Category Archives: History

Abuse of subsidized space

This recent article “Management of the city’s public markets must be improved” -about the abuse of subsidized space- made me think about a quiet corner in Wan Chai market.

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.

Well past 11am on a weekday and it’s closed.

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.

Not big, not small. And not very nice.
Struggling grass… not enough light, soon to be trampled..

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.

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The never ending queue of Kam’s Roast Goose

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.

Find your way to Kam’s Roast Goose.

The fat Japanese ramen chef is back on Tai Wong East Street

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.

Urban Canvas and School Art Exhibit at Comics Home Base 動漫基地

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!”


Nice one. Take a look at the more elegant graffiti around Wanchai. (It’s my personal collection, let me know if there are any nice ones I’ve missed).

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. 

Is this a demon? Evil monkey? Sinister robot?
A Buddhist kung fu master with the Goddess of Mercy
Taoist priest

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.

Harlequin or Alice in Wonderland?
Global warming. The last island for the next generation.
Chinese opera & Canteen food frustration

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). 

Lampshade – HK 茶餐厅 food theme
Various lampshades

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.  

Alternatively download the Urban Canvas app and see them all on your screen. 

Urban Canvas app
Urban Canvas Wan Chai Tours

First flea market at the newly renovated Blue House 藍屋 in Wan Chai

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. 

Scenes from the Flea market

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. 

An enterprise promoting cargo bikes and street hawking

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. 

What is a Cantonese wet shave? Find out at Oi Kwan Barbers

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.

Oi Kwan Barbers closed on Wednesday
Shop is closed, all boarded up
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.

Mallory Street entrance, Oi Kwan Barbers
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.

Customer getting a hair cut at Oi Kwan Barbers

Read more about its current owner Mark Lau here.

Preserve the Curve: Wan Chai Architecture

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

Nice pink curve

 

2. Church on intersection of Johnston Road, Hennessy and Arsenal Street 

Church with rounded corner

3. Johnston Road  and Fleming Road 

Tai Yau Plaza, nicely curved

4. Newly renovated Takan Lodge, Johnston Road

Takan Lodge, nice curve

5. Curved building on Hennessy, Stewart Road intersection

Large pink curved building

6. On Wan Chai road, near Wan Chai outdoor market

Curved Building near Wanchai 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.

Curved ledge, Tai Wong East Street
Curved ledge for the Jenga building
Curved ledge, near Wanchai mtr
Curved ledge, Johnston Road and Tai Wo Street
Curved ledge, Lockhart Road
Curved ledge, Lockhart Road

 

Curved Ledge, Lockhart road and Tonnochy Road

 

Curved ledge, corner of Fenwick & Hennessy, Wanchai
Curved ledge, corner of Fenwick & Hennessy

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.

The building in this photo no longer exists.

A very famous curved building, Old Wanchai market.