Of grit and glitter

Exploring Hong Kong Part 7 – Old Wan Chai History

Between Wan Chai and Admiralty MTR stops is a wealth of Hong Kong history waiting to be discovered.

On the Lonely Planet walking tour, we were distracted by the Wan Chai Street Market and the wet market (which, gross enough, was once a mortuary during WWII), but then we eventually made it to nearby Pak Tai Temple (or at least, close to it). The House of Stories is up there as well, which looks like a version of an antiques shop/cafe/hangout. Next to the House of Stories is a historical blue house, quite beautiful in its oldness, but I can’t read Chinese, so I have no idea why it’s historical. It just is.

Continuing along Queen’s Road East, we found the Old Wan Chai Post Office – HK’s oldest post office and used up to the late 20th century. Now it’s an environmental education centre. Spring Garden Lane was up next – and my, what a storied past! Today it’s a lovely lane of local shops (including the sugary deliciousness of Mr. Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe), but back in the day, when the British first took control of Hong Kong, it was one of the first city areas “developed.” And by “developed”, I mean it was the Red Light District in the early 20th century. Priorities…priorities…

Spring Garden Lane today
Spring Garden Lane today

In case you were wanting to do a shop of shopping nearby, there is a massive furniture design studio and storefront with a fantastic bathtub for sale – because I’m sure it’ll fit in your tiny Hong Kong walk-up:

There was an old woman who bathed in a shoe...
There was an old woman who bathed in a shoe…

From Spring Garden Lane, we ventured up a few flights of stairs in search of the aptly and mysteriously named Ghost House. There is construction all around it now, and it is closed to the public. During Japanese Occupation in the 1940s, the Ghost House was a brothel for war-time “comfort” women. I did not immediately realize how dreary the three years and eight months of occupation in HK was when compared against the oft-told and studied atrocities of Nanjing, China. I picked up a book on the foreigner internment at Stanley so I could read primary sources about this time period – and none of this is ever a summer beach read. The 20th century is a fascinating and frightening subject.

Boarded up Ghost House (upper right)

Now that I’m responsible to teach a historical unit about Hong Kong, I’m trying to gather as much information as I can. The Hong Kong History Museum (Kowloon side) is absolutely wonderful – it is a definite must-visit if you’re a history buff. It’s extremely well done and easy to work your way through – but my visit lasted about 3 1/2 hours because I read most of the material. Really read about the Hakka people traditions and how folk culture made shrimp paste. You’ll never look at the old episode of I Love Lucy where she smashes grapes the same way again – ever. Be on the lookout for the 10 m tall bun tower – something so extreme that the actual event was stopped because people were injuring themselves trying to get the most fortunate bun on the tower. Really – the HKHM is fantastic. Or, maybe I’m just a history nerd.

Last on our tour was Hung Shing Temple – which, according to land reclamation documents in the museum, should still be on the waterfront but clearly isn’t today. Star Street is the last stop in Lonely Planet, but it late in the afternoon, and I had already visited there a few weeks back. Star Street is marked by small boutique shops and food vendors, along with great artist and art shops. Certainly worth a walk through if you have time.

So, there you have it – the grit and glitter of Wan Chai, possibly one of the best districts on the island.

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