On the trail of old Hong Kong

Day 1 – CNY holiday – Hong Kong, Sheung Wan & Central 

Undoubtedly, Hong Kong’s early streets and neighborhoods are an urban maze. Stairs up to the heavens. Streets with steps ready to break an ankle. Homespun tea shops and coffee bars. Trees growing like the Kraken along walls – or other host trees. Spray-painted street art on shadowy corners. Antiques from China in windows as shiny as a posh clothing shop. The smell of dumplings steaming, meat being butchered and hung under red market lights, five spice floating in soap tureens as big as bathtubs, mingling with pizza sauce, frying chips, and Indian curry.

After five years of traveling out of China for the Lunar New Year, I decided to spend what may be my last CNY in China in Hong Kong, trailing after the oldest, most-overlooked places on the main island. My companion is the book, 111 Things Not to Miss in Hong Kong, and local Hong Kong websites with the culture and history of off-the-beaten-track places. I’d combed over the Lonely Planet Hong Kong book a few times now, and I had visited the touristy sites. This book and the websites promised some different views of the city I had lived in for three years now. And with it, a dose of history that many people overlook because it’s part of their daily lives – or daily commute.

I started my first day of Hong Kong History 101 by dropping off my bags at The Pottinger Hotel on Stanley Street, Central – my staycation location – and heading for Emack and Bolio’s ice cream shop just under the Mid-level Escalators on Cochrane Street/Stanley Street. Yes, I am that easily distracted from a historical walking tour of my own making.

Ice cream at this place will make you want to run up and down the stairs in Central and Sheung Wan just for all the calories you’ve consumed – but it is so worth it! If you’re a mint ice cream fan (such as myself), you can’t go wrong with the Grasshopper flavour. I also can’t resist caramel and pretzels, so, of course, the Salted Caramel Pretzel flavour fit the bill. If that isn’t enough, pony up more HKD for a sprinkle or sugary cereal-coated ice cream cone. I happen to really like the Fruit Loops one, even if in my real adult life I don’t eat Fruit Loops any more.

When my students ask what the best part of being an adult is, I always answer “Eating ice cream whenever you want.” Emack and Bolio’s makes adulthood sweeter. However, beware the insistent pigeons. They will OWN you if you aren’t careful.

Let’s be honest – you want it!

Central. It’s obviously central on the island, but if you head back further into history, this area used to be called Victoria. Hong Kong now is the name of a city and an S.A.R. (Special Administrative Region) of China. But then, when the British first started to put up buildings such as the ones that survive in Hong Kong Park today – the Cotton Tree Marriage Registry building and Flagstaff buildings included – they called it … Victoria. Of course, after Queen Victoria, who was firmly in her reign by then. They went on to name just about everything in Hong Kong “Victoria.” Hotels, the harbour, probably a restaurant or two … I fancy that many places around the world are now firmly a “Victoria” (fill in the blank) because of British imperialism and empire. I think of Georgia (after a King George), Carolina (after Queen Caroline), and so on in the U.S. The Eastern Seaboard is littered with the names of British kings and queens. At least, I don’t think there was a King Massachusetts in there, but I could’ve missed him in the line of succession.

I digress. Hong Kong’s Central area, now renowned for finance, banking, fashion, money, and land reclamation (the waterfront used to be Queen’s Road. Try to see the sea from there now!), used to be a bazaar and market area. Go-downs, or warehouse buildings, lined the water as ships were loaded and unloaded, bound for distant trading destinations. Central was known as the Middle Bazaar (Chung Wan), and after WWII, the name Victoria was replaced with simply Central and Sheung Wan areas.

So, let’s level about the Mid-levels Escalators. After three years, I hadn’t yet ridden them. I had no need to yet. I jumped on and figured I would see for myself what a wonder this thing is. Now, if you’re familiar with Hong Kong, you know it’s a few islands. A few mountainous islands. Hong Kong Island has very little space, and it’s mostly uphill from Victoria Harbour. These hills used to be uninhabited, but that is obviously not the case any longer.

Thus, the Escalators carry people back and forth instead of stair-mastering it all day. During the morning “rush” hours, the escalators head downhill (between 6 AM and 10 AM). After 10 AM, they reverse to go up. Life moves faster up and down the steep hills that way. There are stairs but … why take those? The Mid-Levels Escalators, the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator, is strangely fun when it’s not busy during the day. There are plenty of great places to hop off and visit – and here are a few.

