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Sham Shui Po

 

After months of desk slog to get this project off the ground, 52 Suburbs Around the World is finally off and running. Hooray and welcome!

We’re kicking off in Hong Kong where we’ll be exploring a suburb each week over the next month, starting today.

I chose this ex-British colony turned Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China to be part of the project because it satisfies my number one ‘criteria’: it’s one of the world’s most famous cities but it’s rarely celebrated for more than its skyscrapers and shopping. Okay, its skyline and retail offerings are pretty impressive but as you’ll know if you followed my previous Sydney-based project, 52 Suburbs, I’m not impressed by the shiny new. What floats my boat – and I’m hoping yours too – is the stuff that provides a portal into a bygone era. Old buildings, peeling paint. Or the repurposed and recycled. Or just everyday details that are really quite beautiful.

So. Having settled on the city, my next decision was which suburb(s) to explore. Hong Kong doesn’t have suburbs as such. Instead this city of seven million people is divided up into 18 districts which each include a handful of gaai fong or neighbourhoods. I chose Sham Shui Po to be our first neighbourhood because it’s one of the oldest – and old is good if you’re after patina.

In-depth research (alright, barely any but come one, it’s tricky researching the uncelebrated) revealed that aside from peeling paint, I would also find two types of housing that particularly interest me in Sham Shui Po. One being Tong Lau shophouses that used to be in abundance but are now rare as hen’s teeth. The other, the first public housing estate built in the 1950s, Shek Kip Mei.

Some facts about the place before we start. Name means ‘deep water pier’. To get there you have to leave Hong Kong Island (you’ll be fine) and head to the other side of the harbour, to north-west Kowloon. It’s one of the most densely populated and poorest areas in Hong Kong but includes a thriving electronics market where men actually like to shop.

Without further ado, let’s go Sham Shui Po!

 

Part 1: In search of Tong Lau – and other endangered species

I first discovered and fell in love with shophouses – where people work on the ground floor and live upstairs – when I went to Singapore years ago. Having no idea that they existed in Hong Kong, I was thrilled to read that there are a smattering of them around the place, including some in Sham Shui Po.

So off I went, hell bent on finding a Tong Lau or two. It was not easy. While there is an increasing awareness of heritage and the importance of retaining the old in this city, most Tong Lau have been demolished and replaced by eew, modern ugly stuff.

Still, I found a few and what’s more, while I was roaming around in search of them, I stumbled across some other interesting patina and developed a few new obsessions as I went – old metal shutters, curved corner buildings and, what I like to call, mail-doors.

Tong Lau, is that you?

Tong Lau, is that you?

 

 

 

how's that for patina?

how's that for patina?

 

 

 

Lisa's shop from the 1950s :: 1

Lisa's shop from the 1950s :: 1

 

 

 

1950s shop in 2012

Lisa's shop from the 1950s :: 2

 

 

They were the three examples of Tong Lau that I could find in all my hours of wandering. But as I said, along the way I developed some more obsessions. Old metal shutters being one of them – especially when they curve. I found a few but they were mostly shut – until I stumbled on a scissor-sharpener working away behind one. We couldn’t speak a word of eachother’s language but he took pity on the strange woman wielding a camera at his shop and kindly gave me a brief demo of how his ancient shutter system worked.

 

scissor shop shutters

scissor shop shutters

 

 

 

I hope his name is Edward

I hope his name is Edward

 

 

 

then and now

then and now

 

 

 

thanks Edward

thanks Edward

 

 

These old shutters are fast being replaced by ugly rollerdoors so I was glad to see quite a few of them still exist, in various shapes and sizes…

 

nice curves

nice curves

 

 

 

keeping out the cold

keeping out the cold

 

 

 

decorative security

decorative security

 

 

 

lights, camera, action

lights, camera, action

 

 

The other features that caught my eye were the curved corner buildings and the mailboxes…

 

Miami vice?

Miami vice?

 

 

 

Cordelia, keeping traffic in line

Cordelia, keeping traffic in line

 

 

 

mail door

mail door

 

 

 

pass it on

pass it on

 

 

 

mail at 220

mail at 220

 

 

Oh, one last ‘feature’ that I doubt is ever celebrated much – Hong Kong’s bamboo scaffolding and ‘shrouding’ system. Practical yes but quite beautiful too.

