By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
Temples and Towers
Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong’s only landlocked district, is home to an intriguing mix of temples and towers, colour and calm, a heady mix that’s quintessentially Hong Kong. The neighbourhood is named after the god Wong Tai Sin; his portrait can be found inside the vibrant Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, where believers flock to present offerings and ask for good fortune. The temple draws the biggest crowds during the eve of Chinese New Year, when visitors rush in to burn their incense sticks for luck at the turn of midnight.
A more serene side of Chinese religion can be found at Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden, where the large Tang-style Buddhist complex and garden offers a tranquil place to escape the city and learn about Chinese culture. However busy life may get, you are guaranteed calm respite here.
Some surprising alternative attractions have also emerged — thanks to a little help from social media. While Wong Tai Sin’s 22 public housing estates are a vital part of Hong Kong’s social history, few would have predicted that one of them would become celebrated as the city’s most “Instagrammable” destination.
Built in the 1960s, Choi Hung Estate was the largest public housing development of its kind at the time, originally housing over 43,000 residents. In recent years, a new wave of photographers has fallen in love with its rainbow-coloured facade and nostalgia-tinged basketball courts, sharing their images with the world and breathing fresh life into one of Hong Kong’s oldest examples of public housing. Meanwhile, hiking up to Lion Rock Country Park will provide yet another perspective of the district, and indeed, the whole of Hong Kong.
Burn incense at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple and wish for good fortune for the year ahead.
See what fate has in-store with a reading at Wong Tai Sin Fortune-Telling and Oblation Arcade.
Soak up the serenity of traditional Chinese landscaping and water features at Nan Lian Garden.
Find inner zen at the calming Lotus Pond Garden and Hall of Celestial Kings at Chi Lin Nunnery.
Snap photos at the rainbow-coloured Choi Hung Estate, one of the oldest of its kind in Hong Kong.
Head up the hills at Lion Rock Country Park for sweeping cityscape views.
If you think vegetarian cuisine is a new-age thing, think again — meat-free diets have been a staple of Buddhist practice for centuries. For a delicious vegetarian meal with a side order of tranquillity, head to Chi Lin Vegetarian, the Buddhist restaurant nestled behind the Silver Strand Waterfall in Nan Lian Garden. Classic Chinese cuisine with a contemporary touch is the order of the day, with seasonal vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and tofu always on the menu. The Zen-like atmosphere somehow makes every bite taste better, and well-priced lunch, dinner and tea sets are available. Reservations are advised, especially on weekends.
In Hong Kong’s ever-changing dining scene, restaurants that stick around for decades become institutions, as is the case with Wing Lai Yuen. This humble family-run diner started life in a squatter housing settlement, and while its location has changed, the classic Sichuan dishes that it’s famous for continue to draw crowds. Although the silky steamed chicken in chilli oil and mapo tofu are favourites, it’s the dan dan noodles, served in a fiery red soup, that are its chief calling card. Ask for the less spicy version if you can’t handle the heat.
CCDC has been a leading light in Hong Kong’s modern dance scene for almost 40 years, with their home in Wong Tai Sin. Its dance centre is home to the Jockey Club Dance Theatre, which regularly features productions showcasing both homegrown talent and international performers. You can catch open rehearsals and meet-the-artist sessions for CCDC productions here too. Got the dancing bug? Sign up for a dance course, with classes in anything from K-Pop and street jazz to contemporary ballet and belly-dancing on offer and for all levels. Check their Facebook Page for information on their one-day workshops from visiting experts as well.
110 Sha Tin Pass Road, Wong Tai Sin, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 2328 9205
With an explosion in Hong Kong’s coffee scene, it sometimes feels like China’s best-known tipple — tea — has been neglected, a situation that Tea-ed Tea aims to remedy. This charming teahouse hidden away in an industrial building serves up an extensive menu of traditional Chinese brews, including da hong pao, bi lou chun and dragon ball flower tea, consumed from the shop’s own line of teaware. For a twist on tradition, try their range of homemade tea gelatos, they go down a treat on a sweltering summer day.
At 15.8 hectares, Morse Park is one of the largest public parks in Hong Kong, an urban oasis filled with green space and landscaped gardens ideal for relaxed strolls, as well as a sports centre, swimming pool, skateboarding park, running trail and football pitches. Named after Sir Arthur Morse, the former head of HSBC who did much to revive Hong Kong’s fortunes after World War II, the park is split into four different sections; highlights include the arboretum, and Wong Tai Sin Cultural Garden, which includes a century-old well and tai chi square. The Chinese New Year flower markets are a lovely alternative to the more crowded festivities at Victoria Park.