One of my first stops is Rednaxela Terrace. When you think you’re done on the Escalators, keep going up. You’ll see the sign for the interestingly-named terrace on your right. It’s an odd name in Hong Kong. Read the name carefully – but from right to left, opposite of what you’d normally do. Get it? Story is that was meant to be Alexander Terrace, but the original sign painter wrote the way he would normally write – right to left. The name stuck because the people living there liked it, and who wouldn’t? It’s a great quirk of history and worth a stop. And, if you’re hungry, try out Chicken on the Run (for chicken deliciousness) or Blend and Grind coffee shop for a pick-me-up. Both are just a few steps down from Rednaxela Terrace.

Getting back on the Escalators, I wound up a few more escalations to the Jamia Mosque, on your left. It’s difficult to miss the bright turquoise gates and gold name-lettering. If the gate’s open, head inside to view the striking pastel green mosque. Set against the towering apartments just around it, the mosque is an oasis of calm – with more peckish pigeons! – on the bustling hills around Central.

Keep going up to Caine Road. Head left, then left down Old Bailey Road. Then, on a sudden right, you’ll see Chancery Lane. Chancery Lane leads around the old colonial walls of Victoria Prison, set up by the British. There had to be a place for the criminals abiding in this colonial outpost, and this one fit the bill, apparently. The wall extends down to a set of stairs, which will eventually take you toward Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) if you’re in need of a drink.

I wove back down the stairs toward Caine Road and Caine Lane, which took me on to the Tai Ping Shan historical trail and on to The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. It is the Edwardian-style building not out of place on a narrow street in London. Home to a small museum of health and medical tech, it has a Chinese medicine garden along with lovely flowers and trees lining the stone walls around it. The museum plays its role in Hong Kong history as well – when the bubonic plague (yes, that bubonic plague) hit Hong Kong in 1894 (and quite a few years after), researchers came to Hong Kong to study it. Of those who were contracting the plague, I read somewhere that roughly 90% of them died in one year.

A possible pathogen was discovered through careful study, and one researcher, Kitasato Shibasaburo, was celebrated for his discovery (even if it turned out to be incorrect). Finally, decades later, Alexandre Yersin, the competing researcher at the time, was also celebrated for his work, and for isolating the bubonic plague bacterium – aptly named the Yersina pestis. I have to thank Britannica for helping me sort out who was working with whom in Europe, but it was clear that Kitasato and Yersin were pretty much competitors in the race to solve the question of the plague. So, for the interested epidemiologists out there, the “Old Pathological Institute” is a worthy stop. It’s $20 HKD for adults to visit.

From there, I wandered, though not as lonely as a cloud. Not in this city of 7.4 million crammed into such a tiny space. I found my way to Bridges Street, a street pretty much bulldozed during WWII by bombing. The only historical building left is the YMCA on the corner of Tank Street and Bridges Street. It’s easy to see that it’s the oldest building there by far in terms of its architecture. There are no real bridges here, just a lot of streets branching off it, full of stairs going up and down.

Which leads to me to Ladder Street. It’s rather unmistakable. Up and down on either side of Bridges Street snakes Ladder Street – not a ladder in the real sense, but it certainly is a lot … A LOT … of stairs. It’s one of the original “streets” in Hong Kong, in place long before the Mid-Level Escalators saved legs, calves, and weak hearts. Head down Ladder Street to visit the incense-laden shadows of Man Mo Temple – perhaps not during LNY, however, when it is at max capacity. Coils of burning incense rise to the gods above, whilst people pray with more incense before the altar. It is a beautiful place, serene, and shadowy.

Now that you’re on Hollywood Road, head left from the temple and follow the street toward Possession Point Hill and Hollywood Road Park. It was at Possession Point Hill that the British took official “possession” of that part of Hong Kong, winners from the Opium Wars with China, in 1841. Possession Street marks the location (right at the corner of Possession Street and Hollywood Road – the sign is an easy miss if you’re not looking), and Possession Point has been swallowed up by the park. Instead of the Union Jack waving there now, brightly-coloured lanterns decorated the park in preparation for the upcoming new year in a decidedly classical Chinese-style garden.