 

Christo-esque

Christo-esque

 

 

Part 2: Shek Kip Mei

Half of Hong Kong live in some form of public housing apparently. The very first estate is on Sham Shui Po’s doorstep, Shek Kip Mei. It was built in 1953 after a massive fire swept through the area, destroying a shanty town of immigrants from mainland China. Shek Kip Mei was the beginning of Hong Kong’s vertical solution to overcrowding – multi-storey public housing. Most of Shek Kip Mei’s orignal 1950s buildings have been replaced – except one, currently being ‘revitalised’ – but other more recent buildings still exist.

After the denseness of Sham Shui Po, the housing estate’s enormous courtyards provided a welcome sense of space and air.

 

tall, short and shrouded

tall, short and shrouded

 

 

 

22

22

 

 

 

young and old

young and old

 

 

 

happiness is a playground and a blue sky :: 1

happiness is a playground and a blue sky :: 1

 

 

 

happiness is a playground and a blue sky :: 2

happiness is a playground and a blue sky :: 2

 

 

 

see ya 22

see ya 22

 

 

Part 3: Hungry?

Of the three trips that I made to Sham Shui Po, one was in the early morning – breakfast time. Not a cornflake in sight. Instead lots of steaming bamboo baskets, filled with delicious looking dumplings of one kind or another. Sadly I couldn’t sample any, being gluten free.

 

brekkie

brekkie

 

 

 

tea and dumplings

tea and dumplings

 

 

 

morning coffee

morning coffee

 

 

The next time I visited was during the afternoon – snake soup time. Anyone?

 

snake

snake

 

 

 

cat in snake soup cafe

cat in snake soup cafe

 

 

 

stacks

stacks

 

 

 

artfully arranged

artfully arranged

 

 

 

waiting

waiting

 

 

 

slippery floor!

slippery floor!

 

 

 

Part 4: To market we go

After seeking out Sham Shui Po’s past, I thought I’d better at least witness its present – a thriving electronics market on Apilu Street and the fabric, ribbon and button stores on Ki Lung and Nam Cheong Streets. A great example of yin and yang right there.

 

retail heaven for men

retail heaven for men

 

 

 

Tony does purple

Tony does purple

 

 

 

ribbon to match anything including your hair

ribbon to match anything including your hair

 

 

 

let's call her Onion because that's her name (apparently)

let's call her Onion because that's her name (apparently)

 

 

 

spun

spun

 

 

 

high gloss

high gloss

 

 

 

wheels

wheels

 

 

 

a bow for the bow wow

a bow for the bow wow

 

 

 

Ruby and her technicolour tresses

Ruby and her technicolour tresses

 

 

 

fringe dwellers

fringe dwellers

 

 

 

two religions

two religions

 

 

The Wrap

I spent ten years growing up in Hong Kong but never once visited Sham Shui Po. I so wish I had – imagine all the Tong Lau I would have found back then. Not to mention those curved buildings and metal shutters. Like many older, densely populated parts of Hong Kong, the neighbourhood is changing rapidly. So I left the place feeling grateful I’d seen at least some of the history that is still hanging on. And while the language barrier prevented much interaction with the locals, I did enjoy meeting Edward Scissorhands; I don’t know for sure but I suspect he loves his little shop as much as I do.

 

don't cross her

the old in the new

 

On the ‘home’ front

‘Coco, what do you like about Hong Kong?’

‘Um, well, I know what I don’t like – the smells.’

For me, the biggest challenge this week wasn’t olfactory (I find ‘the smells’ familiar and comforting) but more about trying to placate Coco after the first hour out exploring and photographing. It didn’t help that I chose to start the project in one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. But as a precaution against a mutinous eight year old, I’m going to enlist the services of someone next week to look after Coco for a few hours on the days I go out and about. It’ll be worth every penny I’m sure.

Hope you enjoyed our wander through Sham Shui Po and see you next week.

 

 

  1. SteveMolk says:

    A spectacular start. I can smell Hong Kong from here.

  2. lau@corridorkitchen says:

    Beautiful. How exciting that you’re getting started round the world! Love the pic of the cat.

  3. Steve says:

    Those dumpling shots are making me hungry – I’ll have to do the next best thing and visit the food court in Sydney!

