To help me identify the trees of Wan Chai a little better, I decided to attend the talk by Sally Grace Bunker and Richard Saunders at the Royal Geographical Society.
They were introducing their book which was a culmination of almost eight years of work by Sally. She’s a trained but largely self taught botanical artist, who depicts the full loveliness of the tree and it’s various functional parts. It reminds me very much of the work by William Farquhar (who drew a tree very much loved by me).
It was a good session, full house with rapt attention and lots of questions. Both speakers gave a very personal and passionate speech about their involvement in the project and in their own areas of interest. The slides they presented were insightful and highlighted the work that had yet to be done.
My only issue with the book is it’s size. It’s a huge heavy hard copy that is good for the library or the coffee table. But most of us don’t have the space to be keeping reference material. So one question that was posed to them was whether there would be a “travel version” of the book. Sally didn’t dismiss the idea…
They’ll be speaking at a few more events to promote their book so just google to see when the next event is.
It’s quiet because there’s not much economic activity going on there. The stalls nearby must have a love-hate relationship with the two stalls that are perpetually covered up, full of cartons and crates.
On one hand, it’s not competition, so that’s a plus. Maybe they get to store boxes beside those stalls, also a plus. But then again the crowd doesn’t get drawn in. That’s a negative. So those stalls need to build up their business with regulars and the stumble-uponers, that is, the people who just happen to pass by en route elsewhere.
I’ve seen the representatives of the government landlord come round, handing out their papers near the end of the year, the stall owners heaving a sigh at the increase in rent. They are probably thinking of how to handle the questions from clients about the increase in prices for all the produce while everyone adjusts to the inflation while accepting that salary increases are almost negligible.
Renting a stall in the indoor market costs around ten thousand Hong Kong dollars for about 30-40 square feet of space. That’s not cheap for a very basic layout in a rather cramped environment. On the upside, the stalls get fantastic foot traffic from a very mixed crowd. The army of domestic helpers wearing their caps and dragging their trolleys, all jostling for a stall position. The tai tai grandmas who choose to peruse the chaos and when the opportunity arises, shove themselves to the front while loudly complaining how crowded it is to the fishmonger.
The army of MPVs with drivers waiting for their owners gives you a big clue as to the patrons of the various stalls. Wouldn’t a stall owner from outdoors prefer an indoor space? The clients sure do if it’s hot or raining… they already cause major traffic congestion by double parking.
Another example of an abuse of subsidized space must be the Blue House. The renovation of the usable space and it’s tenants has been rather disappointing.
Firstly, the commercial areas.
1) There is no one using the chinese clinic space. Is this space just for show? They should offer a group of bone-setting chinese physicians to use the space. Wouldn’t it be so cool to have a rotating number of chinese docs doing acupressure for clients or even the community? Great PR.
2) The House of Stories is nice and the curator and the young lady docent do their best to promote the history through talks and activities but it’s plain disappointing that you can’t also tour the living quarters of the Blue House. I mean…what did they do in that multimillion dollar renovation?! It would’ve been really fantastic if Hong Kong could pull off a reality museum where you could see what it was like before in photos and what it is now (maybe similar!). That would’ve won some awards and should’ve been a pre-condition to the tenants.
3) The chinese dessert shop is not nicely designed. It’s a pity that they couldn’t learn a design trick or two from Samsen (which manages to replicate the atmosphere of a Thai diner).
4) The organic goods shop is a real mish-mash of random dried and fresh produce. I’m not really sure who they supply. There is a market around the corner y’know.
5) The St. James donation shop is always a fun browse, it’s a whole flea market by itself. But why is the ventilation so poor? There’s a great book collection in there and they should do a proper job making it into a children’s resource or relaxation library… instead it smells like most of the books are being consumed by damp fungi.
6) The other Hong Kong House of stories room (which is rarely open) should have been amalgamated with the other room to make it a more spacious usable area. The local crafts workshops should run more regularly. It’s a real shame that local artists who regularly paint or photograph in the area can’t exhibit their works more often.
7) The vegetarian restaurant which barely has 4 tables is shoved into a lonesome back area that reminds you of where the bin lockers should be in any building. It’s an afterthought and the menu has no appeal at all. For a similar price, you can have a set lunch comfortably at Green Common or at the OVO restaurant, all within 3-5 minutes walk.
