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Originally published by Ching Yuen. Last updated by Beverly Ngai.
To Kwa Wan (土瓜灣) is a sleepy neighbourhood in an old area of Hung Hom, technically part of the Kowloon City district. The first two characters in its Chinese name are said to refer to the sweet potatoes planted by Hakka villagers, who settled on the land a few hundred years ago. With surrounding mid-rise buildings no higher than 10 floors, take a step back in time with us as we venture into a relic of old Hong Kong and discover the best things to do, eat, drink, and see in To Kwa Wan.
The old Kowloon City Pier was originally located elsewhere, but it was buried due to land reclamation, as well as the construction of the Kai Tak Airport. Years later, the intact parts of the bridge were unearthed and moved to its current location.
If the Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront is getting too crowded with tourists and Instagrammers, consider hitting up the Kowloon City Pier and neighbouring Hoi Sham Park instead for a quiet afternoon of looking out to the ocean. This less-frequented promenade is perfect for snapping aesthetic photos—play around with angles to make it look like you’re stepping on the water!
Kowloon City Pier, San Ma Tau Street, Ma Tau Kok
Yes, we are literally talking about thirteen streets that are stacked up next to each other! Lined with colourful buildings and car repairs shops, this particular neighbourhood is a nostalgic relic of old Hong Kong. Each street is named after one of thirteen Chinese mythical creatures. Nowadays, a growing Pakistani population brings general stores selling imported ingredients and snacks to the area, but this evocative landscape is still a hotspot for budding street photographers.
13 Streets (十三街), Ma Tau Kok, Kowloon City
A small studio that celebrates the disappearing art of woodworking in Hong Kong, Contou Woodworking Studio is a sanctuary for the few artisans still practising their craft. Founder Yung Wing-yan and Arthur Li have decided to reinterpret this old, laborious vocation and find a new place for it in the modern age. Repurposing scraps from the neighbouring rubbish dumps, these artful woodworkers have been known to take on innovative and sustainable projects, like remaking musical instruments out of discarded materials.
Contou Woodworking Studio, 9/F, Block C, On Lok Factory Building, 97 Ha Heung Road, To Kwa Wan
This old building made up of haphazard red bricks, Chinese roofing tiles, and sloping edges used to be a slaughterhouse for cattle (hence the name). Since its renovation in 2001, the Cattle Depot Artist Village is now a compound that houses 20 art groups, with regular exhibitions, talks, and gatherings for creative minds. You can spend a whole afternoon exploring the area, where artists showcase everything from folksy handicrafts and musical instruments to glass lanterns and sculptures.
Cattle Depot Artist Village, 63 Ma Tau Kok Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2364 2959
Only open on weekends, this gallery that also doubles as a studio and workshop space is run by an artistic couple who share a love for graphic design and illustrations. The work they exhibit usually carries a humorous tone, and they also invite jewellery artists and tea masters to share their craft, share poetry and literature readings, film screenings, and public art talks, making it a true space of acceptance and art.
Swing A Cat, Rear Shop, 241 To Kwa Wan Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 9378 861
Jiksap is a treasure trove for lovers of second-hand furniture, antiques, and collectables. Tucked away in an unassuming factory building, this funky vintage shop condenses decades worth of culture and history in an unassuming 3,600-square-metre space, filled to the brim with everything from old-timey armchairs and rotary phones to porcelain sets and lamps.
Its eclectic collection of pre-loved wares is carefully selected by the shop owners and offered at affordable prices—you can score a vinyl record for as cheap as $40! Doubling as a gathering place for vintage enthusiasts, the shop also regularly hosts sharing sessions that explore the stories behind vintage items.
Jiksap, 9/F, On Lok Factory Building, Kowloon City Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 9219 1660
Like a time capsule taking you back to the 1970s, Fullcup Planet lays on the old-school charm with its all-out retro carnival of kitschy trinkets and furniture retained from the traditional bing sutt (冰室) that formerly occupied the space.
