There’s something akin to home in one old-town district in Hong Kong.
Usually associated with leisure and shopping — a merry land for kids and kids-at-heart with its very own Disneyland and mecca for everything fashionable and trendy — Hong Kong has always been a welcome diversion from all the madness that keeps plaguing the Philippines’ many urban cities.
Hong Kong, located less than two hours away via plane, is the nearest thing to escape for many Filipinos.
Yet in one of its areas in Kowloon, the sights, sounds and smells are distinct yet achingly familiar.
Strings of accessories, buttons and zippers are hung outside several shops in many of its streets. At one street in particular, the smell of genuine leather wafts in the air. Another street beckons passersby to stop and examine all the cheap goods on display – electronic gadgets, accessories and appliances — much cheaper than those in upscale malls. People are seen busy plying their goods or starting conversations with their favorite seller.
The scenes are acutely similar to a famed old-town district in Manila yet novel and distinct because of the Cantonese chatter. Welcome to Sham Shui Po, the district that throbs with constrasting images of the old and new.
Travel like a local
Sham Shui Po literally means “deep water port/pier” in Cantonese. Like any port town, it used to be a hub for commerce and industry. It is still busy today, but in a more touristy or commercial way.
Connected to the MTR rail network via the Sham Shui Po Station on the Tsuen Wan Line, this district is frequented by locals for its one-of-a-kind garment or fabric finds in Cheung Sha Wan Road. Apliu Street is famous for its flea market or second-hand finds. There is also a wide selection of unique vintage shops selling antique watches, old coins, vinyl records, vintage cameras and other relics.
And like many tourist spots, Sham Shui Po does not lack in dining spaces that could quench any thirst or fill a hungry stomach. A must-visit is a tofu joint that had made it to the 2016 Michelin Guide for Street Food Stalls in Hong Kong and Macau.
The stall is quite unassuming; in fact, anyone walking along the busy street of Pei Ho would probably dismiss it as just another food stall with its front display consisting of many tofu offerings – bottled soy milk, fried tofu puffs to cubes of freshly made tofu. What gives away the fact that the stall is a favored one is, among all stalls in the area, it’s that one place people flock to — rightfully so because the Michelin seal did not lie as its tofu is made daily while the soymilk glides as smooth as silk in the mouth. At just HK$10 for the soy milk and HK$11 for the deep-fried tofu, what’s not to love?
“Sham Shui Po district is part of Hong Kong Tourism Board’s efforts to promote the city’s less familiar areas to tourists and to discover Hong Kong like a local. This vibrant neighborhood has a lot to offer tourists who are keen on travelling, eating and experiencing Hong Kong’s culture like a local built on a colorful history, culture and interesting stories,” enthused Raymond Chan, regional director for Southeast Asia of the Hong Kong Tourism Board in an email interview.
Invigorated by youth and the arts
It’s not just the wares and the food that are making Sham Shui Po a tourist magnet. One of the ingenious ways Hong Kong has promoted the area is by tapping the power of the visual arts.
In 2016, the non-profit arts organization HKwalls lent its hands and painted the town red, yellow, blue and all the wonderful shades of the rainbow. HKwalls managing director Maria Wong confirmed via email that 38 artists had painted 32 murals, walls, shutters, trucks and entire buildings in the area.
HKwalls has been holding an arts festival every March. Over 200 murals have been painted all over Hong Kong through the annual festival since 2014.
In Sham Shui Po, alleyways are a little less intimidating with these murals, while store shutters are less drab. Concrete skyscrapers become less than the cemented fortress. They are made to look like a statue come alive with splashes of color just like a building on Tai Nan street where Spanish artist Okuda painted the face of a smiling dog in a geometric pattern.
Locals and even tourists are said to have been doing a sort of treasure hunt game by finding these “walls” all over Hong Kong.
It has been that kind of vigor that continues the lifeline of the once-famed center for the garments industry. Many shops might have closed down, but there are a few surviving ones. Those that are not operated as one have been put to good use by a good number of young entrepreneurs who chose to mix business and pleasure.
The sprouting of art spaces-cum-workshops and trendy cafes and lifestyle concepts lends that youthful vigor to Sham Shui Po. Millenials, Xennials and Gen-Xers are casting their eye on the district for “relatively” cheap rentals.
Foreforehead on Kilung Street is an example of these spaces. It used to be a fabrics warehouse, evident in its low ceilings. Today, it serves as an art space and a concept/art toy store. On view until this month is a collection of hand-painted North Korean posters by Eric Wong.
In a similar vein, the Dougnut store in Fuk Wa Street, started out with trendy backpacks in 2010. Today, it also sells luggage and limited collaborations such as the One Piece anime collection that includes backpacks and purses.
Tete a tete with the stars
In another part of Hong Kong lies an attraction that traces its roots to France 200 years ago. Madame Tussauds in Hong Kong is one place where all the ‘’stars’’ are within one’s reach, encased in all their waxed glory for eternity.
In a multi-level building at The Peak, overlooking the wonderful port and cosmopolitan Hong Kong, legends like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan greet the throngs of tourists that visit this destination every day.
Anyone can get crazy snapping selfies with Hollywood stars, world leaders, sports icons and royalties as the wax statues of Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Freddie Mercury, Stephen Curry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kendall Jenner and Prince Albert and Queen Elizabeth II are here.
Even Donald Trump and Barrack Obama share the same room in this museum.
If there’s a room that would surely elicit mirth and giggles, it has got to be the K-Wave zone where oppas or South Korean heartthrobs are ready to take all the kisses and hugs fangirls dream of doing to their real-life counterparts. There’s Bae Yoon Joon, Super Junior’s Si-won and the lovable “alien” oppa Do Min Joon or more popularly known as Kim Soo-hyun.
These attractions make Hong Kong alluring for most Filipinos. As Chan shared, Filipinos are among the top tourists from Southeast Asia last year, recording at more than 900,000. He added that Tussauds, Disneyland, Ocean Park and the tourist haven Tsim Sha Tsui are among the top draws for Filipinos.
To further excite Filipinos, he suggests Sham Shui Po and Tai Kwun. The latter is located at the heart of the newly renovated Central Police Station that houses heritage structures like the former Central Police Station, the Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison. It also has the redesigned neighborhood called Old Town Central that showcases art, food and lifestyle of its storied past.
For those who wish to fly in style and comfort and experience the best airport lounges, Cathay Pacific boasts of five world-class lounges in its hub in Hong Kong International Airport. These are strategically located near terminals and feature spaces that offer relaxing and plush seating and dining options with a wide variety of offerings on the menu.
More information on Cathay Pacific can be found at www.cathaypacific.ph.
Text and photos by Kathleen A. Llemit