8) The small field or lawn should be landscaped more pleasantly. Right now it’s just looks like a disused plot and very attractive to breeding mosquitoes. Lots of photographers and models come to pose at the Blue House. If this could be set up as a nice garden -(yes, with real flowers and plants) for wedding / magazine photos -that would certainly add some sentimental and social value. Lee Tung Avenue’s wedding industry has all but disappeared due to the change in tastes and trends. It would be just fantastic if the Blue House could claw some of that back as part of the storytelling mission.
Taking photos at Lee Tung Avenue would be nice but look no different than photos taken in the Venetian (Macau) or Bicester village. But the Blue House would be unmistakably and definitively Wan Chai.
The mandate of the Blue House should be changed after a study of 2 years and updated. Conservation and preservation should work hand in hand with real education if not for entertainment. I’d like to see St James put in a nice kids area, for reading, for party rental, performances, community gatherings that bring the younger generation in. Kids in urban areas lack good affordable facilities to play in. Those playgrounds nearby are barely good for 10-15 minutes at the most.
Right now, the most famous thing about it is the photo spot next to the supposed chinese docs clinic and a wooden chair right outside the HK House of Stories which invites most people to post that pic on social media to say they’ve been. I just think that after all the effort of Pokemon getting all sorts of people to hang around outside the door of the Blue House catching poke monsters, that there is no other way to really draw them in.
Ps. have you noticed that it’s always the same cars parked in the same place on the street right beside the Blue House? They are pretty much fixtures there. Whoever owns those vehicles is most certainly abusing public space.
Have you heard about Kam’s Roast goose in Wanchai?
There’s a story of a family feud, arguments over intellectual property and a legal battle. Kam’s Roast Goose is the result of a split off.
This little restaurant in Wanchai that has seats that pack people in like sardines in a tin sees a never ending queue on weekends. Thinking of going at 2 or 3pm to skip the lunch crowd? Forget it, you’ll still be in the line for at least 30 minutes. Perhaps on a day of thunderstorms, that’ll be the time to go.
The location was expertly chosen. Facing the large, busy trunk of Hennessy road where traffic flow is a constant, The restaurant benefits from the wide sidewalk which allows people to queue 2-3 abreast and still provide space for pedestrians. The school occupying the adjacent plot completes the perfection of this lot as no other shops or restaurants complain about people blocking their frontage. The school entrance is on the other side and there isn’t any impedance to either party.
What about the food? I like everything but the goose. Somehow goose doesn’t really appeal to me… the meat is dark, on the dry side and in very small portions. I go for the siu yok, char siew and yao gai. Those dishes are excellent and you can takeaway at a very decent price.
When I went a few weekends ago to buy takeaway, I waited about 15 minutes (there were 3/4 people in the takeaway queue in front of me). A couple came along and asked the reception lady how long they would have to wait. “2 or 3 hours” she said without missing a beat. “Could be faster if people do drop out of the queue“.
If you can bear the wait and queue at the restaurant, bring a face mask because the fumes from the passing buses get really bad. It’s one of the worst stretches of bus fumes in Wan Chai.
The ramen shop that we used to frequent on Amoy Street changed hands about a year and a half ago. The fat japanese chef with the cheerful smile was replaced by three not so fat local chefs who barely acknowledged any of the customers behind those thick vapour clouds of steaming broth. We went back once after a long while, the food was decent but the service unremarkable.
On my walk along Tai Wong East Street last week, I was noting all the new coffee shops that have sprouted up.. the hipster lifestyle choices are now increasing after the launch of BakeHouse (fantastic breads but the pretzel is best in HK). I suddenly see a new lantern hanging and saw that it was a ramen shop. Curious, I stopped to check out the menu.
“Hello, long time no see” (said in Cantonese), it was the waitress I knew in the previous ramen shop. She still wore her glasses but not as heavily rimmed.
She said that their previous shop had been sold and now they opened this one on their own. I told her I’d come back to try it and that’s exactly what we did last Sunday.
