, except some of their cuisine that still appear on restaurant menus as ”Typhoon Shelter style” dishes.
The city’s first and probably most famous typhoon shelter is Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Situated at the eastern limit of the historical Victoria City (維多利亞城), the name “Causeway Bay” is literally derived from the bay with a causeway going across at present day’s Causeway Road (高士威道). The Chinese name “Tung Lo Wan” (銅鑼灣) refers to a bay that shapes like a bronze gong, a percussion instrument dates back to about 200 BC in China. The former shoreline can still be traced from the alignment of Tung Lo Wan Road (銅鑼灣道), the street that separates Causeway Bay and Tai Hang. In 1880’s, the heavily silted bay was reclaimed up to Causeway Road. Beyond Causeway Road, the city’s first typhoon shelter was established in 1883 to serve the surrounding fishing communities. In 1953, another massive phase of land reclamation converted the 30 hectare typhoon shelter into probably Hong Kong’s most well known park, Victoria Park, and pushed the typhoon shelter further north to the present location. Construction of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel (紅磡海底隧道) in late 1960’s and the Central-Wan Chai Bypass in 2009 further defined the boundary of today’s typhoon shelter. Today, not only does the typhoon shelter offer protection to boats of the former fishermen and adjacent Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (香港遊艇會), it also becomes a popular retreat for anyone who seeks a moment of serenity from the sometimes suffocating shopping scenes of Causeway Bay.
In 1997, the first Standard Charter Hong Kong Marathon attracted 1,000 runners. As love for the sport grows universally, the annual event in Hong Kong has gained popularity and attracted about 70,000 runners (pre-pandemic) from around the globe, defying the humid conditions to run in the subtropical heat. Despite the dominance of East African runners in the race, local participants have increased in both numbers and results in recent years. In fact, the sport has become so popular in Hong Kong that more and more running related shows are broadcasted on television, and more and more sports equipment shops have popped up in busy commercial neighbourhoods in recent years. Runners are everywhere: on sidewalks and waterfront promenades, or in parks and on trails in the countryside.
Some run for health benefits, while some run just to loosen up their minds after a long day of stress. For people who have had enough time sitting in air conditioned offices, doing an evening run is a decent alternative for going to the gym. For a city as dense as Hong Kong, it might be surprising to find that pleasant running routes are never far away. For residents on the Island side, many choose Bowen Road in Wan Chai, or Lugard Road at Victoria Peak, while on the Kowloon side, West Kowloon Art Park or Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are the obvious choices. In recent years, the government put efforts to transform the once out of limits harbourfront areas on the north shore of Hong Kong Island into public promenades. These promenades have become instant hits for local runners. Harbourfront scenery is particularly pleasant between Central Piers and the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai when the urban skyline lit up after dusk. With such amazing backdrop, there should be no excuse for anyone not to put on their running shoes and headphones, take in the lovely views and seaside breezes, and burn some calories.
On 28th February, 2021, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, and fishing enthusiasts in Shek Tong Tsui were shocked to see their beloved Western District Public Cargo Working Area (西區公眾貨物裝卸區) had been closed off to the public. Several times voted as one of the most favourite public spaces in the city, the government freight pier was more commonly known as the Instagram Pier, thanks to its high popularity on the social media throughout the past decade. Extended westwards into the Victoria Harbour, the pier was famous for its unrivaled sunset views, along with its rustic cranes and construction materials for selfie backdrops, and handsome reflections of sunset skies in water puddles after rain, an effect that prompted netizens to name the pier “Mirror of the Sky” (天空之鏡). The magnificent open space has become an Internet sensation since 2010, but not until 2015, when the MTR extended to Sai Wan (西環), that a much larger influx of outsiders and oversea visitors, especially the younger generation, had arrived at the pier to chill out under the western sun.
