By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
Streets of Shopportunity
When people picture Hong Kong, it’s Yau Tsim Mong that often comes to mind. This is where you’ll find neon-drenched streets, packed night markets and an endless amount of shopping. It’s also one of the oldest and most diverse parts of Hong Kong, with some surprising historic attractions in between the shopping malls.
Named for its three main neighbourhoods, Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, Yau Tsim Mong is among the densest places in the world, with 343,000 people crammed into just 6.5 square kilometres. But that wasn’t always the case. The Kowloon Peninsula was home to a few small fishing and farming communities when it was ceded to Britain in 1860.
These days, things couldn’t be more different. While other parts of Hong Kong nod off early, Yau Tsim Mong sleeps late, with the Temple Street night market and hundreds of bars and restaurants open well after midnight. New hotels and shopping malls are transforming the landscape in every corner of the district. Even the land itself has changed, with the shoreline extended for projects like the West Kowloon Cultural District and the vast shopping, office and entertainment complex above Kowloon Station.
It’s a district that encapsulates all the extremes of Hong Kong. Chanel and Gucci sit just a few hundred metres from a market selling halal meat and noodle soups. Tourists on a shopping spree wheel suitcases full of cosmetics and fashion past streetside stalls selling kitschy souvenirs. You can buy high, low and everything in between.
With a huge number of hotels, many visitors to Hong Kong find themselves staying in Yau Tsim Mong, and it’s a place that leaves a deep impression. It’s loud, crowded and sometimes chaotic — but always exciting.
Eat spicy crab, claypot rice and shop for souvenirs at the Temple Street Night Market.
Shop at Macha in Mong Kok, one of a new generation of market stalls in the area.
Chat with a parrot at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden.
Watch the sunset from the new observation decks at Ocean Terminal.
Hunt for vintage collectibles at In’s Point in Mong Kok.
When it opened in 2014, this was one of Hong Kong’s first bars to focus exclusively on craft beer. It’s still one of the city’s best destinations to try local craft brews, from traditional staples like IPAs to local innovations like a beer inspired by haam ling chut, a popular local drink made by infusing lemon-lime soda with salted limes. Creative sandwiches like a cubano made with Hong Kong-style siu yok (roast pork) are on the food menu and the music playlist is eclectic with an emphasis on local independent bands.
Built by local merchant Lui Leung in 1931, this elegant corner tong lau shophouse was originally home to a bone-setting shop and the Lui family’s private residence. Its architecture is typical of the hybrid Chinese-Western style of the era, with deep verandahs that allowed for indoor-outdoor living in the days before air conditioning. The house managed to survive even as all of its neighbouring buildings were redeveloped, and in 2012, it was restored and converted into a Chinese medicine centre. Don’t miss the herbal tea shop and exhibition on the ground floor.
119 Lai Chi Kok Road, Mong Kok, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 3411 0628
When they were built in the early 1930s, the row of four-storey shophouses on Prince Edward Road were top of their class, with high ceilings, deep verandahs and indoor toilets — a luxury that wasn’t required by the building codes of the era. The entire block has recently been restored and there are treasures to be found on its upper floors. GoodPoint, located in one of the shophouses, is a particularly good place to discover. Managed as a social enterprise, it is home to a teahouse, a food store selling local and organic products, and a shop supplying Chinese ceramics and textiles.
Kowloon Park sits on the site of the former Whitfield Barracks, a British military base that was closed in the 1970s. Some of the historic military buildings were preserved, including the one now home to the Heritage Discovery Centre. Behind a leafy courtyard, you’ll find a permanent exhibition on Hong Kong’s heritage conservation efforts, as well as another gallery that’s home to regular art exhibitions and other events. There’s also a reference library with resources on local history, archaeology and architecture.
Kowloon Park, Haiphong Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon (View on Map)
+852 2208 4400
Think of artisan coffee like fine wine. Instead of a perfunctory cup of bitter brew that wakes you up, high-grade beans are carefully grown, prepared and roasted to bring out the flavours of their terroir. Some are citrusy, others taste like chocolate; still others are as delicately floral as tea. Knockbox was one of the first speciality coffee shops to open in Hong Kong and it is still one of the finest, with a large selection of single-origin coffee that can be brewed in a number of different ways. It also offers staple cafe meals like beans on toast and pasta.