We ordered two of the kamitora ramen and one black garlic oil ramen. SW commented that the black garlic oil ramen used to come with black coloured noodles as well… I suppose some things have changed.
Now, there’s no longer the order chit where you get to customise your noodle thickness or toppings. But you still help yourself to iced lemon water and the condiments like chilli powder at the table. The chilli beansprouts are now a side serving that you’ll have to order.
The bowls are tall and narrow based, I thought that the portions were a bit smaller than before but this didn’t really bother us. The slice of pork was decent sized and tender. Two pork meatballs replace the other slice of pork. I wasn’t a huge fan of the meatballs… a little small and gristly for me. Just help yourself to ice lemon water in jugs on the table (how very japanese) or order a soda from the fridge.
The wordings on the wet wipes are the most hilarious… see what I mean.
There’s ample space in the restaurant (open kitchen), but it’s mostly 2 person or bar seating. There’s only one area where they can 6 people as a group so this isn’t really a big group out sorta place. We brought our stroller and it was fine. Plenty of space for it during non-rush hour.
Overall it’s not bad and as I quite dislike having to queue for anything, this place is worth checking out. Look out for the red lantern as you cruise down Tai Wong East Street.
This blackboard with opening hours was placed indoors (yes, facing IN) when I went to eat there. I suggested to the chef that he place it outside so that clients could see when they are open or shut.
At the Comics Home Base 動漫基地 on Mallory Street, Urban Canvas has put up a booth along side an exhibition of artworks by children and teenagers from different school districts. The resulting art is very interesting and provides an insight into what local kids are into and how they view their city.
The opening installation is a large wall of graffiti with a quote from world famous graffiti artist Banksy.
“Graffiti is an honest way to express yourself as an artist. It doesn’t cost much to create, you don’t need special knowledge to appreciate and you don’t have to pay to see it!”
There’s one gallery space dedicated to Cantonese opera rod puppets. I’ve personally always found these to be somewhat freakish to look at but suppose they are essential to storytelling. Move over Jim Henson.
In another gallery, students used cardboard to shape life sized portraits using a lettering technique. I thought it showed the textures and reliefs beautifully. So simple yet it required careful measurements and cutting skills to get the shapes right. A great statement of versatility in an everyday packing material.
The next gallery featured clay work. Students were given head models on which to depict a theme or storyline. None of these had titles so I’m making up my own.
There are many more of these busts, some more twisted than these. I highly recommend you check them out.
The final student artwork is of lampshades. Each red lampshade (typically used in the markets), has a painted interior reflecting some aspect of Hong Kong. I really liked this one showcasing the typical constituents of a meal at a cha chaan teng (茶餐厅，local coffee shop).
If you’re planning to be in Wanchai and would like to check it out, here are the exhibits and opening hours.
The Urban Canvas exhibit is a small panelled display with photos of the collaborators. There’s a short clip with the artists talking and explaining their conceptualisation of the project. There’s also a booth up with two staff to promote their app. I had already downloaded it earlier in the week but they can guide you if you need some help with that. If you show them that you’ve got the app, you get a free roll of tape. There are three to choose from, each with a unique design of an old Hong Kong profession or image. If you “like” their FB page, you get a set of 4 postcards to decorate your own stall shutters. Very thoughtful and creative.
The Urban Canvas project promoted collaboration between the city’s young artists with old shops plying their trade around Wan Chai or Central. The artist gets to decorate the shutters of the shop with a graffiti style spray. The image reflects the shop’s trade, at least stylistically. It’s fun and it helps shop’s stand out when they are shut. Of course this means that you’ll need to go after office hours if you want to see it for yourself. After hours could be the best time of day to be on the streets anyway.
If you live in Wan Chai and looking for a flea market today, you’ll find it at the Blue House（藍屋）. It’s a lively scene. A small courtyard with music and packed with lots of traders each occupying a mat no larger than a meter square. I’m not sure who is buying… perhaps it may have been busier earlier in the day. It shuts at 6pm and with only an hour to go, I can still see lots of items on display.
My point is this. It’s poorly publicised. I wouldn’t have known about it except that I happened to walk right by it on Queens road east. Not a brochure, poster or banner anywhere in the neighbourhood until today. Why?
