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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 choseĀ this ex-British colony turnedĀ 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.

 

 

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