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As ex pats, it’s easy to arrive in Hong Kong and decide to live in an area that is tried and proven. Advice from other expats who came and have never left, or those who have come for a short stint only, there are suburbs that are considered a path well trodden and this continues to be the case, for new arrivals to set up home in these same areas. These areas are mostly around the Central districts and the MTR, such as SoHo, Mid Levels, Wanchai, Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan, Kennedy Town, Pok Fu Lam, Causeway Bay and Happy Valley.
We move into our new apartment and life begins. But what do we know of the earlier origins of some of these suburbs? Where did they start, can we still see the history, or has it been wiped clean with no resemblance?
Progress never sleeps in Hong Kong. The face of the city has constantly changed over the decades to facilitate economic development and a growing population. So quick to tear down buildings and take the opinion “new is always better than old”, the developers moved in to create what we see today. With that redevelopment, there have been many good things that have come to Hong Kong. As is in most cities around the globe, there is always this question of what should we be preserving, what represents our heritage? Not all neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have been transformed as dramatically as others; some neighbourhoods retain visible links with their past.
From its sweet origins in sugar processing, ice producing and whisky distilling, Causeway Bay has developed into one of the world’s most expensive retail spaces, and a cool hang out for young and trendy Hongkongers. The bay vanished when it was reclaimed to develop Victoria Park. Before there was shopping, there was industry. Causeway Bay today might be known for its chain stores and shopping malls, but in Hong Kong’s early years it was where sugar was refined and ice was manufactured. Over the past 176 years, Causeway Bay has changed vocation and even physical form, as the geographical features that once defined it were altered and removed. At the same time, the area is a reminder that at least one thing hasn’t changed at all: whoever owns the land controls the city’s destiny.
It’s impossible to wander Des Voeux Road West and not get a salty whiff of the ocean. Nicknamed “Dried Seafood Street”, about 200 shops in and around the Sheung Wan area have been supplying Hong Kong families and restaurants with traditional Chinese banquet staples for almost half a century. This is how it began, and this is pretty much how it still stands today. The shops with residences above (Hong Kong early colonial style), Hong Kong’s Dried Seafood Street demystified: the smells, what sells, and the way it keeps you well in Chinese tradition.
Once an anonymous point of transition between the bustling markets around Graham Street and pricey apartments of Mid-Levels, the trendy bar and restaurant neighbourhood of SoHo only gained the trendy moniker a little over 25 years ago. The multicultural area around Staunton Street once was better known for its clusters of dwellings housing “protected women”. These were local women who were kept by white gentlemen in houses scattered around the hillside. Only a few remnants of foundations remain today at Shelley Street under the escalator.
The district of Pok Fu Lam was first occupied almost 400 years ago. Its original inhabitants who were mostly fishermen and their families were drawn to the area by its freshwater stream, which later attracted the Scottish founder of Dairy Farm. This was Hong Kongs largest dairy farm and a few relics still stand today including an octagonal cowshed, the main office building and a two-storey Western-style house used as staff quarters. The cowshed and office building have a grade two status under Hong Kong’s heritage classification, and that the staff quarters is classified grade one.
Despite rapid development since the 1970s, Pok Fu Lam remains the site of one of Hong Kong Island’s few remaining indigenous villages. In the heyday of the dairy farm, workers living in the company’s dormitories nearby often mingled with the villagers.
Wong Chuk Hang is one of a number of neighbourhoods facing gentrification since the MTR Corporation stamped out its footprint with the opening of a train station in recent years. Known primarily as the location of Ocean Park, the working-class residential and industrial area was once a farming community. A muddy terrain, Wong Chuk Hang was not particularly fertile. Land was largely barren and residents were few. After the war, the population of Wong Chuk Hang grew steadily. Industry and commerce developed. The majority of land was converted to industrial use. Many of the factories and undustrial buildings exist today, having been converted into showrooms, offices and some residential lofts. The area is also famous for ancient rock carvings.
The area was originally a swampy marshland used to grow rice, but in 1840, during the earliest days of the colony, the British Army set up camp in the area. But it wasn’t an easy occupation. The army started getting sick and dying off in large numbers due to mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water and spreading malaria. The camp was closed and the area became home to the city’s first cemetery. "Happy Valley"—and it stuck. Happy Valley still has a high concentration of cemeteries, but part of it was drained in 1846 to be turned into a racecourse. It may have been a fever-ridden swamp, but it was also just about the only flat piece of land on the island.
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