40 Fung Mo Street, Wong Tai Sin, Kowloon (View on Map)
Tsz Wan Court (Tsz Wan Kok Temple) might not be the best-known temple, but it’s one of the most fascinating. In addition to the familiar statues of Asian celestial beings, you’ll find hallways lined with colourful murals illustrating the Taoist “18 levels of hell” — the stages it is believed your soul passes through after death to atone for your sins during life. You can also join worshippers in getting your fortune told via bamboo sticks (kau cim) or moon blocks (gao bui), alongside burning paper offerings for your ancestors.
150 Tsz Wan Shan Road, Tsz Wan Shan, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 2323 0141
For culture, architecture, photography
With 22 public housing estates and over 85% of the district’s residents living in them, Wong Tai Sin has played an overlooked, yet important part in Hong Kong’s history — its involvement in the evolution of public housing — though that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, there wasn’t enough accommodation to house Hong Kong’s booming population, leading to the rise of wooden squatter huts scattered across the city's hills. In 1953 however, disaster struck, fire raged through the squatter settlements in Shek Kip Mei, leaving over 50,000 people homeless and prompting the government to confront the city’s housing situation.
While the earliest developments were mostly to rehome these victims, a longer-term solution needed to be found — for those living in other squatter settlements, and to improve the living conditions of lower-income families often found in Hong Kong’s overcrowded tenement buildings. One such modern development was Wong Tai Sin’s Choi Hung Estate, which featured self-contained flats with their own kitchens and bathrooms, rather than communal facilities common at the time.
It, and subsequent housing estates, was like high-rise villages, with their own supermarkets, convenience stores, bakeries, restaurants, cafes, doctors, dentists, Chinese medical clinics, post offices, schools and playgrounds.
Blocks of the estate were completed between 1962 and 1964, with an opening ceremony attended by Hong Kong’s then-governor Sir Robert Brown Black. Famous for its rainbow-coloured facade (“choi hung” means rainbow in Cantonese), the estate received the Silver Medal at the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Awards in 1965.
Isabella Tsoi lived in Choi Hung Estate with her family for 20 years; they were assigned their flat by the Hong Kong Housing Authority in 1976. “In the old days, most of our neighbours kept their doors open and our parents would chat together — friends could be made everywhere, and our mums shared or exchanged cooked food regularly,” she remembers. “Another advantage of keeping the doors open was for wind circulation during summer — back when we didn’t have air conditioners!”
Although Tsoi moved out in 1996, she now runs a website dedicated to the neighbourhood community (choi-hung.hk) and often visits her sibling, who still lives there. She has witnessed many changes in the area. “There used to be many hawkers along the roads inside the estate, selling veggies, groceries, snacks, noodles, iced drinks and newspapers. Now all hawkers are prohibited,” she laments.
Other changes include more lifts, increased building security, safer playgrounds and regular repaints of that famous rainbow facade. “I’m proud of living in Choi Hung Estate — it has been one of the legends of public housing,” says Tsoi.
Nowadays, the estate has found fame as one of Hong Kong’s most Instagrammable destinations, with photographers visiting from around the world to snap its colourful exterior and palm tree-lined basketball courts. “The rainbow facade at Choi Hung is probably the most iconic building in Hong Kong,” says local photographer Kay Kulkarni. This influx of photographers is sometimes a source of curiosity to residents, though most simply carry on with their lives.
Kulkarni recalls: “I was sitting on the estate’s playground and an elderly gentleman came up to ask me what I was doing. I showed him my images and he told me that his family had been there since the estate was built, and explained to me the reason why the buildings were rainbow-coloured is that choi hung means rainbow in Cantonese.”
Keen photographers will also find the distinctive character synonymous with Hong Kong’s public housing at the district’s other estates. Choi Hung’s neighbouring development Choi Wan Estate (meaning “cloud” in Cantonese, to match its geographical position “above” Choi Hung’s rainbow) is another of Kulkarni’s favourite places to shoot, with enclosed courtyards that create dizzying photos.
“It's one of these unique estates where each angle creates a different image,” Kulkarni explains. “For instance, when you're on the top floor and take an image, the light doesn't reach the bottom and it creates an illusion of an abyss. When you're on the ground floor and looking up at the building, it looks like a box which has a torch shining right down upon it.”
It’s essential however, to remember that these are people’s homes, and to be respectful when taking photos. “Take images of the architecture, but not of people’s personal space,” Kulkarni advises.
To gain perspective over the district’s sweeping range of skyscrapers, head to Lion Rock Country Park — an uphill walk along Sha Tin Pass Road from MTR Wong Tai Sin Station. The hike through the park to Lion Rock Peak takes around four hours, eventually delivering panoramic views of the cityscape below — an experience that encapsulates Hong Kong’s unique contrast between natural and urban beauty.
For culture, family, relaxation
If you’re seeking good fortune, religious guidance, a break from the busy city, or all three, then Wong Tai Sin District is the place to be. In one afternoon, you can experience the peace and tranquillity of Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden, and then immerse yourself in the colourful traditions of Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Hidden in plain sight amid Wong Tai Sin’s overhead highways and high-rise residential buildings, lies the nunnery and adjacent garden. The easiest way to explore these two destinations is to start with Nan Lian Garden. Located just a few minutes from MTR Diamond Hill Station, walking through its wooden gates transports you to an oasis of calm, with clever sound insulation keeping out the noise of nearby traffic.
Based on the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Jiangshouju Garden in China’s Shanxi Province, Nan Lian Garden showcases traditional Chinese landscaping techniques and aesthetic principles, with winding paths taking you past lush greenery, ornamental rocks, koi-filled ponds and a rushing waterfall. Meanwhile, its classical timber structures are built without a single nail, including the striking red bridges leading to the garden’s centrepiece, the magnificent golden Pavilion of Absolute Perfection. There’s also a Chinese Timber Architecture Gallery with detailed models and information about these ancient building techniques, and regular exhibitions about traditional arts and culture in the Xiang Hai Xuan hall.
For Yip Ping-kin, a worker at Nan Lian Garden, it’s about more than just a moment of peace. “I see more than just rocks and trees; to me, each object is distilled from history and the culture of the ages. The garden is a platform to spread Chinese culture and history. It gives people from the busy city a chance to have a quiet moment,” she explains. “When you drink a Wu Yi tea inside Song Cha Xie [the garden’s teahouse], you’re also experiencing the peace that the traditional Chinese tea ceremony can give you — tasting the years of efforts that went into planting the tea, frying the tea leaves, and the long history behind Chinese tea.” The garden’s vegetarian restaurant is renowned and often books out during weekends.
Connected to Nan Lian Garden is Chi Lin Nunnery. Established in 1934, this former villa went through several stages of renovation in the 1990s, before finally opening to the public in 2000. More than just a place of worship for Buddhists, it is now home to a school, library, dentist and residences for the elderly.
“Being a nun in the modern day means helping other people,” Yip says. “In ancient times, it was all about studying books, learning the ways of Buddhism and its philosophy. Now you can see that they dedicate their mission to helping the needy, sick and old.”
The main areas open to the public are the Lotus Pond Garden and Hall of Celestial Kings, which houses a gigantic golden statue of Buddha guarded by four deities at each corner of the hall. The Lotus Pond Garden allows visitors to settle into the calmness before walking into the sacred hall where chants play in the background.
Meanwhile, a contrasting destination for culture, heritage and religion lies just one MTR station away. Embodying the religions of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple is probably the busiest temple in Hong Kong, and has a reputation as the luckiest too. Dedicated to the god of healing Wong Tai Sin, this iconic temple is a feast for the senses, with bright red pillars, bronze zodiac statues, jade-coloured roofs with intricate latticework and dragon adornments, and the scent of incense thick in the air.
“I have been coming here to wish for good luck for at least a decade,” says 65-year-old Wong Mei-yu. “I follow the same routine every year — I buy nine incense sticks and a stack of wishing papers from one of the stores outside the temple, and then write my family members’ names onto the papers. First I present the incense sticks to Buddha and the gods, then burn the papers to wish for good luck and fortune.”
Visitors can also get their fortune told by shaking a bamboo stick out of a box onto the ground. The temple provides free bamboo for this, with each stick inscribed with a number and corresponding Chinese saying.
For help deciphering your fate, head to one of the fortune tellers in the adjacent Wong Tai Sin Fortune-Telling and Oblation Arcade — they will translate the reading, providing context to your life, for a small fee. Their doors are plastered with photographs of celebrity customers and signs indicating their language abilities. They can also tell your fortune from palm or face reading — ancient arts that Chinese people have relied on for generations to help navigate their future.
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