I’m keen to find out if the traders thought it was a worthwhile economic activity… perhaps just to get their branding and name featured on the launch of the Blue House.
I headed back there at 6pm to catch everyone tidying up. I wasn’t terribly impressed with what was for sale, it looked like bric-a-brac and some handicraft, a couple of purse stalls that looked like they were bought from Sham Shui Po (no offence meant, it’s just that they didn’t look special).
A lady was singing “moon represents my heart” by Teresa Teng accompanied by a guitarist. It was a bit karaoke and folksy.
There was a sign indicating where the snack booths were so I went in for a look. It was disappointing. The two booths had packed up and the room was small and cramped. Can’t have been much fun being stuffed into a corner.
On the bright side, there was a lady there who was selling twisty balloons. She was giving a few away free to the kids. One girl got an Elsa (from the Disney movie Frozen) and I was handed a Spider-Man for the baby. Well, why not. I asked her how business was today and if the event was well attended… “ma ma teh ler” (so-so in Cantonese) was her reply.
At the intersection of Stone Nullah Lane and Queens Road East, there was an interview taking place. It looked like a PR stunt for a company making “cargo bikes”, essentially stalls hitched onto a bicycle (think ice cream man, 1950’s style). A model of one was parked just outside Stone Nullah Tavern and another by the fruit farm chicken shop. I couldn’t quite figure whether the company plans to sell or rent them to small enterprises for use at flea markets and art fairs. Or perhaps it might be legal in Hong Kong to hawk wares on sidewalks and pavements again?
I’m really hoping that the St. James settlement (who managed the renovation of the Blue House and decides its fate) is going to hold nice events and not turn it into a dumpy, junky kind of event venue. I’m certainly less impressed with what they’ve done with the renovation (quality wise) vis-a-vis the Comix Home Base in Mallory Street where there is a theme, distinct sense of purpose, a nice library where kids hang out to read and updated Cha Chan Teng (茶餐厅）where you can have a decent milk tea in air conditioned comfort.
Despite being a resident, it’s fun to view daily life through a tourist lens. It never gets boring.
Spring Garden Lane for example, looks a little different every day and the mood of the street also varies according to the hour of the day. It’s tidal. The ebb of people heading towards Queens Road East for work in the morning and the flow back to the MTR station at 5pm. The smokers and queues at the Hong Kong Jockey Club branch on Saturdays, the queue for Kam Fung during breakfast and lunch hour seven days a week.
On a bright November afternoon last year, I happened to be strolling down Spring Garden Lane and saw a film crew right outside Oi Kwan’s barber shop. Most people wouldn’t even notice this hole in the wall. The barber shop occupies a narrow space between a florist and a very busy local restaurant. The reason why I noticed it at all is because I have an interest in barber shops. Well, ever since SW asked me to find one for him in Singapore many moons ago. The “where can I get a good shave“ question just had to be answered.
If you did a search for shaves in Hong Kong, you’ll probably find the most famous and classiest one in the Mandarin Oriental hotel where the barber also offers waxing and pedicure services (hey, guys only). Then you’ll get the hipster barbers in Central up by Soho where guys sport instagrammable haircuts and a couple of tattoos on each arm and an earring. Some will offer you a glass of whiskey or brandy to get you in the meditative mood. To go to these, you’d either have to be rich or trendy, probably both.
Not so at Oi Kwan. This little barber shop that started in the 1960’s seats three and there are no luxury bells and whistles. Goodness, there isn’t even a door.
It’s well lit and open on weekdays for hair cuts and shaves. You get your hair washed by sticking your head over a sink and a rudimentary shower hose douses you with water. Check out this review from a customer.
This little old barber shop has survived despite the gentrification of Wan Chai and has opened a branch at the Comix Home Base in Mallory Street.
I think it’s pretty funny that it took them half a century to open a branch, but that’s the way opportunities show up. They just launched this new branch on the 30th of March 2017. From the looks of it on the FB page, it’s a bit more upmarket and swanky, I’m sure the prices will reflect it too.
Perhaps this is to compete with all the swanky barbers in Central…
Their write up (above pic) tells you a bit more although the translation is a little dodgy. Just in case you can’t read it in the picture, I’ve typed it up here.
