By LUXE City Guides; images by Nicolas Petit
Kowloon City is about as diverse as Hong Kong gets. Occupying the eastern half of the Kowloon peninsula, this district spans old neighbourhoods, leafy suburban enclaves, historic sites and the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped into a recreational hub.
In between you’ll find streets that are home to some of Hong Kong’s most robust cultural communities. Little Thailand is a go-to spot for fresh Southeast Asian herbs, fruits and spices, not to mention deliciously spicy meals. There’s also a large community of Chiu Chow people who trace their origins to eastern Guangdong — and in some cases, both Thai and Chiu Chow cultures have merged to create something fascinating and unique.
The diversity extends to Kowloon City’s history. This area predates modern Hong Kong by centuries, with landmarks dating as far back as the 13th century. Historic houses have been converted into coffee shops, old villages are being revitalised and former industrial facilities have become creative enclaves. This is also where you’ll find the remnants of the notorious Kowloon Walled City, a Chinese military outpost that grew into the world’s most unusual vertical slum. It has now been converted into a beautiful park with an historic site at its heart.
Delicious food, captivating history and the scents and sounds of lands far away — if there’s any district that proves how eclectic and multifaceted Hong Kong can be, it’s this one.
Immerse yourself in Hong Kong’s fascinating gritty history in the Kowloon Walled City Park.
Reflect on the escape of the Song Dynasty emperors at Sung Wong Toi garden.
Take your time to explore the historic yet little-known Hau Wong Temple.
Discover cutting-edge contemporary art in a heritage setting at the Cattle Depot Artist Village.
Stock up on Thai sweets, fruits, curry pastes and other delicious ingredients on South Wall Road.
Eat your way through Thailand without leaving Hong Kong at the Kowloon City Market.
Well before Art Basel turned Hong Kong into a global art destination, this historic slaughterhouse was one of the city’s first clusters of art studios. Founded to accommodate those displaced from the short-lived but vibrant Oil Street art colony in North Point, it is now home to creative types like the Frog King, an eccentric performance artist known for his ornate amphibian costume. You can also catch some avant-garde work at Videotage, Hong Kong’s leading video art institution; 1a Space is another well-regarded contemporary gallery in the village.
63 Ma Tau Kok Road, Ma Tau Kok, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 3509 7338
The quality of the produce in the Kowloon City Market draws famous visitors like film star Chow Yun-fat, who is sometimes spotted buying his groceries here. Among the 581 stalls are vendors selling imported fruits from Southeast Asia, including mangos, rambutan and — most exotic of all — durian. Not everyone loves durian’s potent aroma and creamy, sweet-yet-savoury flavour, but it has legions of fans who come to Kowloon City during the late-summer durian season to hunt for some of the best specimens in Hong Kong.
100 Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 2383 2224
As the name suggests, this rock looks like the tail of a fish plunging into the water. Renowned for its good feng shui, the rock is located on the former Hoi Sham Island; a small temple to the dragon goddess Lung Mo once stood at the foot of the rock, accessible only by boat. Land reclamation in the 1960s swallowed up the island, which was incorporated into the new Hoi Sham Park and you can now relax under the trees in full view of the fishtail. Although the temple was demolished in 1964, its statue of Lung Mo was saved and relocated to the historic To Kwa Wan Tin Hau Temple nearby.
Yuk Yat Street, To Kwa Wan, Kowloon (View on Map)
Built in 1983 but recently renovated and expanded, Ko Shan Theatre is now a hub for Cantonese opera. Like other forms of Chinese opera, the Cantonese variety features sweeping historical epics performed through song, martial arts and acrobatics. Along with regular opera performances, Ko Shan Theatre is home to the Cantonese Opera Education and Information Centre, which offers a thorough introduction to the art form and its history.
77 Ko Shan Road, Hung Hom, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 2740 9222
Part of the new Kerry Hotel, this waterfront food hall brings together 10 different vendors offering Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Japanese cuisines, along with local favourites like beef brisket noodles. Wash down your meal with a locally brewed craft beer, including the custom-made Young Master Dockyard Ale. Best of all, Dockyard offers an app-based, cash-free payment system that lets you order food from any of the vendors without leaving your seat.
Designed by renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster, this is the first facility to open as part of the redeveloped Kai Tak Airport. You don’t have to wait for your ship to come in to visit, it makes the most of its location at the tip of the old runway. There’s a 23,000-square-metre public park on the rooftop with panoramic views of Victoria Harbour; on a sunny day, the clouds are reflected in the park’s lily ponds. If it’s raining, take refuge in The Old Hangar, a spacious bar and restaurant serving local craft beer and Western-style comfort food.
33 Shing Fung Road, Kai Tak, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 3465 6888
For history, culture, architecture
Hong Kong has often been quick to discard its heritage, but it’s there — you just have to look for it. That’s especially true in Kowloon City, where you’ll find an eclectic and unexpected assortment of historic sites and nostalgic businesses.
The Stone Houses are a perfect example. For years, these traditional Chinese farmhouses were abandoned and fenced off, barely noticed by people passing by on Junction Road. However, after restoration by the government, they reopened in 2015 and now play host to a speciality coffee shop and a small museum that sheds light on the history of the surrounding area.
“This was a village for grassroots people,” says Mo Pui-yee, who helps run the site. She went to school nearby and remembers houses, shops, small factories and even a film studio. When the rest of the village was torn down for development, this row of stone houses somehow survived the wrecking ball.
