Shanghai Street in Four Scenes

Shanghai Street is one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most storied thoroughfares, stretching from Austin Road to Prince Edward Road, through the neighbourhoods of Jordan, Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok. Built in 1887, it was one of several streets in Kowloon named after important ports in China and Southeast Asia, including Canton Road, Saigon Street and Haiphong Road. Here are four vignettes of life on the street.

Scene One: Alleyway eating

Foodtrip Bedaña’s Filipino Restaurant opens in the afternoon, but for most of its customers, it’s a place to satisfy late-night pangs of hunger. The clock is nearing midnight when a plate of sisig arrives at the table, a sizzling pile of chopped-up pig’s head crowned with a raw egg. It’s one of the most divinely satisfying dishes on earth. No wonder why Erik Idos, the Filipino-American chef at trendy Kennedy Town restaurant Chino, once revealed that Foodtrip is where he likes to eat after work.

There are more than 140,000 people of Filipino origin in Hong Kong, and for many of them, this restaurant is an institution, a source of cheap Red Horse beer and comfort food. It’s also a place that defines all of the contradictions of Shanghai Street. Half indoors, half outdoors, Foodtrip is located in a narrow alleyway off Saigon Street, halfway between Shanghai Street and the Temple Street night market. Prostitutes linger across the street, under the red glow of a pawn shop’s neon sign. Every few minutes, a steel door across the alley from the restaurant swings open and a furtive-looking man steps out, plastic bag in hand. It’s the back entrance to an adult video store.

But the atmosphere at Foodtrip is anything but sleazy. Just the opposite. The staff are irrepressibly cheerful, especially when they are joined by the regular customers whose photos adorn the outside wall. Tables and stools are unfolded as customers arrive through the night, chatting excitedly as they order plates of crispy spring rolls and rich, creamy laing – taro leaves stewed in coconut milk. Eventually, the night market packs up for the night and the pawn shop sign flickers off, but Foodtrip stays awake, its chatter filtering down the street.

Scene Two: Old shops

Nathan Road might be considered Kowloon’s main street today, but for most of the past century, Shanghai Street is where all the action was. “Tsim Sha Tsui was Kowloon’s commercial street for the expatriates, but Shanghai Street was the main street for the Chinese,” recalls Arthur Shek, who was born in Yau Ma Tei in 1948. Mahjong houses, gold shops and herb stores thronged the street, serving the thousands of people that lived in the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter, Hong Kong’s largest floating village. “Gold stores were fishermen’s banks,” says Shek. “Many fishermen had gold teeth implanted to reserve their wealth, which is where the sayings ‘All that’s left after death is teeth’ and ‘Strip your teeth’ come from.”

The glory days of Shanghai Street have long since faded. Photographer and heritage enthusiast Simon Go leads walking tours of the old shops that remain, which he documented in his photobook, Hong Kong Old Shops. Many of the businesses have been around for decades, and Go loves them for their handmade big-character signs — an aspirational symbol of permanence, he says — and the close relationships these old shops forge with the community around them. “There’s a trust in the gaai1 fong1 (街坊) – the neighbours,” says Go.

On his tours, Go takes visitors to a stall run by Mrs. Ho, who sells scales made from bamboo and animal bone, and some of the kitchenware shops that emerged 30 years ago, after a wave of gold shops went out of business. Some of his favourite stops have already disappeared, including Fung Moon Kee, which sold tailored Chinese wedding costumes and Singaporean medicinal oils.

“Rents are expensive and business is down,” says Go. Many new businesses last for only a few months before shutting down. “I think it’s a pity to see the real old Hong Kong vanishing,” he says. Go is doing what he can, though. He is now working on a follow-up to his book, which will document even more old shops before they close.

Scene Three: Renewal

Five floors up from Shanghai Street, Leo Cheung places a chilled metal goblet on the bar. It’s a Rob Roy, an earthier twist on the Manhattan, made with Scotch instead of rye. Three small cherries rest on a cocktail spear. “I make it with these,” says Cheung, pointing towards a set of bitters: chocolate, black walnut and classic Angostura. “Eat the cherries last – they’re soaked in alcohol.”

Cheung is the head bartender of Alibi, a high-end cocktail bar inside Langham Place. Twenty years earlier, he would have been standing in the middle of Hong Lok Street, better known as Bird Street, a crowded alley filled with the chatter of songbirds. The market was demolished and relocated to Yuen Po Street in 1998. In its place rose a slick shopping mall, hotel and office tower that was meant to push Mongkok into a bright new future as an upscale commercial district, the kind of place where people drink thoughtfully crafted cocktails.

It didn’t really work. Alibi is an exception in a neighbourhood of mahjong parlours, boozy karaoke dens and back-alley shops selling counterfeit handbags. The recent mainland tourism boom took its toll on Mongkok, replacing distinctive independent stores with cosmetics shops and pharmacies, but in many ways, the neighbourhood remains grimy and contemptuous of any attempt to change its character.   

Less than a hundred metres up Shanghai Street is another attempt at renewal. The street’s last intact row of pre-war shophouses is being gutted and rebuilt by the Urban Renewal Authority, which promises they will be made into a home to local businesses like cha chaan tengs, not watch shops and jewellery stores. For now, as jackhammers pierce the air, there isn’t much left of the old buildings, just a series of empty façades propped by steel frames.

Scene Four: Community

When designer Michael Leung first moved to Shanghai Street, he was drawn to its building supply shops and the proximity to the Broadway Cinematheque. He ended up staying because of the community. These days, Leung can hardly walk a block in his neighbourhood without someone saying hello.

That spirit extends beyond the cha chaan teng and market stalls that Leung frequents. Last year, Leung got a hawker’s licence to open his own green market stall, which he runs as a local gathering space, part flea market, part café, where neighbours can buy old clothes and farmers can sell their locally-grown produce. It’s an initiative mirrored by Wooferhui, an informal pop-up market held in the middle of Shanghai Street’s kitchenware district, where an eclectic mix of people sell handmade and second-hand goods. “We’ve had some trouble with the FEHD,” says Leung, referring to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s hawker control officers. “But after awhile, they left us alone.”

Other neighbourhood institutions have been less successful. For more than a year, Very MK maintained a rooftop farm on several quasi-abandoned buildings that were being acquired by the Urban Renewal Authority, growing mangoes, limes and seasonal greens. Last spring, though, a group of men arrived without warning and confiscated all of the plants.

Wooferten suffered a similar fate. For nearly four years, the arts organisation occupied the government-owned Shanghai Street Art Space, using it as a platform to reach out to the surrounding community, taking inspiration from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who wrote that “community is not only intimate communication between its members, but also its organic communion with its own essence.” Wooferten planted deep roots on Shanghai Street, blurring art and activism as it explored the needs and desires of Hong Kong’s grassroots.

In many cases, that translated into a strong anti-establishment political stance, which some say is the reason the government eventually kicked it out of the art space. But it more often manifested itself in small, meaningful efforts like the simple metal bench Wooferten installed on the footpath outside – one of the few public seating areas on Shanghai Street. Passersby made eager use of the bench: gossiping neighbourhood uncles, Wooferten regulars, mainland tourists waiting for their cross-border bus home.

When a new art organisation took Wooferten’s place, they removed the bench – and replaced it with an even more elaborate one, hand-carved from wood. It’s even more popular than the last.

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