Header image courtesy of David Yeung
Colourful and vibrant garlands, the fragrance of kaffir lime and lemongrass, and the melodic lilt of Thai chatter: Tucked deep in the heart of Kowloon is “Little Thailand,” a neighbourhood that is still an unfamiliar place for many local Hongkongers. Densely packed with over a dozen eateries, shops, and businesses on one small street, this prominent enclave is an underrated microcosm of everything Thai.
South Wall Street, a busy thoroughfare in Kowloon, is an under-the-radar spot when it comes to understanding Thai assimilation into Hong Kong society. Although the area may not first present itself as an influential Thai neighbourhood at first glance, there are subtle attributes that slowly become more apparent over time.
While temples and Buddhas may not greet you upon your arrival, store signs are written almost completely in Thai. The fragrance of kaffir lime and lemongrass lured me through the air-conditioned shops, where the patrons and owners were gracefully chatting away in Thai. Colourful and vibrant Thai garlands (known as phuang malai) were also on display and hung at each shop as a sign of good fortune. Walking along one side of the street, stores display their fresh fruits flown in from Thailand daily. This little strip of land known as “Little Thailand” is still, very well, an unfamiliar place for many locals.
Situated right in the heart of Kowloon City, the geographic location of Little Thailand can often pull on people’s memories of the past. This is due to the fact that Kowloon City is often synonymous with the nostalgic golden days of old Hong Kong. One of Hong Kong’s most remembered memories was right in Kowloon City—the Kowloon Walled City.
In Cantonese, it was known as the “City of Darkness.” The Kowloon Walled City was a densely populated and ungoverned urban settlement which was roughly under three hectares, dating back to the Song Dynasty (ca. 960 to 1297) where it was used as a fort to control salt trade.
Towards the late 1800s, the Chinese were being threatened with the invitation and eventual colonisation by the British, who first controlled Hong Kong Island. Thus, the Chinese turned the Walled City into a fort with soldiers, officials, and their families living in it. In 1898, it was the only part of Hong Kong that China was unwilling to surrender to Britain under the 99-year lease of Kowloon and the New Territories. Although the Walled City remained Chinese territory by treaty, Chinese troops and officials were forced to vacate.
By the end of World War II, there was an influx of Chinese refugees squatting within the Walled City—with no concerns about taxes, licences, or visas, and the added benefit of low rent, it drew a huge amount of squatters, with almost 2,000 squatter camps recorded on the site by 1947. Permanent buildings followed, and by 1971, about 10,000 people occupied just 2,185 dwellings.
The Walled City was infamously known for its criminal activity; throughout the twentieth century, fugitives and other criminal elements flocked to the lawless enclave. Beyond the reach of the law, the area flourished into a perplexing maze of illegally constructed buildings, where everything from drug trafficking and prostitution to unlicensed dentistry prospered in a network of dank, dark alleyways. Despite the unlawful activities that were ongoing, the Walled City was also a beacon for hope and opportunity. Many immigrants and refugees established factories, businesses, and shops to support their families and enjoy a better life.
However, such lawlessness came to an end in 1987 when the colonial Hong Kong government announced plans for the demolition of the Walled City. The land was then turned into the Kowloon Walled City Park, which opened in 1995. The park mainly preserves traces of the early days of the Walled City, most notably the restored Yamen Building which served as a military headquarters. Little courtyards and Chinese-style gardens roam the area, turning a dark past to a scenic and blissful present.
Thailand has a long history of Thai-Chinese cultural heritage—in fact, many Thai people have Chinese ancestry that is traceable to Chaozhou (or Chiuchow in Cantonese). In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Chiuchow folk began emigrating to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia in search of better opportunities. Many settled in Hong Kong and Thailand, where the wealthy set up businesses and the rest worked as merchants and labourers.
Teochew, Chiuchow’s local language, became the principal language of influential Chinese merchant groups in Bangkok. This Chiuchow influence allowed for a lot of trade relations between Hong Kong and Thailand, which is now the city’s tenth-largest trade partner. In Hong Kong, many Chiuchow people chose to settle in Kowloon City, and also within the Kowloon Walled City, where 70 percent of the population bear Chiuchow origins. Influenced by the large community of Chiuchow people, many Thai families set up businesses around the Kowloon City area. Despite the reputation of the Kowloon Walled City, many Thai-Chinese thought of Hong Kong as a safer place than most of Southeast Asia and it presented an abundance of economic opportunities.
