Top Historic Spots on Kowloon's Shanghai Street
A walk around Shanghai Street with photographer Simon Go gives a glimpse into disappearing Hong Kong. Story and photography by Christopher DeWolf
Published on Feb 13, 2012Page : 1 2 3
Nobody knows old Hong Kong like Simon Go. Nearly a decade ago, the forty-something photojournalist quit his job at a prestigious newspaper to launch Hulu Culture (huluhk.org), an organization dedicated to reviving the city’s traditions. Since then, he has spent years documenting a disappearing generation of family-owned shops that sell handcrafted items like sandalwood fans and bamboo steam baskets.
Every day, Go heads to work in one of Hong Kong’s most historic neighborhoods: Shanghai Street, an old-fashioned bulwark against the chain stores and shopping malls that have invaded other parts of Hong Kong. “Shanghai Street is the most extraordinary place,” he says. “People used to think it was a slum, that only low-class people and ethnic minorities live here.... It actually reflects the real Hong Kong style. You can find old Chinese opera houses, taste Hong Kong food, see the old style of architecture. It’s real. It’s alive.”
OLD BUT KICKING
The first stop for anyone visiting Shanghai Street should be Mido Café (63 Temple St.; +852 2384 6402), the decades-old cha chaan teng that serves Hong Kong-style tea, coffee, pastries and dishes. “This is like my office—if I’m meeting with someone, I’ll always meet them here,” says the talkative Go, who has a kind face and an avuncular demeanor. Not only is the menu a relic of the 1950’s—Chinese-Western hybrids like baked spareribs rice and rich, crispy pineapple buns—but so is the décor: mismatched mosaic tiles (bought cheaply as surplus from local factories), wooden booths, green-framed windows and a big red, white and green neon sign. Go’s favorite place to sit is in the booths on the second floor, where he peers out of the windows at the buzzing streets below. “Anywhere else in Hong Kong, if you sit for more than an hour, the waiters will look at you and think, ‘Why is he still here?’” says Go. “Not here. The clock runs more slowly here.”
Not far from Mido are other emblems of Hong Kong’s working-class life. Late every night, the century-old buildings of the Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market, known locally as the Gwo Laan (corner Reclamation St. and Waterloo Rd.), explode into action as tattooed, shirtless workers and hard-nosed retail buyers haggle over dragonfruit, mangoes and watermelons imported from across Asia. Across the street, the finishing touches are being put on the long-derelict Yaumati Theatre (corner Reclamation St. and Waterloo Rd.), which first opened as a cinema in the late 1920’s and is being renovated into a Cantonese opera house set to open later this year.
But it’s the old shops of Shanghai Street that really embody the area’s character. “The street and the shops are the framework for the community,” says Go. First developed in the 1870’s, Shanghai Street was once Kowloon’s main drag, famous for its gold shops and craftsmen. The harbor and its large community of boat people were just a few blocks away. In recent decades, however, land reclamation left Shanghai Street landlocked, and the center of action moved elsewhere. “But even if people moved away, they come back to visit, and the old network still survives,” says Go.
That’s especially true at some of his preferred haunts, most of which have been run by the same family for several generations. Take Fung Moon Kee (203 Shanghai St.; +852 2384 9553), which sells an unlikely mixture of tailored Chinese wedding costumes and Singaporean medicinal oils, or Cheung Shing Fans (185 Shanghai St. +852 2771 6363), which makes beautiful hand-carved fans and incense sticks from fragrant Australian sandalwood.
“This is the best-smelling incense in Hong Kong,” says Go as he buys a package from Cheung Shing. “Every morning, I use these to pray to my ancestors, and I think they appreciate it.”
What Go loves most about Shanghai Street, above all, is the sense of community, the sense that people have made a real investment in their surroundings—something increasingly rare in fast-changing Hong Kong. Leaving Mido Café, he heads to One-Eyed Man’s Cooling Tea (151 Temple St.; no phone), where he chats with the owner. “The first owner had one eye larger than the other, so people called him One-Eyed Man, which is how this shop got its name,” Go explains. He picks up a bowl of sweet tea and takes a sip. “If you drink this, it cools down your internal heat,” he says, referring to the philosphy behind traditional Chinese medicine.
Nearby, in the Reclamation Street Market (between Kansu St. and Nanking St.), Go gazes approvingly at a stall selling gold-and-red coconuts painted with the Chinese character for “double happiness,” a popular good-luck charm for weddings. Every couple of meters, someone stops him to say hello. “This is what makes this place special,” he says after chatting with a hawker cutting open a ripe pomelo. “People are so hardworking here, even though they don’t earn much. If you respect them and get to know them, you’ll walk down the street and everyone will want to say hello.”