To get a taste of Hong Kong’s history, take a walk in Old Town Central, discovering colourful Bruce Lee murals, priceless antiques, re-purposed prisons and more along the way. By Kalpana Sunder
Shafts of sunlight pierce smoky interiors painted in red and gold. The Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, built in 1847, is a serene space tucked between skyscrapers. It is dedicated to the God of Literature and the God of War. This is where students come to pray with their parents. The air is thick with smoke wafting from giant incense coils and the interiors dotted with golden urns, dazzling altars and Chinese wood carvings. Worshippers burn joss sticks, make offerings and shake thin bamboo ‘fortune sticks’ vigorously to read their fortunes. The God of Literature, clad in a green robe, holds a calligraphy brush and the God of War, dressed in a red robe, totes a sword. The temple was built by wealthy Chinese merchants and doubled up as a court of arbitration that resolved local disputes.
I am in Old Town Central in Hong Kong, beneath the glitzy skyscrapers of Central. Bordered by Wyndham Street, Caine Road, Possession Street and Queen’s Road, this district is often described as a place where “East meets West”. It’s the place to be if you like your destinations with layers of history and tradition.
We start at Possession Street, the place where the British officially took over Hong Kong, beginning 150 years of colonial rule. Once it was on the waterfront; today, it’s a sprawl of restaurants and boutiques. Hollywood Road is not named after the Californian city of stars, but for the holly shrubs that grew in the fishing village. Hollywood Road is where merchant sailors hawked their artefacts from Mainland China. In present-day Hong Kong, Hollywood Road is dotted with dozens of antique shops filled with furniture, ceramics and objets d’art.
We traipse up and down hilly streets of the Sheung Wan area on steps flanked by apartment buildings, shops and schools. Laundry hangs from bamboo poles and wrinkled men play mahjong under a bright sun. Schoolkids in their navy blue and white uniforms trudge along with knapsacks on their back. We climb Ladder Street, a long granite stone staircase that begins at Queen’s Road Central. It was built in the late 1800s to connect the Chinese populace with the foreign communities in the area. The Tung Wah Hospital, which is the oldest western hospital in Hong Kong, is also located on this street along with funeral homes that date back over a century.
A sharp left turn lands us in Upper Lascar Street, named after lascars, or Indian officers in the British military who lived in these parts and sold second-hand goods. This is also called Cat Street, because it historically sold stolen goods known as ‘mouse goods’ in Chinese. Cheung tells us that this was once the heart of a crowded slum, notorious for its opium dens, gambling parlours and brothels.
Today, however, the stretch is lined with old memorabilia, antiques, propaganda notices, Bruce Lee posters, vintage postcards, Mao statues, paperweights, watches and clocks, snuff bottles and tea pots of a bewildering variety. Some shops even sell Ming-era furniture and jade jewellery. We walk up the bustling alleys to an upcoming neighbourhood called Poho—buildings here have names beginning with ‘Po’ (‘treasure’ in Chinese). Covering Tai Ping Shan Street, Po Hing Fong, Square Street and Pound Lane, the laid-back neighbourhood has a curious mix of galleries, concept stores, printing shops, coffin makers, art studios and teahouses, all standing cheek by jowl with street art tucked away in hidden alleys.
I browse shops that sell vintage goods, vinyl records, film posters, Scandinavian furniture, and a unique range of local designer goods. Rare, original posters of classic movies from the 1960s, old transistors and radios, toys, vintage spectacles, hats and tin cans—the shops let you travel through time.
Every now and then, we stop at popular local joints for a refill—from Hong Kong’s famous egg tarts with short crust pastry at Tai Cheong Bakery to a glass of sugarcane juice at the old fashioned Kung Lee Herbal Tea House (60, Hollywood Rd) with its ceramic tiles and old ceiling fans. A wealth of street art and graffiti adorns the alleys off Hollywood Street. Among them is a huge mural at the intersection of Graham Street and Hollywood Road that is so popular on Instagram that people line up to be photographed against it! Another sought-out mural is one of Bruce Lee done by a South Korean graffiti artist on Tank Lane.
Chinese and Western architecture came together in the area in the colonial era and we see a fine example on Bridges Street, where Cheung points out the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong with its blend of red-brick walls, a green Chinese roof and the Chicago School style of architecture. In this area, many historical buildings have been given new purposes and are turning into functional avant-garde spaces for the public to enjoy. For instance the former milk depot Fringe Dairy on Lower Albert Road is now a cosy venue for jazz and rock performances.
Our last stop on Hollywood Road is Tai Kwun, an erstwhile police station, jail and magistrate’s court spread over 16 colonial buildings with colonnades and Doric columns. After a multi-million-dollar renovation, it is now a culture, art and restaurant hub. You can still take a tour of its old cells where Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was jailed in the 1930s, with audiovisual displays that showcase the life of the inmates, or sit under a canopy of Tiffany-style domes with images of dragonflies at the swish Ashley Sutton-designed bar Dragonfly and end the evening at Madame Fù with a Cantonese meal housed in the Barracks Block.
To find Hong Kong’s soul, a walk through Old Town Central is essential. Beneath the glitz and of urban chic and development, this pocket of tradition and culture is where time seems to have stood still.
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