Living in history and a living history- best describes Oi Kwan barbers Hong Kong and China.
We walked with Hong Kong’s growth, reminded ourselves the treasure the prosperity earned through hardships.
In Spring Garden Lane where the ceiling fan turns slowly, the old radio gives its broken sound and the cut-throat razor gives you a gentle stroke, you recline on the chair, close your eyes, forget Hong Kong’s hot humid weather, forget the crowded alleys…. hold a old comic book and immerse yourself in this street corner… and 50 years passed.
Our fathers came from war shaken 1950’s China as most of the Hong Kong populations, started this little workshop. Enduring the hard times, Oi Kwan served generations to generations, from the neonates to their grandfathers, they all walked from this little alley with a refreshing and neat look.
Succeeding our fathers, we stood fast against the economic bubble of Hong Kong.
You can check them out if you need a shave in Wan Chai.
In Hong Kong, the grubbiest residential buildings stand insolently next to flashy skyscrapers, mirrors reflecting sunlight and steel glinting like unsheathed swords against the sky.
Buildings weren’t always designed to maximise square footage by being square. Neither did they incorporate angles which could “cut” their neighbours feng shui. The rounded corners are a style snapshot in time 1960’s or before, incorporating the best design for feng shui… especially in Wan Chai where roads and intersections can go off at crazy angles.
A few old and modern buildings retain the curves, let’s take a look at the ones in Wan Chai.
Here are buildings that have incorporated the curve into the design.
1. Queens road east & Anton Street
2. Church on intersection of Johnston Road, Hennessy and Arsenal Street
3. Johnston Road and Fleming Road
4. Newly renovated Takan Lodge, Johnston Road
5. Curved building on Hennessy, Stewart Road intersection
6. On Wan Chai road, near Wan Chai outdoor market
7. Almost circular building, Johnston- Fleming Road intersection
8. The building on Johnston Road and Wan chai Road & Hopewell Center
Of course the only completely round building in Wanchai is Hopewell Center.
Then there are the buildings that “cheat” and incorporate a rounded ledge.
Try spotting these buildings on your next walk around Wanchai.
You can read a little more on the fate of a curved Pawn Shop. It’s already been torn down.
There’s also the haunted house of Wanchai which is curved. However it’s not accessible to the public as Hopewell is constructing its new hotel and convention center, so you can read about it here.
When my friend VL visiting from Jakarta asked me this morning by whatsapp whether I knew this traditional Hong Kong dessert:
I immediately responded ” is that dragon beard candy?”
She said she loved them and asked if I knew where to get them. I recalled a shop along Wan Chai Road that sold them and a quick search online showed that they are also sold at the gift shops of the Conrad and Shangri-La hotels by a company known as Dragon Rich Profits under the brand Bamboo Garden. How very Hong Kong! It goes to show how these desserts are mostly relegated to foreigners buying them as gifts.
Buy me two boxes please, she said. I popped the small person in the pram and took her for her morning walk along Wan Chai road. Disappointingly, the entire row of shops which included a little bakery among other little shops were shuttered. Perhaps it was further along? I continued along until I reached Mallory Street, which was when I knew the shop was truly gone. I stopped at Queens Cafe Bakery to ask if they sold it or knew where might. The lady manning the store was singularly unhelpful. She told me she had no idea what it was and to go ask someone else.
I hung around outside the store for a bit wondering who else I should ask, when a guy who happened to be walking by asked if he could help. I showed him the picture and he said “Oh… Long So Tong“. Well at least he knew what it was.
Then he said that there used to be a store on Wan Chai road but that had shut down. There were no others in the neighborhood that he knew selling these candies. His very important tip, was that the shop in Wan Chai moved to Sheung Wan.
Where in Sheung Wan? I asked.
Near the Wing On departmental store. He said. Do you know where?
Yes I said
It’s in the lane right beside the store.
I thanked him profusely for his information.
After dropping the toddler off at playschool, I headed over to Sheung Wan by MTR. A few minutes were spent considering which exit I ought to emerge from. I decided to try the one that took me out to Bonham Strand where I knew there were lots of little shops.