Today, the leafy terrace of the Stone House cafe has become a popular place for people in the neighbourhood to hang out. And from there, you can see another historic site across the street: the Hau Wong Temple. Built in 1730, it is one of the few local shrines to Yeung Leung-jit, who guarded the Song dynasty’s child emperor when they fled to Hong Kong in the late 1270s. Unlike some better-known temples around Hong Kong, you’re unlikely to find many visitors here, so it’s a great opportunity to take your time inspecting the colourful friezes, the unusual gabled design of the roof, and historic artefacts like an iron incense burner.
In the 19th century — the late Qing Dynasty — imperial soldiers often came to pay their respects to Hau Wong. They didn’t have to travel far. The Chinese military post was located just a few hundred metres away, in the present-day Kowloon Walled City Park. Built in the 1840s, the walled city was mostly home to soldiers and their families, but after the British leased the New Territories in 1898, they took control of the land around the enclave — but not the area within.
That created a strange kind of no man’s land that drew waves of migrants who built a towering city-within-a-city. Notorious for its unlicensed dentists, factories and drug scene, the walled city was eventually home to more than 40,000 people. It was torn down in 1993 and replaced by a public park, but one thing was preserved: a historic yamen, an old Qing Dynasty administrative post, which had stood at the centre of the area even as tenement buildings towered over it.
Not far away is an even older example of a walled settlement. Nga Tsin Wai has stood on the banks of the Kai Tak River for more than 600 years. Today, most of the village is being redeveloped into apartment towers, but its key features will be preserved, including the old village gate, some stone houses and the village temple, which is dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. If you visit on the 23rd day of the third lunar month, you’ll find the village alive once again as its descendants return to celebrate Tin Hau’s birthday.
As you may have guessed, Kowloon City’s history stretches back far longer than most people realise. When eight-year-old Song dynasty emperor Zhao Shi and his seven-year-old brother Zhao Bing fled Mongol invaders in the 13th century, they took refuge on a hill that overlooked Kowloon City’s rice paddies and villages. Legend has it this is where the elder brother coined the name Kowloon, or “Nine Dragons,” when he saw the eight peaks that surround the territory — the ninth dragon was himself, of course. After his death, local villagers turned a boulder on the emperor’s hill into a monument called Sung Wong Toi , which now sits in its own garden.
Just beyond the monument, construction machinery is hard at work on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport. From the day it opened in 1925 to its final departure in 1997, this was Hong Kong’s gateway to the world. In the days before widespread air conditioning, students gathered in the departures hall to study in climate-controlled comfort. People flocked to the rooftop terrace to watch planes come and go.
Now Kai Tak is being reborn as a residential, commercial and recreational area. The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is already open and work is underway on restoring the Kai Tak River, a long-neglected waterway that’s being transformed with promenades and greenery. In Kowloon City, the past is becoming the future.
For food, shopping, culture
If you visit Kowloon City mid April, bring a raincoat — unless you want to get wet. April is the month of Songkran, the Thai new year, when people gather to playfully splash each other with water. Every year, thousands of people follow a parade as it winds its way through the streets of Kowloon City’s Little Thailand, before culminating in a waterlogged local playground.
Songkran or not, Little Thailand is always an adventure. Located along the eastern blocks of Nga Tsin Wai Road and its cross streets, this unique enclave has been around for decades, and its origins are surprising: a little bit Thai and a little bit Chinese.
That’s certainly the case on South Wall Road, where shops contain both Thai Buddhist and Chinese-style altars. “Both serve the same purpose, so why stick to just one?” says the clerk at LM Thai Supplier , which sells gold Buddhas, miniature statues of Ganesh and other religious icons. Instead of the usual oranges you find elsewhere in Hong Kong, the offerings placed in front of the altars here are more colourful: bright orange bottles of Fanta and rainbow-hued Thai sweets.
Little Thailand’s origins are intertwined with those of the local Chiu Chow community, which is rooted in the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong. In the early 20th century, many Chiu Chow people migrated to Thailand, where they married into local Thai families, blending their food, cultures and traditions. You can taste this fusion for yourself at Thai Sik Mei Ji , a restaurant on Nam Kok Road that blends Thai-style spices with Chiu Chow dishes like oyster omelettes and deep-fried century eggs.
In the 1970s, many of these Thai-Chinese families came to Hong Kong to join the city’s booming economy, and they were drawn to Kowloon City because of the large Chiu Chow population in the nearby walled city. In the 1990s, this burgeoning community was joined by even more Thai people whose businesses had been displaced by redevelopment in Central.
Start your journey through Little Thailand with a trip to the cooked food centre inside the Kowloon City Market. That’s where you’ll find Amporn Thai Food, a reliable source for grilled pork jowls, spicy laab salad and classic Thai curries. “Hong Kong people prefer their food less spicy, but if you ask, we will make it as spicy as it should be,” advises the owner, Mrs. Wong, who moved to Hong Kong 30 years ago after she married a local man.
For dessert, walk a couple of blocks to South Wall Road, where a number of shops stack colourful treats known as khanom wan on styrofoam trays. Some are made from layers of coconut cream and jelly, while others are based around sticky rice. Pandan is a common ingredient; beguiling and fragrant, its flavour is almost impossible to describe. You can find it in pandan cake, which has exactly nine layers — nine being a lucky number in both Thai and Chinese cultures.
Just down the street, Ruamjai Thai Grocery imports fresh orchids, jasmine and carnations every week to turn into colourful garlands for people to hang on their altars at home. They bring in many more things as well: globe-shaped green aubergines, bird’s eye chillies, common Thai herbs like basil and dill, and fruits like the puckeringly sour mafai, or Burmese grape. “We sell fruits that even Chinese people don’t like to eat,” boasts one vendor.
Many of the street’s grocery stores sell curry paste for you to take home and cook with. You can get even plastic bags full of ready-made curry you can simply heat up and serve with rice. It’s a bit of Little Thailand you can take home with you.
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