Stylish and durable everyday objects are the focus of this upstairs design shop, which stocks products like Fedeca camping knives, Marlborough flasks and candles from Brooklyn Candle Studio. Although the focus here is on practical objects, they are the sorts of things that are long lasting enough to pass on to your children. Items like the stainless steel Aoyoshi coffee mill are hard to find elsewhere in Hong Kong, so it’s a good spot for a unique gift.
For shopping, food
Hong Kong had never seen anything like it. When Harbour Terminal opened in 1966, it was the first fully enclosed, air-conditioned shopping mall in Asia. More than a hundred shops lined its polished floors, selling everything from clothing to coins to fancy fruit baskets. A few years later, a series of nearby warehouses were demolished to make way for Harbour City, an even larger, more elaborate retail palace.
Since then, Hong Kong’s malls have only grown in size and number. “Hong Kong is a city of malls,” says Stefan Al, a Dutch architect and the author of Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, which documents the evolution of Hong Kong’s retail complexes. While some malls are filled with the same chain stores you will find anywhere else, many others are full of surprises.
In a way, the city’s history of malls goes back even further than Harbour Terminal. As Hong Kong’s population boomed in the 1950s, developers built huge buildings with fanciful names: Mirador Mansions, Champagne Court, Chungking Mansions. Upstairs were apartments; downstairs, shopping arcades. In most cases, the word “mansions” is a euphemism: they are far from polished. But they have always provided a haven for independent, family-owned businesses, and they serve as interesting counterpoints to Hong Kong’s flashy shopping centres.
Today, these malls and mansions represent the full spectrum of Hong Kong’s experience, from grit to glitz, with plenty of fascinating products and delicious food in between. Of all the city’s districts, it’s Yau Tsim Mong that offers the densest concentration of these varying shopping havens. If you start at the Star Ferry, pass through Tsim Sha Tsui and make your way north through Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok, you can hop from mall to mansion, each one different from the last. It’s more than retail therapy — it’s a cultural experience.
Start with the original. Today, Harbour City spans two million square feet, and it takes at least 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. You can browse through 450 shops, grab a bite at 60 restaurants or catch a movie at the cinema. You don’t even have to spend any money to enjoy the place: Harbour Terminal recently unveiled a new five-storey expansion with public observation decks that offer an unparalleled view of the harbour. With an open view to the west, it’s one of the best spots to watch the sunset in Hong Kong.
Walk west under the enormous camphor trees of Haiphong Road and you’ll discover a new generation of malls that have opened in more recent years. In most other cities, shopping malls sprawl over a huge amount of land, but in space-deprived Hong Kong, malls go up. The ONE rises 29 storeys, with shops and restaurants on every floor, along with a public sky garden on level 16. Not far away, iSquare soars up 31 floors, with bars and restaurants on the upper levels — including some with terraces that offer sweeping views of the city.
The vertical thrust of these malls has led to some innovations. “[Their] tentacles reach deep into the ground to attach to subway systems, or bind to other malls with an ivy-like mesh of sky bridges,” writes Stefan Al in his book. That’s certainly true of Langham Place, which has become a centre of gravity in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok. If you venture four storeys up, you’ll discover a huge glass atrium filled with cafes, which is traversed by a dizzying 76-metre-long “expresscalator” that takes you up a further five storeys. From there, you can explore The Spiral, a curving arcade that stretches from the ninth floor up to the 12th.
Malls have innovated in other ways, too. Back in Tsim Sha Tsui, K11 includes an art space that hosts regular cultural events and art exhibitions. (A larger version of the mall is currently under construction on the harbourfront.) Many have adopted a theme, whether deliberately or by accident. The Forest in Mong Kok is dedicated to sportswear and running shoes. In’s Point is the place to discover vintage collectibles. Argyle Centre is where youngsters head to keep up with the latest street-fashion trends.
And then there are the mansions and their treasure troves of eclectic small businesses and colourful, sometimes mysterious tenants and customers. Tsim Sha Tsui has an especially strong concentration, and you don’t need to walk far before coming across one of their shopping arcades. In some cases, they provide a convenient link between two places, like Daily House, which connects tree-lined Haiphong Road with the bars and restaurants of Ashley Road.
Others are destinations in and of themselves. Champagne Court is known for its vintage camera shops, as well as the 1960s-era Star Cafe, which offers up tomato soup and a slice of nostalgia. Thanks to its many guesthousesChungking Mansions contains the world in a single building, with ground-floor snack bars that serve some of the best chai and samosas in town.
