By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
On the Waterfront
On a map, Eastern District takes the shape of a sea serpent writhing along the shores of Victoria Harbour. Nobody in the district lives more than 1,500 metres from the waterfront, hemmed in as they are by the mountains of Hong Kong Island’s interior. It may not always be possible to see the ocean — the district is home to nearly 600,000 people in 19 square kilometres, which means there are a lot of high rises — but it’s impossible not to feel its presence. Seafood populates the district’s markets and a fresh breeze clears the air.
This is a district that has always depended on its waterfront. In North Point, beaches were developed into factories and industrial wharves, which have continued to evolve as new hotels and cultural facilities are built near the water. Quarry Bay’s old dockyards are now a bustling commercial district home to good restaurants, the ArtisTree cultural venue and pleasant outdoor spaces. Quarry Bay Park is home to one of Hong Kong’s most pleasant waterfront promenades, where you can enjoy a breezy stroll or discover an historic fireboat that has been converted into a museum.
The tram is never far from the water, and if you hop on in Quarry Bay, you’ll soon arrive at the terminus in Shau Kei Wan, an historic fishing village that remains home to one of Hong Kong’s best seafood markets. Despite land reclamation and redevelopment, Shau Kei Wan is still a community that lives according to the cycle of the tides, with a large and picturesque typhoon shelter, small-scale shipyards and temples dedicated to seafaring gods.
Catch a classic movie at the Film Archive, a repository of Hong Kong’s rich film history.
Wander through the Shau Kei Wan Market, where you’ll find live fish, exotic fruit, dried seafood and typically Chinese spices.
Grab lunch and buy fresh local produce at the Tong Chong Street Market, which takes place every Sunday between November and February.
Visit the Museum of Coastal Defence, located inside an historic fort that was part of a network of maritime defence outposts.
Have a seafood dinner at Tung Po, a delicious and always lively Cantonese restaurant inside the Java Road market.
Take in a Cantonese opera show at Sunbeam Theatre, whose stages have played host to some of the world’s biggest Chinese opera stars since 1972.
When the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club built its first headquarters on Oil Street in 1908, the Arts and Crafts-style complex was located on the shores of Victoria Harbour — as you might expect. But the waterfront is always shifting in Hong Kong and the historic clubhouse now sits a few hundred metres inland. The yacht club long ago moved elsewhere, but its birthplace now has a new lease on life as Oi!, a community art space with regular workshops and exhibitions.
Standing 532 metres tall, Mount Parker dominates the eastern half of Hong Kong. In fact, it is only slightly shorter than its more famous counterpart, Victoria Peak. Unlike The Peak, however, a hike up this mountain will lead you to historic treasures instead of exclusive residences. Walk along the Wilson Trail and you will come across the Wartime Cooking Stoves, large outdoor kitchens built in preparation to feed Hongkongers during World War II. Not far away is the Woodside Biodiversity Education Centre, whose exhibitions on Hong Kong's flora and fauna are housed inside a 1920s mansion built by the Taikoo Sugar company.
Few locals know about this unusual museum, let alone tourists, but this vintage fire boat is worth a stop for anyone interested in Hong Kong’s marine heritage. From 1953 to 2002, the Alexander Grantham served as the flagship of Hong Kong’s marine fire services. At the time it was commissioned, thousands of people lived in Hong Kong’s typhoon shelters, and fires often broke out in these floating villages. Today, the fire boat sits in Quarry Bay Park, where it displays some fascinating marine artefacts.
For years, Para Site was a leading light in an otherwise gloomy art scene. Founded by seven artists in 1996, it was one of the few non-profit art spaces in Hong Kong. These days, the city’s art scene is finally thriving, with international attention and no shortage of local shows, but Para Site still holds the torch for progressive contemporary art. The space is known for edgy exhibitions like A Journal of the Plague Year, which looked at the cultural and social impact of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Now located in a two-storey space in Quarry Bay, Para Site has more room than ever to fulfil its ambitions.
It has always been tough to find space for live music in Hong Kong: although the city is a regular stop for overseas acts and there is plenty of homegrown talent, high rents and low margins make it difficult to run a music venue. While a number of new publicly funded venues are coming online in the near future, North Point’s MOM Livehouse has already come to the rescue. Since opening in 2016, the 200-person space has hosted a diverse range of shows, from indie pop to hardcore, along with upstart festivals like The Gig Week.