Alright, still with me? Good, because I’ve walked 13,500 steps today, and I wasn’t finished after Possession Point. I wandered down Possession Street to the Chu Wing Kee store. For people who long for Hong Kong’s manufacturing past, when it was the manufacturing centre in Asia (pre-opening up of the Mainland), this shop has some great relics of that. In fact, a lot of the stationery shops in Hong Kong have relics of past lives. Things that make you wonder, do people still use that? The products are retro in a way (1960s/1970s) that only those who miss the “Make in Hong Kong” sticker on products – before the 1980s when “Made in Taiwan” became the du jour tag, then “Made in China in the 1990s/2000s+.

Tired? Well, not yet, I tell you.

With only 20% battery left on my phone to show me around (the map in the book isn’t so helpful unless you have streets memorized) and find my hotel once more, I sped down to Wing Lee Street, mentioned as the “street a movie saved” from being torn down. With Golden Hour upon me (around 5 PM), the dying sunlight bounced off some of the colonial-style buildings. I NEVER would have known about this row of houses if not for that book (111 Places …). After all, it’s sort of tucked away, accessible only by a blue-railing-ed walkway popular with random dogs who have escaped their walkers. If you’re in to architecture, it’s worth trying to find this – off Bridges Street and upaways. Just Google Map it. I can’t even explain how I eventually found it.

Praying my now 10% battery would hold me over, I found the Police Married Quarters, the PMQ. It’s quite fancy now, having been turned into restaurants and a mall/gallery of sorts, but it used to house, of course, married police officers and their families. Shocker. Built in 1951, it was a great living situation in a city with squatter villages popping up everywhere due to the influx of refugees leaving Communist China and hoping for a better life in post-war Hong Kong. It reminds me of the model public housing project in Kowloon/TST.

There’s a little sign outside on the wall of the PMQ – blink and you’ll miss it – that talks about a historical latrine. At the corner of Aberdeen Street and Staunton Street, the latrine was built in a neoclassical style and featured some lovely mosaic tiles. While it has been “decommissioned” as a latrine now and I don’t think you can get in it (I didn’t try), it’s existed there from 1918 and warranted a historical plaque. I mean, I’m a fan of public toilets in Hong Kong (after living in Shanghai, they’re a treat!) as they do usually have toilet-paper, hand soap, and running water – and bonus, they’re brilliantly clean. If I were Pablo Neruda, I’d be writing an ode to the public facilities of Hong Kong, especially when it could take an hour + to locate a toilet in a mall. But that one was neoclassical.

I wandered down Graham Street for a bit, weaving in and out of the fruit market stalls and trying to avoid getting head-banged by a long cabbage swinging on red string – yes, that is a real fear – and snaking around the after-work crowd buying fruit and veg. I then happened upon Gutzlaff Street, almost by accident.

What’s so fantastic about this street crowded with local shops? Well, it’s named after a German man who taught himself Mandarin and traveled through China. People outside the Middle Kingdom were reading his reports – and finally learning about the mysterious “Far East” because, of course, China had no desire for Western goods or products – or people, for that matter. China didn’t want to trade with the British because the interlopers were barbarians and just wanted to sell opium to the masses to fuel their love of tea. Fair enough. Gutzlaff was an interpreter during the Opium Wars and worked for Pottinger, who was an influential colonial official [governor] and the namesake of the hotel I’m staying in. That’s why there is a particularly German-sounding street name mingled in with all the British ones.

So, at this point, I had 2% battery left, so I found the hotel, officially checked-in, and tossed myself into my room to make some Nespresso coffee. I deserve a break and some coffee!

I rested up for a few hours, then dipped out to Butcher’s Club (just up on Stanley Street) for the Hogtown burger (meat with meat and cheese) and chips. In order to walk all that off, I went up to LKF (Lan Kwai Fong), had a quick drink, then walked that off by heading up the Fringe Club – another interesting building – and down to Ice House Street.

My final goal for the day was to visit the Duddell Street Gas Lamps and Stairs. They light up at 6PM nightly. They are remnants of the Victorian Age in Hong Kong; the stairwell was built sometime between 1875-1889 and those lights were placed there, though the current model is from 1922. Gaslights were featured in Hong Kong from the 1860s on, not unlike many European cities at the time. Streets were as lit as they could be back then. After WWII, the gas lamps became electric for the most part – as gas lamps were quite labour-intensive and electricity became a more convenient thing – but the Duddell Street Lamps stand as a testament to some really amazing history.

And now for something completely different … sleep.



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