The olde Mr Simms sweet shop sat on an unassuming corner on Spring Garden Lane. It’s a good location, just next to QRE and Hopewell Center, across the road from the jockey club gambling ticket office (not sure if this is the right description for it). The sign didn’t really stand out though, and when I went in once looking for a particular item, the shop girls in there were unnecessarily terse with me. So despite it’s appealing window displays and witty blackboard signs left on the pavement, I never went back in.
The irony of its replacement was not lost on me. From a candy shop that stocked almost every coloured additive to a great deal of sugar and possibly a similar amount of starch and flavouring, the space has now become a GP clinic.
It’s too bad that Wan Chai is losing diversity in shop choices… perhaps Okashi land is drawing most of the crowd. Will the Mr Simms sweet shop move elsewhere in Wan Chai? I’m guessing that the GP will make more money in the long run.
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.
Sometimes old buildings just get a clean up and a new lick of paint. The residents don’t change, no new additions to the structure. For example this one.
The building on the left is what the block used to look like. The orange one awkwardly angled, is the building that was just re-painted. The building with the tinted glass on the right is the very fashionable Indigo Hotel.
Digging beneath the dirt… To find the good and the gritty