Hong Kong: the land of gleaming skyscrapers, cop and triad films, and amazing food. On the surface of this concrete jungle, there’s not much left to hint at the city’s humble beginnings, and it’s pretty unbelievable to look back now and think that this sparkling metropolis was once a mere fishing village, serendipitously favoured by the British for its strategic location on the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea. Powerful clans, marauding pirates and European traders are no more, but that doesn’t mean Hong Kong has forgotten. Let us take you on a tour of the city to places where you can still find vestiges of an older Hong Kong from a previous age.
Needless to say, Hong Kong is all about food, so there’s no excuse not to stop by this historic tea house. There are tons of dim sum places to choose from, but barely any still serve their fare on old-school trolleys or trays—the traditional way. Lin Heung is very much a local dining institution and has been around for decades. They’ve recently had a closing down scare when their lease came up and the landlord raised the asking rent, but they’ve weathered it through. Still, this traditional dim sum style is being phased out with only a handful of spots left in Hong Kong, so hit them up while you still can.
Lin Heung Tea House, 160 Wellington Street, Central | (+852) 2544 4556
Mei Lok is a corner shop hawking foodstuffs from the good old days of yore. Think fizzy drinks still sold in vintage glass bottles and traditional Hong Kong snacks such as haw flakes, melt-in-the-mouth spaceship candy, packs of fruit-flavoured jellies, gem biscuits, and the iconic White Rabbit candies. Unfortunately, their original location in Cheung Sha Wan, decked out in nostalgic decor, has closed, but they still operate a smaller shop in Hysan Place, with a stall at the Museum of Art. Visiting Mei Lok is like stepping back in time to the 1970s; see for yourself what Hongkongers’ friendly neighbourhood stores used to look like.
Mei Lok, Shop 519, 5/F, Hysan Place, 500 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay | (+852) 9223 8538
Similar to how this generation walked around swiping away on Pokémon GO, the elder generation in Hong Kong used to walk around carrying their pet songbirds in cages. At Yuen Po Bird Garden, you’ll still see ageing locals enjoying their time outdoors with their feathered friends while besting their mates at a game of chess or Chinese checkers. See if you can find what may well be the last remaining birdcage maker in Hong Kong; Mr Chan is friendly and usually up for a chat, and you can watch him repairing his beautiful bamboo works.
Yuen Po Bird Garden, Yuen Po Street, Prince Edward
There’s almost no way you can miss the Blue House in Wan Chai. This bright blue tenement building was built in the 1920s and features a mix of Chinese and Western architectural features. The Grade I historical building features a style of walk-up residential building called tong lau that was popular in the late 19th century, and was honoured with the Award of Excellence by UNESCO. Together with Yellow and Orange Houses next door, the Blue House Cluster contains the Hong Kong House of Stories, which showcases the city’s history and development, a community service centre and a couple of restaurants. Part of these buildings are still residences, and they take great care in fostering a positive community. Keep an eye out for movie nights, when they screen films in the courtyard.
Blue House, 72 Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai | (+852) 2835 4372
Pawnshops have a long and colourful history in Hong Kong. The act of pawning something for money is colloquially referred to as “lifting” because counters in pawn shops are raised to prevent visitors from seeing the valuables they have acquired, and so customers have to lift their belongings up to the staff. Hong Kong’s pawnshops are easily recognisable by their distinctive trade emblem of a stylised bat—an animal traditionally associated with prosperity—clutching a coin. There are approximately 200 such shops dotted around the city, usually housed in beautiful old shop fronts, though this number is rapidly dwindling. The most picturesque might well be the Pawn in Wan Chai, which has been transformed into a restaurant overlooking the tram road. To see a functional pawnshop still doing their thing, head to Tai Cheong pawnshop on Wellington Street, or the Hang Jing or Nam Cheong pawnshops in Sham Shui Po.
The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai | (+852) 2866 3444
Tai Cheong Pawn Shop, 136 Wellington Street, Central | (+852) 2541 0830
Hang Jing Pawn Shop, 141 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po | (+852) 2386 9616
Nam Cheong Pawn Shop, 117 Nam Cheong Street, Sham Shui Po | (+852) 2386 8990
The popularity of roasted chestnut carts in olden Hong Kong is similar to the fervour people in Western countries have for ice cream vans. Unlike ice cream vans, however, roasted chestnut carts have become somewhat of a rarity. As the weather takes a cooler turn, head to Kowloon (more specifically the Mong Kok or Sham Shui Po areas) and see if you can hunt out these rusty roadside carts. Pro tip: follow your nose, as you should be able to tell if one is nearby from the warm, charcoal smell wafting around the air. All Hongkongers will tell you a small paper bag of freshly roasted chestnuts, or a piping hot sweet potato, is pretty much synonymous to the winter season. We particularly like the roasted quail eggs though. Why not just give it all a try?
Dining at a dai pai dong is possibly the most quintessential Hong Kong experience. These traditional open-air eateries are the essence of cheap, good eats, and it’s always fun to dine alongside suited office workers, construction site blokes, and well-heeled tai tais all on the same table. Unfortunately, the Food and Environment Hygiene Department has been increasingly clamping down on dai pai dong licenses, so they are fast on the decline. Yes, there’s no shying away from the fact that their cleanliness is lacking, and the dishes are usually served with a good side of attitude, but the grittiness makes up a good part of their charm. Our favourites are Sing Kee in Central for their lunch menu and Si Yik in Stanley for their Hong Kong-style French toast.
Sing Kee, 10 Stanley Street, Central
Si Yik, 2 Stanley Market Street, Stanley
As opposed to the knock-off handbags of Ladies Market, we feel that the Temple Street night market gives off a more authentic Hong Kong vibe. Stroll along the bustling stalls at night to find an astonishing array of toys, clothes, music, electronics, and sex toys, but don’t get too dazzled to haggle! If all the walking has worn you out, peek behind these stalls to the permanent shops lining the streets and sit down for some claypot rice and oyster omelettes for a pick-me-up. As a working-class area, this market is a reflection of how the less affluent locals used to shop and haggle. Don’t forget to also stop by a booth to get your fortune told; we are partial to the ones with birds picking out cards that predict your fate.
Temple Street, Jordan
Despite its long and varied history, this retro café has retained its authentic appearance from the 1950s, bedecked in lovely mosaic-tiled walls and floors. The food is regular cha chaan teng fare; nothing too special, but you’re not really here for the grub. Grab a window seat along the curved wall for the full experience; in the daytime, you can look out over the Tin Hau Temple and its square, but the evening is when Mido truly shines. Be there in time to catch the iconic neon sign light up at sundown. Sitting in this old-school café bathed in nostalgic neon lighting, you’ll wonder if you’ve stumbled into a Wong Kar-wai film!
Mido Café, 63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei | (+852) 2384 6402
If you’re in the habit of rooting around in second-hand and vintage shops, you will absolutely appreciate the treasure trove that is Chu Wing Kee. Though they only stock household items, it is the very nature of these antiquated items that makes a visit worthwhile. Dig through stacks of bamboo baskets, teapots, kerosene stoves, and mats while dodging the feather dusters and ornaments hanging from the ceiling. This is also one of the very few places where we managed to buy a proper pot in which to brew Chinese medicine. The owner himself has said he doesn’t like stocking mass-produced items, preferring the classics that local Hongkongers all know and love. For transient travellers, this is also the perfect spot to buy souvenirs that aren’t your bog-standard tourist tack.
Chu Wing Kee, 24 Possession Street, Sheung Wan | (+852) 2545 8751