  4. Jen says:

    Lovely to have you back on air. I’m in HK for the next 3 months from Perth so your series of posts on HK will be particularly meaningful to me. Have fun.

  5. Brent Wilson says:

    What a great way to kick off your adventure! Loved the mail boxes and curved shutters there is something comforting and human about them. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  6. tim says:

    Very vivid and inspiring, wishing you a lot more charming encounters with people like the scissor sharpener.

  7. Jennifer P says:

    Congrats on your first venture into the new territories. So looking forward to following the rest of the journey. As a mother myself, I endorse your babysitting plan. I am sure both you, and Coco, will be enriched by the
    chance to do your own thing for a little bit!

  8. Tania says:

    Wow Louise. You really are at home with what you do. My adrenaline is pumping with excitement at the beautiful images you’ve posted. Congrats on your first post and I look forward to all the rest. Thank you. x

  9. Jodie says:

    Woohoohoo!!! We’re off and running!!

    Congratulations Louise!!

    An awesome first post!!

  10. Cate says:

    Yayyyyyyyyyyyy. Here we go around the world! Am already looking forward to the next suburb. Shamshuipo looks awsome and I loved the contrast of the old areas and then the fluro of the new. Beautiful!

  11. Louise, 52 Suburbs says:

    Steve Molk – Ha! Job done.
    Lau – Apparently the cat doesn’t like snake soup but goes mad for Whiskers.
    Steve – Tell me about it. Imagine seeing all that and not being able to eat any!
    Jen – Hope I bump into you.
    Brent – I know, those shutters, love them. The names of the shops are inscribed in the front panels. So much better than rollerdoors!
    Tim – Ah, Edward, such a kind man to stop his work and fiddle around with the shutters to show me their full splendour.
    Jennifer P – Yes, love my daughter to bits but 24/7 for 365 days could be pushing it.
    Tania – Thanks so much! Am thrilled you enjoyed it.
    Jodie – Yes! It’s so so good to be out and about again after desking for so long.

    Thanks all for your lovely comments – one down, 51 suburbs to go!
    Louise

  12. suzanne says:

    Awesome start. How marvellous that people all around the world have that same smile. Good work.

  13. Suey says:

    tea and dumplings please. fab.

  14. Anna says:

    非常好!恭喜你。
    And what a fabulous start to your global adventure.

  15. Kylie says:

    Wow…love the colour you’ve captured in HK. Can’t wait till the next post. Take some time to relax if you can…

  16. Fistrel says:

    Skull and slippery floor? Whassup?

  17. Fistrel says:

    Oops, can’t edit comment. Meant to say also (actually, first): You’re clearly off and running! Congrats.

  18. Wayne says:

    Wonderful Louise! Too many to choose from… :)
    Love “Stacks” and “Mail Door”… Both very inviting to explore.

  19. Louise, 52 Suburbs says:

    Cate – Thanks cus! I need to catch my breath, play with Coco and then it’ll be back out there. Can’t wait actually, this city is so interesting. East meets West, old rubs against the new. Very cool.
    Louise

  20. aimee says:

    Gong hei! Congrats on the first suburb of the round the world exploration. I can’t thank you enough for profiling HK – it’s my favourite place in the world, precisely because of the mix of old and new, verdant hillsides and concrete jungle. So many people miss the culture behind the commerce – much gratitude for giving us other glimpses.

  21. Louise, 52 Suburbs says:

    Suzanne – Yes, that universal language, the smile.
    Suey – Yum huh?
    Anna – Please translate!!
    Kylie – Yep, today’s the ‘relax’ day. Of course it may well turn out not to be – it’s hard not to have a constant radar on.
    Fistrel – So the x-ray of the neck and the slippery floor – you know, if you slip, you hurt your neck, you need to go to the x-ray man. Bit too obscure?!
    Wayne – Good to hear!

    Thanks everyone, love your feedback.
    Louise

  22. :: uge says:

    Great 1st blog from overseas. Love it. enjoy your travels.

  23. Lynn says:

    Glowing with colour and elegance in every shot – especially in the ‘everyday’ images. I love your view of the world Louise – it’s truly beautiful.

  24. Jimmy says:

    What an amazing start – so exciting. I have just got from 3 months in India and am so loving and living vicariously through you and your travels. Keep them coming I cannot wait.