You can smell Lee Keung Kee before you even see it — which is handy, because this diminutive stall is easy to miss. Egg waffles are the speciality here. Known locally as gai daan zai (‘little chicken eggs’) they are bubble-shaped pockets of joy, crunchy on the outside, sweet and fluffy inside. This North Point outpost is one of the best in the city — so good it even earned a mention in the 2017 Hong Kong & Macau Michelin Guide.
492 King's Road, North Point, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
Suitable for cultural explorers, family, trend hunters
Ng Cho-bang has driven Hong Kong’s double-decker trams through Eastern District for more than 30 years. In that time, entire hills have been flattened and developed with skyscraping apartment towers. A tram route that once meandered along the waterfront has been straightened. Even the waterfront itself has shifted, extended outwards by decades of land reclamation. Where there were once factories and shipyards there are now hotels and luxurious office towers.
And yet, despite the changes, some things remain the same, not the least of which is the tram. Ng says homemakers and elderly people still take it to the wet market to fetch their daily groceries. “Sometimes I help them with their grocery cart,” he says. “There are times that some passengers give me a fruit as a thank you gift when they finish the journey.” While the city around it may grow, the tram remains a throwback to a friendlier, less complicated time.
That’s why it’s the perfect vehicle to explore Eastern District. In 1904, the tram was extended from Causeway Bay to Shau Kei Wan, linking up the neighbourhoods that were quickly growing along the eastern shore of Hong Kong Island. Even today, perched on the upper deck of a tram, a warm sea breeze blowing through the carriage, you can get a sense of the district’s rich history and evolving culture.
Much of the tram’s route takes it along King’s Road, which is lined by distinctive 1960s-style buildings. As you pass Oil Street, look to the left and you’ll catch a glimpse of the century-old clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which has been preserved and converted into a community art space, Oi!. You’ll soon pass the remarkable 1950s structure of the former State Theatre, one of Hong Kong’s last remaining movie palaces, which was recently saved from redevelopment by citizen activists. Not far away is another mid-century landmark, the Sunbeam Theatre, where Cantonese opera shows are still performed today. Further along, the Film Archive is a repository of Hong Kong’s unique film heritage, and a must for any film buff.
If you’re on a tram bound for North Point, you’ll end up in the Chun Yeung Street market, where motormen ring the tram’s bells as they pass within inches of fruit hawkers and clothing stalls. This market street bears the marks of Eastern District’s unique social history. In the 1940s, after World War II and the Chinese Civil War, many families from Shanghai made their way to North Point, where they opened barber shops, tailoring businesses and restaurants. In the 1960s, they were replaced by migrants from Fujian province. About a third of Hong Kong’s one million Fujianese still live in North Point and there’s no better place to discover their unique food culture than in the grocery stores and market stalls of Chun Yeung Street.
Another market sits just a few blocks away. The Java Road Market is an industrial looking concrete structure — not the most inviting place from the outside, but if you make your way past its butcher stalls and fruit hawkers on its lower floors, you will come to the Cooked Food Centre on the top floor, where seafood specialist Tung Po has earned a loyal following for its Cantonese-style seafood. With plastic stools, big round tables and its exuberant atmosphere, it’s an indoor version of the outdoor dai pai dong restaurants that once thronged Hong Kong’s streets.
Tung Po isn’t the only surprise hidden inside the imposing buildings of Eastern District. It may not be obvious from street level, but inside glossy office towers and dingy industrial blocks is a burgeoning creative scene anchored by spaces like Connecting Spaces, Para Site and ArtisTree, which offer art exhibitions, performances and other events. These spaces coexist with new development that is reshaping old industrial areas like Quarry Bay, which has become one of the city’s most important office hubs.
That’s particularly true every Sunday from November to February, when the Tong Chong Street Market brings fresh locally farmed produce, tasty snacks and live performances to the heart of Quarry Bay. “More great things have happened at the market than I could have ever imagined — pop-up food stands becoming brick and mortar restaurants, people getting to meet local farmers first hand, watching vendors collaborate with each other,” says the market’s founder, sustainable food advocate Janice Leung Hayes.
You can get to the market by bus or MTR — but somehow, the tram feels particularly appropriate. When Ng Cho-bang navigates his tram through Eastern District, he thinks about the “gigantic changes” it has seen, but he is put at ease by the idea that the tram still unites its people and places. “It makes me feel proud and fulfilled,” he says.
Suitable for cultural explorers
It’s early on a weekday evening in Shau Kei Wan and fragrant smoke is wafting out from a low-slung greystone temple. Inside, an elderly woman burns joss sticks to pay homage to Hong Kong’s most venerated deity: Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. In Chinese mythology, Tin Hau was a 10th century Fujianese woman credited with saving her father and brothers when they were out fishing during a typhoon. Today, there are more than 100 temples dedicated to Tin Hau across Hong Kong, most of them located in communities that gained their livelihood from the sea.
That was certainly the case in Shau Kei Wan, where a group of fishermen and merchants pooled their money to build a Tin Hau Temple in 1873. The next year, a ferocious typhoon slammed into Hong Kong and decimated much of the city. The temple was largely destroyed, but most of Shau Kei Wan was left intact. Local lore credits Tin Hau for sacrificing herself to save the rest of the village.
Hong Kong has always lived by the tempers of the sea. For centuries, it was populated mainly by boat dwellers, only a handful of whom settled permanently on land. Shau Kei Wan was founded in the early 18th century by fishing families that took refuge in its sheltered bay, which is located along the narrowest point in Victoria Harbour. Like much of Hong Kong, its isolation made it a haven for pirates, so in the 1860s, the British colonial government built roads and a permanent police presence. That drew an increasing number of migrants from mainland China, many of whom began to operate small workshops and factories.
Shau Kei Wan continued to grow after the tramway arrived in 1904. By the middle of the 20th century, the seaside settlement was a booming fishing port, shipbuilding centre and manufacturing hub. Wood shacks clambered up the hillsides that surrounded the bay, home to thousands of new arrivals trying to make a living. That was still the scene when Lam Chi-wing began working as a tram motorman more than 30 years ago. “The area was packed with wooden house villages,” he recalls. Lam found himself in Shau Kei Wan at least half a dozen times a day as he conducted his tram back and forth across Hong Kong Island. “The [tram terminus] was once located beside a typhoon shelter where there were a lot of fishing vessels sailing in and out,” he says.
That soon changed. Part of Shau Kei Wan’s harbour had already been filled in by the early 1980s, and the rest of it was reclaimed for public housing in the 1990s. But you can still smell the brine of the sea in the neighbourhood’s streets, which is why tour guide and former travel journalist Daisann McLane loves taking visitors there. “So many threads of Hong Kong’s history weave together in Shau Kei Wan,” she says.
McLane’s company, Little Adventures in Hong Kong, crafts bespoke walking tours for overseas visitors. When she takes them to Shau Kei Wan, she starts near the tram terminus, which lies between the enclosed Shau Kei Wan Market and a thriving street market.
“Shau Kei Wan is a classic example of how geography determines a place,” she says. Its location next to a tall headland made it a natural terminus for the tram, while its location on the eastern narrows of Victoria Harbour made it a natural trading hub for nearby island settlements. “The happy legacy of this is the massive and richly stocked Shau Kei Wan wet market, my favourite in Hong Kong and one that never fails to thrill our walking tour guests,” she says.
Walking through the market, McLane points out women selling “half-dried” fish, which are salted overnight to make them last a few extra days – a technique pioneered by the wives of fishermen to preserve their husband’s surplus catch. You can also find all manner of pungent dried seafood, not to mention fresh-caught fish, still alive and thrashing in buckets of saltwater. Every so often, a fish jumps out of a container and flops onto the street, hawkers scrambling to retrieve it.
Though the waterfront has been pushed outwards, a short walk brings you to the present-day typhoon shelter, where a handful of wooden sampan boats are still inhabited by water dwellers. A few shipbuilding enterprises still line the foreshore. If you keep walking, you’ll reach the Museum of Coastal Defence, a testament to another aspect of Hong Kong’s maritime history. But first, stop by the waterfront temple for Tam Kung, a god with the ability to control wind and rain. Tin Hau makes an appearance, too, with a small secondary shrine — all the better to protect a community that, for all its changes, has never lost its link to the sea.
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