Kowloon – wow how things change!

I was lucky enough to be taken on a little excersion to Tsim Shu Tsui (TST) in Kowloon this week.

Kowloon, btw, is lovingly referred to as “The Dark Side” by pretty much any expat you speak to in HK. Which amuses me somewhat given the unfathomable quantities of light shining form pretty much every shopfront I’ve seen either here on HK Island or in Kowloon, a zip of a boat or metro ride across the bay from here.

I’d been warned to change out of my suit before we headed there so I’d got it into my head that this really would be The DARK Side… narrow winding alleyways with no obvious escape etc etc.

Well here’s what greeted me…

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Yet more opulence and grandeur! Goodness me… it seems to know no bounds here in HK.

Which is why I was slightly shocked this evening to stumble upon this fascinating episode of 99% Invisible – a public radio show from San Francisco all about somwhere I had previously never heard of…

Kowloon Walled City.

Listen to the broadcast — It’s 15 minutes of fascinating audio imagery (worthy, I would argue, of consideration by spoken-word-aphiles In The Dark) — and consider that this place was only torn down 25 years ago. What a transformation! Here’s some old photos:

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The transformation’s not quite complete though… Yet to be torn down, and just around the corner from opu-mall is where we went for dinner… Chungking Mansions…

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This place is (in)famous for its combination of high-density living (not quite on a Walled City scale methinks but not far off), uber-cheap backpackers’, the odd building fire, chronic lack of fire exits (!), and the best Indian food in Hong Kong! We ate veggie, a decision I was more than delighted about when, approaching the end of our mains, we heard small creatures scurrying around in the ceiling!

Getting to know the neighbourhood

A bit of background…

I’ve been living in Hong Kong on and off for about six weeks now. I’m only here for a short while before I move on to Tokyo more permenantly in a couple of weeks or so.

Hong Kong (at least the Central/Mid Levels area of Hong Kong Island, where I spend most of my time) is a strange place to a very London-centric newcomer like me. Central has more glitz and luxury stores than I ever imagined could occupy a city. People tell me the rents are so high here that only luxury brands can afford to sell anything. But there’s so so much of it. Everywhere. Who buy’s all this stuff anyway? I don’t think I’ve bought anything by Gucci… Gucci… Fendi Fendi Prada in my life!… (hat tip T Dale)

Yes, central Hong Kong is a bit mall-tastic and the view one gets from the daily ups and downs of the Mid Levels escalator is a tad one-dimensional.

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So I’ve been on the lookout for places a little more… well… local, tasteful, friendly, nourishing i suppose. And yesterday, quite accidentally and out of the blue, I struck gold! Let me tell you about my day…

A leisurely Saturday afternoon stroll

Just now, the weather in Hong Kong is tremendous. It’s warm basically all the time (although everybody else seems to think it’s cold!). Day. Night. Doesn’t matter – it’s 20 degrees C +/- 3. And we’re getting lots of sunshine too. Now back in London it’s either snowing or flooding more or less continuously so i get a little smugness bonus thrown in for good measure!

Anyway, woke up nice and late yesterday after a hectic old week and the sun beaming through the window of my 14th story apartment told me it was time to go and explore. I didnt really know where I was going, other than having spotted an interesting looking cafe on Peel Street, a short walk from my flat. It was definitely time for coffee, so off I went to Hazel & Hershey.

Now this place is a real find. They love their coffee, roast it all on site, and will happily brew it for you espresso style, drip filtered, aeropresse or, my own choice, syphon. Ever seen one of these before?

Syphon coffee maker

I’d been tipped off about syphon coffee making by a friend (and then had my inner physics nerd piqued by this) so couldn’t wait to try the single source Guatemalan beans brewed up this way. Together with rose cake (a new one on me) it made a delicious start to the day.

The staff in H&H are really lovely and friendly. And boy, they know coffee! And as a bonus, the whole cafe is decked out in 3D cardboard!

H and H - coardboard coffee shop

Suitably caffeined up, I meandered a while until I came across what I assume is a local fish or meat market. My lazy morning meant trading was all done for the day but it still made for an interesting sight. It had that just-scrubbed-down but dirty-from-100-years-of-use smell about it. I must go back a little earlier next time.

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Architectural curiosities

I’ve been a frustrated architect my whole life. Basically lacking in the visual arts skills required for this great polymath profession, I still love admiring interesting architecture and street art in the wild. As I wondered around the neighbourhood, a few things caught my eye:

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Such great use of colour to liven up what is essentially an awful lat of concrete.

Not all concrete though. I was somewhat surprised to stumble upon this little gem of Edwardian architecture squeezed awkwardly amongst the high-rises (hence the lack of a good vantage point for a photo!)

HK Museum of Medicine

It’s a fascinating place, built by the Brits over 100 years ago as a centre from which to study The Black Death, which had been endemic in Hong Kong for decades. Now it houses The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. It’s stunning both inside and out with some intriguing (and disturbing) medical artefacts from back then (and a few vessels that reminded me of the device that had made my coffee an hour or so earlier!):

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Park life

Out the back of the museum is an amazing park like something out of a child’s fantasty. It’s all on multiple levels, connected by elaborate walkways and bridges, with Prince-charming pointy roofs!

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Here in the park I was lucky enough to see a middle aged woman doing some stunning tai chi swordform (but I was too shy to take a photo). Her sword was enormous. A big cutless like a pirate might carry! She moved it with effortless grace and with little interest in who might be watching. It was quite a sight.

Elsewhere in the park, groups of very elderly people were gathered. They chatted and played board games unrecognisable to me. Some were doing incredibly slow tai chi. All looked in amazing shape. It reminded me of southern Europe, where the elderly enjoy so much higher a quality of life gathered together outdoors than do their British counterparts cooped up inside and alone all day.

Asians and their food photography

By now I was getting a little peckish, so I headed on in search of a bite. First thing I came across was this group of exclusively women watching intently as the florist taught them how to arrange flowers in those weird green crumbly bricks. I think they’re called Oasis.

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I wasn’t long before I found my lunch stop. A wonderfully inviting tea shop called Teakha.

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Here I sampled tea from Kyoto together with their Chinese New Year special: Turnip Cake, homemade k…., scrambled eggs and pork flesh? Honestly I’m not 100% sure what it was. That’s just what I can make out from the menu in the photo above! It was mighty tasty though, once I was permitted to eat it…

You see, before this could happen, I was politely asked by one of the girls working in the cafe, whether I would mind if she took a couple of photos of my food! Ha! Well I wasn’t going to say no, but I felt it only right that I should photograph her photographing my lunch!

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Bargain rack

From here I pottered around, and bought a t-shirt from a little indie boutique store nearby (Again there’s a nice story here: I was about to pay 400 HKD. The sales assistant said. “Oh by the way, everything in that section is half price.” Great! Then she took it to the till. “Oh, it’s got the wrong ticket. It’s only 200HKD. So you pay 100.” This wasn’t John Lewis — but a little independent shop. She was most likely the owner but she wasn’t having me pay a penny more than a quarter of what I was expecting to!)

From there I decided to head back home, my appetite for local discovery and pleasant surprises well and truly sated. Final surprises on the way home were the unlikeliest still-alive tree and the highest concentration of burning incense I have ever seen. (All of those cones that look like Vietnamese hats are in fact lit incense. The smell was intoxicating.)

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What a day out. And my soundtrack to the day (thanks Chris!): Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom. It’s a great album and couldn’t have been more appropriate for the mood of the day, especially given I’ve listened to nothing but techno for the past month! Here’s a little taste: