By LUXE City Guides; images by Jeremy Cheung
Hong Kong is a mingling of opposites: the cultures of both east and west; the energy of a teeming metropolis and the serenity of verdant hills; the modernity of a fast-paced financial and business hub and the history of traditional Chinese spirituality and architecture. In this sense, Tsuen Wan is quintessential Hong Kong. Located in the western New Territories along the coast, Tsuen Wan is home to the sixth tallest building in the city — Nina Tower — as well as lots of shopping malls and streets, but it’s also a place of history and culture.
Tsuen Wan became the neighbourhood it is today largely because of Shanghai industrialists from mainland China who ventured to Hong Kong in the late 1940s, establishing textile factories where thousands of workers would create fabric and garments. The area continued to develop through the next two decades thanks to the government’s “new town” plan, an endeavour to accommodate the then-booming population. Though the textile industry has since declined, old factory buildings remain, as do the workers who spent their lifetimes honing their crafts. Some among the old generation still create clothing as a hobby today, while younger Hongkongers pay homage via textile arts.
But long before that, Tsuen Wan was a humble collection of villages and fishing boats. Some of these villages still exist, along with a number of historical buildings and temples that have been preserved due to their cultural significance. Amid the area’s modern high rises, Hongkongers continue to worship ancestors and pray for health and good luck at the surrounding temples during Chinese New Year. Visit Tsuen Wan and you’ll witness cosmopolitan city living and ancient traditions existing side by side.
Soak up historical Hakka culture and Hong Kong’s cultural heritage at Sam Tung Uk Museum.
Wander through tranquil grounds and Buddhist architecture at the Western Monastery.
Discover Hong Kong’s textile and garment-making history at The Mills.
Hike through villages along the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail.
Learn about Ma Wan island’s history at the Fong Yuen Study Hall.
Formerly an agricultural region that was famous for its green tea, Tai Mo Shan Country Park now attracts hiking enthusiasts thanks to the mountain that gives its name to it — Tai Mo Shan — the tallest peak in Hong Kong, and comprised of pure volcanic rock. Popular hiking routes include a six-hour journey to Shing Mun Reservoir which starts at the Tai Mo Shan Country Park Visitor Centre, or a two-hour trip to the weather radar station, which starts in Chuen Lung and takes you past lookouts and abandoned mines. There's also the leisurely Chuen Lung Family Walk, a wooded path surrounded by bamboo, for the more casual hiker.
Sixty-year-old roast goose restaurant Yue Kee stands out among the many establishments in the area offering similar fare. The original owner of the restaurant opened it to cater to factory workers, and its delicious, charcoal-roasted Guangdong birds are prepared following recipes that were passed down through three generations. Half a goose is plenty for four people, and the restaurant uses all parts of the bird to create other dishes such as soy-braised goose web and wine-infused goose liver. Seafood and other Cantonese dishes are available too.
G/F, 9 Sham Hong Road, Sham Tseng, Tsuen Wan, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2491 0105
With a name meaning "Dragon Stream Village", this enclave is famous for its tea houses, the best of which is Choi Lung Teahouse, where you can enjoy self-serve dim sum alfresco on the roof or patio, paired with a pot of tea. The quiet village sits along a stream and is filled with trees and historical remnants like traditional ancestral halls, making it a relaxing place to wander, soak up some nature, and learn something new about the local culture.
Choi Lung Tea House, 2 Chuen Lung Estate, Route Twisk, Tsuen Wan, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2414 3086
This exhibition centre charts the development of Hong Kong International Airport, displaying photos and models that showcase how the airport and its related infrastructure were constructed. Its rooftop binoculars provide an excellent vantage point through which to view the Tsing Ma Bridge, one of the world's longest suspension bridges. The distinctive white structure of the exhibition centre is recognised as a historical building. Built by a private developer in the 1930s, it served as staff quarters for British army offers and then as the residence of the Financial Secretary in the 1970s and 80s. Free admission.
401 Castle Peak Road, Ting Kau, Tsuen Wan, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2491 9202
A tiny island south of the district, Ma Wan is home to a wide range of culturally and historically significant sites, from old villages that provide great photo opportunities, to temples. The Heritage Centre in Ma Wan Park showcases the history of the island from the Neolithic era to the present, while the Fong Yuen Study Hall — built in the 1900s — unites Chinese and Western architectural styles. The island is also a good spot to purchase local shrimp paste, catch a Cantonese opera production, or hang out on the beach.
The Sham Tseng area of the district is lined with public beaches, but Angler's Beach is the one to check out. While swimming is prohibited here, this beach has impressive views of three of Hong Kong's major bridges across the water, as well as barbeque facilities, making it an ideal spot for a day of grilling and sunbathing. Simply purchase the charcoal and ingredients you require from the nearby markets and supermarkets and settle in for an afternoon.
Castle Peak Road, Sham Tseng, Tsuen Wan, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2491 0348
For history, architecture, culture, temples
Tsuen Wan is not only a conglomeration of luxurious high-rise housing estates, busy shopping malls and the shells of former factories, but also monasteries, temples, and historical buildings that showcase the lifestyles of Chinese clans in years past, as well as the religious and traditional beliefs of Hong Kong people today.
The district’s evolution from a collection of villages to an urban hub began in the 1940s, with the arrival of Shanghainese manufacturers who transformed the area with their factories. As the shift continued, the building that’s now the Sam Tung Uk Museum remains at the centre. The surrounding area was formerly a village of who originate from Hakka-dialect speaking regions in China such as Fujian. In the 1970s, the Hong Kong government decided to build a terminal of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) at the village site, but preserved this building and converted it into a museum dedicated to Hakka history and culture. An Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre is based here, and runs general educational programming about Hong Kong culture such as performing arts, cuisine and customs.
“This Hakka house is unique,” explains Chau Hing-wah, curator at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office, which oversees the museum. “We’re lucky that this typical Hakka-style architecture, which is more than 200 years old, can be preserved, because in a big metropolis like Hong Kong conservation can be difficult.” While other Hakka houses exist throughout Hong Kong, most are not open to the public. And although the house is now a museum, Chau says that it still holds great meaning for the former village residents — especially the former ancestral hall, where the community would pay respects to their ancestors. “They have a lot of memories of this old house,” says Chan. “They organise trips to come back and recall their memories, even those who have already moved overseas.”
Behind the Sam Tung Uk Museum is a temple dedicated to Tin Hau, a Chinese goddess of the sea and seafarers. It’s one of the many institutions dedicated to local spirituality, which is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. A short drive away from the town centre in Lo Wai Village, the oldest village in Tsuen Wan, monks chant amid the tranquil surrounds of the Western Monastery with its traditional Buddhist art and architecture, including a nine-storey pagoda and a Bodhisattva statue. Nearby is the Yuen Yuen Institute, where monasteries, halls, and temples dedicated to all three spiritual practices nestle among serene ponds and lush greenery.
“The values and ethics of the traditional religions are integrated into the daily lives of Hong Kong people,” says Gordon Li, deputy chief executive officer of the Yuen Yuen Institute. “Many people come to pay tribute to their ancestors during festivals. This practice of filial piety is treasured by the Chinese.” Non-practicing visitors are also attracted by the beautiful scenery as well as the opportunity to learn more about the religions. “The buildings show the beliefs of the institute,” Li explains. “The teachings and virtues of the three religions are engraved at the Eight Virtues Wall and the Tao De Jing Wall.”
Tsuen Wan’s predominantly urban facade belies a deeply traditional area. The Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail is a hike through hidden villages, while the Fong Yuen Study Hall is a monument to the Chan clan and their pursuit to provide Confucian education to their village’s children. “Fashion and history merge in this area, depicting the change and development in Hong Kong,” Li says. Chau echoes the sentiment: “From a very small local settlement or fishing village, Tsuen Wan has now turned into a satellite town with a huge population. Behind the high rises, there’s a lot of local culture still there. Tsuen Wan is actually full of history.”
For history, culture, shopping, architecture
Grey, deteriorating, and hulking low to the ground, the former Nan Fung Textiles factory buildings in Tsuen Wan look out of place among the modern high rises that surround them. Relics of a bygone era, they hark back to Tsuen Wan’s former status as a textile manufacturing district.
Instead of demolishing them, however, the owners recognised the cultural worth of the structures and embarked on a revitalisation plan that would preserve the buildings’ history, enrich the local community and establish a new creative hotspot. Welcome to The Mills: a groundbreaking project that includes a non-profit cultural institute, a retail area, and a business incubator focused on startups straddling technology and style aka ‘techstyle’.
The Mills is the brainchild of Vanessa Cheung, the granddaughter of Nan Fung Textiles’ founder Dr Chen Din-hwa. "I came up with the idea of The Mills project with the aim of preserving both my family roots and Hong Kong’s textile history," she explains, after realising the buildings were still owned by the company.
The first textile manufacturers arrived in Hong Kong in the 1940s from Shanghai, seeking a less turbulent place for their factories following wartime and post-war social and political upheavals in China. By the mid-1950s, business was booming. When Nan Fung Textiles factory was founded in 1954, 30 per cent of manufacturing workers were in textiles. “The textile industry was a large contributor in shaping Hong Kong’s economy and people,” Cheung elaborates. “It supported the livelihoods of over 230,000 people during the 1970s. It was also instrumental in shifting cultural norms as it was women who made up a significant proportion of the workforce in the textile industry.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, rising land and labour costs gradually forced textile production to move to mainland China. Nan Fung Textiles ceased its cotton-spinning operations in 2008 and the buildings were converted into warehouses until Cheung kick-started The Mills project in 2013. Now, the textiles industry might have all but disappeared, but its legacy remains. “Over the years, many of these old factory workers have remained in Tsuen Wan,” says Cheung. “We believe that former workers’ ethic and spirit are important assets, which should be passed on.”
Many former textile workers moved on to other pursuits, such as managing textile exports rather than manufacturing them. Nan Fung Textiles transitioned into an entirely different industry, and became property developer Nan Fung Group.
Aside from appraising the building itself, visitors will be able to learn more about the history of the area from The Mills’ non-profit institution, the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), where art and cultural exhibitions and other programming related to textiles will run.
Events that ran ahead of The Mills’ opening include an upcycling project in 2016 that involved former workers as well as ‘Unsung Hero’, an exhibition of Tsuen Wan portrait murals created by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, (better known as Vhils), in 2015 based on photos of former workers he’d seen while researching the area. More recently, CHAT collaborated with designer Ken Hung in the summer of 2017 to create innovative weaving methods that neighbourhood residents could experience in a public space. The institute has future plans to create a separate project based on local weavers’ experiences and stories.
The Mills will also be cultivating new businesses related to ‘techstyle’ at incubator Fabrica. Brands that have already taken advantage of the resources and networking opportunities the organisation has to offer include Unspun, which is dedicated to improving sustainability through 3D weaving technology and customised denim, and Origami Labs (ORii), which is creating a voice-assistant smart ring.
Of course it wouldn’t be Hong Kong without retail. The Shopfloor is home to a slew of independent and artisanal stores and workshops, spanning sleek Book B and Modena Stationery to homegrown multi-brand art, design and gift shop Concept to Go.
“We believe that textile history is worth preserving since there are many lessons to be learned from our past,” Cheung concludes. “We are inspired to take these lessons to future industries that will change our city just like the textile industry did.” The Mills is set to provide a valuable platform for aspiring ‘techstyle’ entrepreneurs, just as much as it is a lens through which visitors can appreciate Tsuen Wan’s past.
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