If you happen to stumble into the shopping arcade of Wing Lee Building on Kimberley Road, you’ll come across Dol Dam Gil, a longstanding Korean restaurant. The restaurant’s ground floor is unassuming, but head upstairs and you will find a leafy terrace bordered by a picturesque stone wall. It’s a surprise, but then again, Hong Kong’s malls and mansions are full of those.
For shopping, food, culture
It’s early in the evening and something unusual is happening on Hong Lok Street, an unassuming little lane that runs through congested Mong Kok. Lights have been strung across the lane and a crowd of people has gathered around a typical green market stall. Some are sipping fresh orange juice from the fruit stall next door; others hold cans of beer.
Inside the green stall is a collection of prints by local illustrator Little Thunder; this is the opening party for her latest exhibition. It’s not exactly what you would expect from a market stall, but Hong Kong’s street markets defy expectations. You’ll find tourist trinkets, surplus designer clothing, fresh flowers, a bewildering array of foodstuffs — and maybe even some neighbourly conversation.
The Hong Lok Street stall is Macha, a creative new venture by photographers Mandy Yeung and Bo Hui. Open only on weekends, it sells a curated selection of accessories, home products and artworks. It’s part of a new generation of market vendors that are trying to do something a little different. A brisk walk away in Yau Ma Tei, community activist Irene Hui helps run Hung Kee Good, a cheerful purple stall that stocks tote bags and other fabric products made by local seamstresses.
Right around the corner, Kai Fong Pai Dong is a community space that masquerades as a market stall. Although you can buy a variety of products — books, second-hand goods, potted plants — its real function is as a gathering place for neighbours. Every month, Kai Fong hosts film screenings, book readings, art exhibitions and other cultural events. “We want to test ideas, we want to tell stories that resonate with others, we want to tell stories for those that don’t have a voice,” say the stall’s organisers, who operate as a collective. “Diversity is the key.”
Diversity is one quality that binds together all the markets of Yau Tsim Mong. If you take the MTR to Prince Edward Station and make your way south, you can pass through nearly a dozen street markets, each different from the last.
Start in the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, whose tile-roofed Chinese-style buildings opened in 1997 to house bird hawkers displaced when their former home, nicknamed Bird Street, was redeveloped. Here you can buy bird seed, grasshoppers or a new gilded cage for your pet — or you can simply admire the songbirds and parrots.
Right around the corner is the Flower Market, whose streets and alleys are packed with orchids and bougainvillea and cut roses. Flower merchants originally began plying their trade here more than a century ago, choosing this location because it was the first urban stop on the old Kowloon-Canton railway. Originally a wholesale market, it has gradually evolved into a fragrant destination for retail consumers.
You have two options to explore when you cross Prince Edward Road: Fa Yuen Street and Tung Choi Street, also known as Goldfish Street. Fa Yuen Street is beloved by local fashionistas as a treasure trove of surplus garments, while Goldfish Street gets its name from the bags of colourful sea creatures that hang from the walls of its fish supply shops, which began opening here in the 1970s.
Also on Tung Choi Street are the souvenir stalls of the Ladies Market, a popular stomping ground for tourists. The outdoor markets around Canton Road between Mong Kok Road and Shan Tung Street are less frequented by visitors but even more spectacular. Spanning seven city blocks, with many diversions into adjacent alleyways, the market heaves with fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, live chickens, medicinal roots and more.
It’s a place where you can witness how street markets bind the city together, where neighbours — known as kaifong, after the streets and lanes they share — nod hello and chat with hawkers. Whether they’re selling artworks or avocados, it’s in these markets that Hong Kong feels most alive.
That’s especially true at night. As the sun slips below the horizon, make your way to Temple Street, home to Hong Kong’s longest-running night market. Grab a stool and order some claypot rice at one of the restaurants near Public Square Street, or feast on spicy crab at one of the restaurants around Saigon Street. Along the way, you’ll discover stalls selling every kind of knick-knack imaginable. The sound of old-school Chinese pop songs drifts out onto the street from one of the many time-warp karaoke bars.
Temple Street wraps up around midnight, but not far away, the Gwo Laan wholesale market in Yau Ma Tei is just getting started. In recent years, more and more retail shops have opened in this century-old fruit market, offering succulent seasonal produce from around the world. It truly comes to life in the wee hours of the morning, when the wholesale vendors kick into gear. Stand back and marvel: it’s the beating heart of Hong Kong’s market life.
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