It was a rainy day which made s search like this more awkward and difficult than usual. An umbrella to shield from rain, negotiating wet and uneven pavements without slipping… While keeping your eyes open for the right store.
I emerged from the exit and walked west toward the Western Market. A quick peruse through it and like the game of blindfold, I knew it was cold.
I popped the umbrella back open and headed out into the rain. This time down Wing Lok Street. Halfway down, I stopped to ask if any of the local dried seafood specialists standing on their little shop patio had any idea… Nope. All just pondered the photo, shook their heads. They were local and yet had absolutely no idea of their own traditional dessert, much less where to get it. No wonder it’s a dying trade. All just told me to keep asking someone else.
Ok I’ve had enough of the seafood sellers, time to head back towards Wing On departmental store and walk around it, maybe it was on the perimeter although I recall the store owning the block, with walls, glass and entrances on three sides. No room for shops on its doorstep.
I cut back onto Des Veoux road and retraced my steps past the Wellcome and back to the B entrance of the MTR that I emerged from. Nearing the traffic light junction, I looked ahead and couldn’t believe my luck. There, right in front of me was a large sign for traditional desserts. My excitement was palpable. I skipped across the road and indeed this was the shop that sold the Dragon Beard Candy.
Speaking with the young man running the shop, I remarked that there were only 5 packets in the display cabinet.
No problem, how many do you want? I have more in the fridge.
I asked for 10 packets. Each packet was quite small and HKD 18 each.
As he wrapped them up for me, I asked if this was the store in Wan Chai before.
Yes, he said. But rents went up and it was too expensive to maintain. We sell things for 10-20 dollars each, how much would we need to sell to pay the rent?
I nodded in understanding. Wan Chai’s gentrification was forcing out small businesses as landlords run their hands awaiting higher yields on rent. I hope that landlords will understand that all neighborhoods need a mix to survive. The shops in the Avenue for example, are not catering much to locals except for the upscale western cafes.
If St. James settlement could somehow include an aspect of this in their Blue House revamp, perhaps a traditional candy store could be a feature worth preserving. Tourists and interested locals could watch the process of constructing these pastries and also buy some… Not limited to purchasing from gift shops in the five star hotels or other usual tourist traps. I see many tour groups daily coming to Wan Chai for their architectural or heritage tour, wouldn’t it be appropriate to include a food tour as well if it could be done cleanly and nearly?
I presented the 10 packets to VL later that afternoon, she was overjoyed and will be hand carrying it back to Jakarta tomorrow as a treat for the rest of the family,
If you need to satisfy your Dragon beard candy craving (or indeed any traditional cookie craving), look for the Hillier Street Exit B, turn left as you emerge and the shop is directly across the street.
The Blue House in Wan Chai is a historic site that serves the community as a place to gather weekly for an assortment of talks, view small exhibitions of Hong Kong’s past and a hodge podge of books and toys.
The event space is a small area of roughly 250 square feet, furniture and randomly placed bric-a-brac reduces it to roughly 100 square feet of walkable area. Pretty small. It’s up some stairs (possibly to avoid flooding in the old days) and this is certainly an inconvenience to the disabled or those confined to a pram.
The extensive renovations taking place behind this facade is estimated to continue for the rest of this year, but it looks like there’ll be some open areas and rooms to hold yet more bric-a-brac.
Of the four little rooms on the ground floor, the first and second are blocked off with simple plaster board and serve as a makeshift notice board.
The third is the current event space area and the fourth is often full of guys wearing white undershirts sitting around. I’m unsure of what they do in there but perhaps it’s a rest area of sorts. Maybe it’s where the mahjong table is placed.
An open-air rectangular clear glass aquarium full of small koi and goldfish make a nice pit stop if you have kids in tow.
The Blue Househas its own decorations for this Chinese New Year. Red lanterns hang out front, a very cute knitting of a monkey couple adorn the corner street sign.
On the “notice board”, a range of announcements compete for attention. If you’re looking for something to do in Wan Chai, you might want to stop by and have a look.
You can volunteer to help out with the Southorn community during Chinese New Year (2016) though you’d have to speak Cantonese, or take part in the stamp making workshop later in the month on the 27th of February.
Digging beneath the dirt… To find the good and the gritty