  25. schnook says:

    Oh little schnook – great to see you are finally out there doing what you love. xxx

  26. Zainil says:

    What can I say? It is my second home, LOVE the place. You know Louise, I took many things for granted until I see them through your lenses, e.g. the curved shutters, the letter boxes, the bamboo scaffolding. I now have an appreciation for these things.

  27. Vivian says:

    Thanks for the first posting Louise! As soon as the email popped into my “in box” I knew it was time to pop the kettle on and stop everything else and wallow in your lovely photos and words…

  28. Jeanette says:

    What an amazing start to your journey! I’m going to love following you around the world

  29. Tatyana says:

    Awesome virtual walk Louise! It’s great to see the project growing, somehow it inspires to do something big here too. Like, catching my own dream. Good luck with the little lady!:-)

  30. Louise says:

    Aimee – M’goi sai!
    Uge – Hey! Glad you like.
    Lynn – That’s lovely thank you.
    Jimmy – Okay, will do (our next city will be in India by the way).
    Schnook – It’s pretty wonderful I have to say.
    Zainil – Oh how I love hearing that – I want you to notice every curved shutter from now on!!
    Vivian – I love hearing that too! Thank you.
    Jeanette – Welcome!

    What a cool crew on this little adventure, thanks all.
    Louise

  31. Greg says:

    Another great portfolio! I’m going back to Nepal in October, and was thinking of stopping in Hong Kong for several days on my way out. Got any good resources for where to stay, what to see? Thanks Louise for the pics.

  32. Louise says:

    Greg – Can’t help you so much with where to stay. Re-things to see, you can either take the road less travelled and follow my lead, or see the more touristy things. discoverhongkong.com has some good ideas – click on ‘Things to do’ and their ‘Living Culture’ guide is pretty helpful.

  33. Lisette says:

    Wonderful shots and a great place to kick off the series, Louise! The images take me back to my 4 years in HK and make me want to hop on a plane and do a bit of exploring and photo taking of my own. Plus, I can’t believe I never went to Sham Shui Po when I lived there!! Tsk tsk.
    Can’t wait for the next installment… ;)

    http://cutesuite.wordpress.com

  34. Vanessa says:

    Louise, you are so courageous taking on this task! I remember being in Hong Kong a couple years ago and you’ve really got to the heart of it in just a week! I know the feeling of being overwhelmed with the smells and the copious amounts of people everywhere but I can already tell that you are making some unforgettably wonderful memories already through your photos.

    All the best with your future projects! Coco sounds like an amazing trooper :)

    XX

  35. Anna Sticklebricks says:

    Awesome first post! Loving this glimpse into Hong Kong’s ordinary everyday life and the extraordinary people you found as well. Looking forward to the next post already.

  36. Belinda says:

    Yay, great to see the start of the Project! I love Hong Kong, so can’t wait to see where else you visit.

  37. Anna@MyDesignEthos says:

    Just found this post through somebody’s retweet on Twitter and am blown away. Love your exploration and ability to find the unique and your photographs are stunning. Looking forward to next time :)

  38. Sean says:

    Great first post! Fantastic shots and commentary! Edward was great! My daughter (9 at the time) had the same issues with the smells. She still recalls it when we are in Chinatown or markets, “smells like Hong Kong”

  39. Marianne says:

    Oh Louise, it’s so exhilarating to see your posts. I laugh with excitement over each image … and then the next … and the next. Can hardly wait for another instalment!

  40. Lisa says:

    I’m so excited for you and your first post. Shots are amazing and beautiful. A great start to your adventure!

  41. Emma says:

    Hey Lou, looking good. Great first post. Glad to hear you’ve settled in and on the job already. Send our love to Coco. Ex

  42. Louise says:

    Tatyana – Yes, be inspired!
    Lisette – Well, it’s understandable, there are so many interesting places here that you can’t get to them all, even if you live here for eons.
    Vanessa – Thank you, and yes, she is a trooper, albeit a reluctant trooper as we speak!
    Anna S. – Thank you.
    Belinda – Stay tuned for next post this Friday!
    Anna @ M. – Thanks so much.
    Sean – Well, it is quite distinctive. But I love the wafts of incense as you walk around the place.
    Marianne – Thank you!

  43. Louise says:

    Lisa – Many thanks!
    Emma – Will do – Coco wants to Skype soon!