Businesses are packed along South Wall Road, but there are other shops around the area, too. Most are owned by Thai-Chinese couples, and some are still operated within its founding families, now in second- or third-generation hands. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of establishments that sell fresh Thai produce; catering towards both Hong Kong locals and Thais living abroad, it is the language of food that unites both cultures, creating a deeper understanding and connection within this compact community.
“I have lived in Hong Kong for over 10 years since coming from Bangkok, and this is still the best place to buy Thai products in Hong Kong,” said a regular shopper while on her grocery run. A lot of the shops in Little Thailand sell a wide variety of curry pastes for you to take home and cook, making the task of replicating Thai flavours in your kitchen a breeze. One of the most well-known stores is called The Lemon Shop, where you will find a multitude of Thai herbs and vegetables. Other than the usual suspects of lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal, one could obtain ingredients impossible to find elsewhere, such as whole petai beans, also known as “stink beans,” a key ingredient in Southern Thai cuisine. Packs of cha-om can also be found, an astringent herb native to Southeast Asia, which Thai palates adore in their omelettes.
If you are hungry, then you have come to the right place. Thai food culture is famous the world over, and one of the country’s most recognisable dishes, pad thai, follows a culinary tradition of using all five tastes: salty, sour, sweet, spicy, and bitter. Aside from being one of the most ordered take-out foods in the US according to an Uber Eats study conducted earlier this year, it is also a relatively new recipe, one that can be traced to the 1930s when then prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram held a public contest to find a new national noodle dish. And in another surprising twist that ties Thai culture with Chinese ancestry, in Thailand, it’s explicitly referred to as a Chinese noodle dish.
That said, there is plenty of food that is more reflective of Thai cuisine than pad thai, and few places in Hong Kong are better suited to presenting them than Little Thailand. With an abundance of Thai eateries around the area, I would recommend making your way towards the Kowloon City Market & Cooked Food Centre. On the top floor, there is a Thai restaurant that cooks up a storm: Amporn Thai Food is a good place to find the essentials for Thai food. From curries and grilled pork neck to fried noodles, this little stall does them all. Their Pad Krapow Moo ($50)—a dish of stir-fried pork with Thai holy basil—was palatable but their Duck Noodles ($38) were quite authentic and transported me back to the bustling streets of Bangkok.
And for finishers, if there’s an urge for something sweet, there are plenty of freshly-made desserts displayed out on the streets by various grocery stores. Check out Cheong Thai supermarket on Kai Tak Road for some handmade khanom tom, a traditional sticky rice dumpling stuffed with shredded coconut and melted along with palm sugar and coconut milk, for as little as $15!
Besides the fresh produce, imported goods, and restaurants, there are also places to fill your pantry shelves and shop around. All along South Wall Road and around the surrounding area are massage parlours, Thai arts and crafts stores, and herbal cosmetic shops. Some notable places to visit are A Star Coconut Ltd, which sells every coconut item you will ever need, from coconut chips and coconut oils all the way to coconut scented moisturiser. Another special shop worth checking out is LM Thai Supplier, also located along South Wall Road. Crammed with Buddhist accoutrements, this is the place to go for incense sticks, Buddha statues, flower wreaths, golden elephants, and much more.
Although it seems like Little Thailand is a minuscule neighbourhood that often goes unnoticed, there are a lot of wonders to be found within. It is a place of comfort for those who have left their home country for better economic prospects, and for their descendants who straddle the divide between Thai heritage and Hong Kong upbringing. It is a place of memories and discoveries, for even some of the small, unlikely things that you may only expect to find in Bangkok can be found in Kowloon City’s Little Thailand. This little Thai diaspora, with its strong cultural and historic ties, grown from one of the city’s most notorious urban settlements and flourishing long after its disappearance, is one of many reasons adding to Hong Kong’s ever-changing mystery.