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.
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.
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…
The other features that caught my eye were the curved corner buildings and the mailboxes…
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.
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.
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.
The next time I visited was during the afternoon – snake soup time. Anyone?
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.
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.
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.