  44. Sharon57 says:

    Thanks for the journey – I too fell for those shutters that Edward works behind. Practical and beautiful.

  45. Gerry & Dad says:

    We loved it Lou – we miss you both and will skype soon. Can’t wait ’til next Friday. xx

  46. Libby says:

    Edward Scissorhands … fringe dwellers … Miami Vice – Genius! Thanks Louise, loving it all already!

  47. Fer Buenos Aires says:

    You know I always love your work. Congratulations!

  48. Man Man says:

    I’m from Hong Kong, though not from Sham Shui Po , reading this article still bring back all the “feelings” for me – the smell, the air, the crowd… this make me feel home sick! Thanks though !! :-)

  49. BILLICART says:

    Just loved your Blog on HK… You are very talented

  50. Louise says:

    Sharon – Ah, Edward.
    Gerry and Dad – Glad you enjoyed it.
    Libby – Excellent!
    Fed Buenos Aires – So glad you’re still following!
    Man Man – Sorry to make you home sick but I know it’s a bittersweet feeling. Hopefully more sweet than bitter.
    Billicart – Many thanks.

  51. Terry Warren says:

    Some old memories stirred there. I first visited Hong Kong in 1964, then regularly until 1971 (through the Vietnam years). Once more in ’82,and finally in ’91. There have been some obvious changes, but a lot of things remain the same. I also share your affection for shop houses.

  52. David says:

    More beautiful and informative work Louise! Has the old 52 Suburbs blog been taken down?

  53. Louise says:

    Terry – How different it must look from 1964! But in the same breath, as you say, so much is the same.
    David – Thank you. No, the old 52 Suburbs blog still kicks on over at 52suburbs.com.au

  54. Gill says:

    Love travelling with you and seeing the sights thru your eyes – show me more!! Hope Coco enjoys her travels.

  55. LINCOLN says:

    You need to find a gluten-free dumpling distributor, no tourist should be denied that pleasure. Same goes for naan and roti in Delhi :)

  56. Rachel says:

    Loved your HK posts, Louise. I spent seven brilliant years in HK and it just made me miss the place so much more!

  57. Jackie says:

    I read about your project from the Sydney Morning Herald, which led me to your wonderful website. Your Sham Shui Po photos really captured a sense of this old neighbourhood. My grandparents lived in Sham Shui Po in the 1940s. They described the streets as being lined with the columns of the Tong Laus. The nights were very dark as there were only sparsly spaced and dim street lights. Among the colourful stories were local children playing soccer and marbles on the dusty medial strip of Cheung Sha Wan Rd (which had much less traffic in the 1940s – the median strip has now been converted into several traffic lanes). On the hot summer nights, people got out their chairs and canvas beds and sat on the median strip and side walk to cool down. At the wet markets, there were herbalists and chinese medicine men selling ancient remedies, accompanied by sounds of gong and ad-hoc kung fu shows to display the powers of their concotions. Young boys leart martial arts from masters in makeshift schools at the roof tops of buildings. Women of all ages wore cheong sams and practical variations of it. For Chinese New Year, the ladies went to the local barber shops to get their hair permed with hot tongs.

    It’s a shame about the language barrier since the older residents could have told you alot about the place’s history and lifestyle.

    What a wonderful way to show the real characters of Hong Kong. Look forward to more of your travel photos!

  58. Louise says:

    Jackie – You painted that picture so well, I was totally there, feeling the heat and hearing the sounds. And yes, it was very frustrating not being able to talk to the locals, especially the older ones. I would’ve loved that. Thanks for your vivid description and glad you’ve joined the journey!

  59. Jason says:

    Really enjoying this blog, your journey, the adventure of it. The Age linked a story to your blog yesterday. I’ve never been to Hong Kong but now I want to try it, for a while anyway. I admire the way you see beauty in everyday objects, and capture these images for others to enjoy. The tilt-shift lens effect is great, the way it draws focus to part of the shot. And the way you join two photos for contrast, or context, love it. Good luck, good health, keep up the posts!

  60. Shan says:

    I really love your photos! I’m from HK but I’m now away from home for a year already. You make me realize that HK is so beautiful indeed. Thank you so much! :)
    I miss home…

  61. joseph says:

    OH! The first photo is my Primary School. Great Photos!

  62. Louise says:

    Joseph – Ha! Amazing.

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