For the local community, the pier had served as their collective backyard since the 1990’s. They would hang out at the loading and unloading area, to jog, fish and walk the dog. It was the sense of freedom and spatial openness (a rarity in Downtown Hong Kong) that made the pier such a unique public space for the community. In November 2014, the Marine Department put up warning notices at the pier to dissuade the public from entering the pier. The notices had make little impact on altering the common perception that the pier was a leisure space available for all. Since then, the authorities had made a few proposal to erect railings and partially converted the pier into a “proper” park. The government’s intent had met with fierce objections from the community. While the government’s main aim was to reduce liability (if any accident happen) and establish a higher degree of control, what the community and visitors truly appreciate about the pier was the vast open space and unobstructed views, the freedom to use the space in any way one could think of, and the lack of unwanted street furniture, eyesore decorations, and flimsy exercise equipment that might not last for a few months.
Between 2010 and 2021, the Instagram Pier has left its unique mark in the story of Shek Tong Tsui. Not only was it the most visited attraction in the neighborhood, it was also the perfect spot in town where one could idly spend an afternoon to simply do nothing without interference from another human being (not even a park caretaker). It was also one of the most interesting spots in Hong Kong for people watching: strangers mingling with strangers, couple taking wedding shots, students sitting in a circle having their first sip of beer, girls learning skateboard with her boyfriend, man practicing guitar by the sea, unleashed dogs chasing one another, photo enthusiasts lying on the floor just to make the perfect shot of reflection out of a water puddle, women in fancy dresses climbing up and down the shipping pallets, scaffolding bamboo and construction materials to make all sorts of weird posts for selfies… Of course, such freedom would lead to issues with safety, hygiene and garbage to deal with. For the authorities, a public space should be finished with pavers, bounded with handrails and walls, equipped with park benches and flower beds, and spaces clearly defined for specific functions. For many, on the other hand, the Instagram Pier had represented almost the opposite: a stress-free and causal open space with little regulations and no specific facilities, just good views and emptiness. Recently, the pier has another layer of political consideration: a possible springboard for exploring the next potential land reclamation, connecting the west of Hong Kong Island to the distant Lantau Island via bridges and artificial islands. Even if the land reclamation doesn’t go ahead and the pier gets renovated and reopened as a public promenade in the future, we can pretty much assume that the space would be properly paved and fully equipped with railings. The floor would be flattened, leaving little chances for water puddles. For photography enthusiasts, the “Mirror of the Sky” at Sai Wan has officially become a story of the past.
While the Instagram Pier was closed down indefinitely in 2021, the adjacent Central and Western District Promenade has opened in the same year to the public. The ambience reflects quite a different story from the Instagram Pier, from rustic and cool environment preferred by the youth, to kid-friendly and orderly catered for the kids and elderly.
I first learnt about the swimming sheds from my father, who used to explore the waters of Sai Wan (西環) at the westernmost area of Hong Kong Island in his childhood. Back in 1950’s and 1960’s, sea swimming was not necessary a half day journey to a beach far away from the city. Hongkongers could instead hop to one of the ten or dozen of swimming sheds along Victoria Harbour after work for a quick dip in the sea. This swimming culture originates in 1911, when the first swimming shed was built at Tsat Tsz Mui (七姊妹) in North Point. It became a hit and soon expanded to seven sheds in the area. Taking the tram to the swimming sheds was the most popular pastime back then. A newspaper in 1929 estimated that each day there were about 5000 swimmers visiting the swimming sheds. These sheds were constructed of bamboo and timber, housing changing rooms, lockers and showers facilities, and a series of decks on stilts to enter the water. At its peak, some big establishments even had eateries, boat rentals, and arena for roller-skates. Back then, limited transportation options kept many Hongkongers away from more faraway beaches, while the water of Victoria Harbour was still relatively clean.
As beach facilities and public swimming pools became more accessible to common people, the degraded water quality of the Harbour, and most important of all, land reclamation and waterfront redevelopment projects have basically nailed the coffin for all swimming sheds in 1970’s. In 1988, Chung Sing Swimming Shed (鐘聲泳棚) reopened at the western end of Kennedy Town, where lush green Mount Davis slopes down to the sea. This remnant from the past, with about 20 members, has become the last operating swimming shed in Hong Kong. The membership of the swimming shed is far from its heyday decades ago. But the relatively secluded Chung Sing Swimming Shed, which commonly known as Sai Wan Swimming Shed (西環泳棚) nowadays, has been offered a second life. Photos of the lovely sunset over tranquil water at Sai Wan Swimming Shed has become an Instagram sensation in the recent decade.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.
In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.