Yet, while the atmosphere and design are decidedly nostalgic, the menu is up-to-the-minute, covering modern Japanese dishes such as Wagyu hamburger steak ($148) and Japanese beef curry served with red rice ($168), as well as a wide range of unique beverages—think Okinawa salt brown sugar latte ($69), strawberry & starfruit blended tea ($56), and Baileys coffee ($98)!
Fullcup Planet, 91 Ma Tau Kok Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2771 7775
Inspired by the bento-style meals sold on railways in Taiwan, Railway Bento maintains the unpretentious charm of the stereotypically low-brow lunchbox cuisine, but adds a twist to the experience with its refined surroundings and injection of Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese influences. The clean, wood-panelled walls and warmly-lit hanging lanterns create a relaxing atmosphere that lends itself just as well for a quick, fuss-free easy meal as it does dinner with friends.
Opt for their signature Taiwanese bentos, which come filled to the brim with three weekly rotating sides, a marinated egg, and your choice of meat, such as braised minced pork ($60), fried chicken ($56), and brown sugar soft pork bones ($58)—all layered atop a bed of Japanese short-grain rice. Wash it all down with bubble tea ($26) or a refreshing mango buckwheat tea ($25)!
Railway Bento, 278A Ma Tau Wai Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2386 6690
If coffee is your elixir of life, then this friendly neighbourhood coffee joint is an unmissable stop when exploring To Kwa Wan. Specialising in the full-immersion siphon brewing method—which is known for yielding an intense, full-bodied flavour—John Choy Café boasts over 30 different coffee beans sourced from around the globe, with something to cater to every coffee drinker’s palate.
In-between sips of your delicious brew, nosh on their equally destination-worthy grilled sandwiches ($30). You can choose one or two fillings from a range of seven options or go with their famous club sandwich ($35), which comes stuffed with scrambled eggs, ham, Spam, and cheese.
John Choy Café, Shop 18–19, 5 Wai King Street, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2333 6349
HeySoNuts guarantees great handcrafted coffee and espresso drinks, with a fully equipped tea bar and an ever-busy kitchen with a full food menu. You can grab a cup of coffee and people-watch for the day. The dessert menu is certainly a highlight, since they have soufflé pancakes, waffles, and mille-feuilles, as well as their famous homemade tiramisù ($54), plated to look like a rubber duck in a bath!
HeySoNuts, Shop 3, 149 Pak Tai Street, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2687 1428
This charming café is decked out in gilded marble patterns. Some may say it’s “basic,” but who doesn’t enjoy a bit of luxury here and there? On The Hill Coffee Bar also blends in pieces of wooden flooring to incorporate different textures, creating a relaxing space to hide from the summer heat.
Not only does the café serve great coffee, but they also have bagels and cute baked treats. From the bar and seating area to the storefront, everywhere is an Instagrammable spot, so make sure to come with a friend to help with all of your model pictures!
On The Hill Coffee Bar, Shop 2, Basement, Po Fai Building, 435–439 Chatham Road North, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 9841 482
This modern food stall is known to mix new and traditional ingredients together to create modern dai pai dong (大排檔) dishes, like fried truffle squid fish cake and sugar-pulled sweet and sour pork, which actually requires high-level techniques to pull off despite the cutesy names. Plastered in 1970s and 1980s posters, you should definitely come and get a real taste of how versatile Cantonese cuisine really is!
Chorland Cookfood Stall, Shop 2 & 4, 187 Ma Tau Wai Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2515 1500
Famous for their fermented beancurd chicken balls ($36), Yue Min Fong (譽麵坊) retains the glory of traditional street food. The chicken balls are fried to a dark golden crisp that locks in the moisture and meat juices. One bite into them, paired with their brown-red sauce, brings out a deep beancurd flavour, and provides proof to why this dish is the shop’s signature.
Yue Min Fong, 6 San Shan Road, To Kwa Wan | (+852) 2760 1872