From China to Thailand and Back – The Flavours of Hong Kong’s Little Thailand

Hong Kong’s Little Thailand does not assert itself immediately. There is no big arch, no golden Buddha welcoming you into its fold. Instead, as you pass between the tight-knit apartment buildings of South Wall Road, you will find store after store with Thai signage and boxes filled with products flown in from Thailand twice a week.

In each shop, there are photos of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away last October, and sometimes a red, white and blue Thai flag. In some corners, there are Chinese shrines with incense sticks on the ground and Thai Theravada altars mounted up on the wall, adorned with fresh flower wreaths and small golden amulets. Shelves are filled with all kinds of herbs imaginable, from the familiar Thai basil and coriander to lesser known round-leafed pennywort and water mimosa. Bundles of lemongrass, sachets of tamarind, baskets of turmeric and mountains of galangal and ginger throw earthy colours into a sea of green.

For those looking to create their own curries, there are small globes of green aubergine, fresh stem peppercorns and what the Thais call Garden Mouse Dropping chilies, tiny and potent. For those who want quicker gratification, there are ready-made sauces and condiments sealed in fat plastic bags ready to be taken home. For your sweet tooth, styrofoam trays are stacked into little towers with plenty of khanom wan (Thai sweets) to pick from. They are mostly made with the classic combination of coconut and glutinous rice. Some are pandan-flavoured (khanom chan), others made with mango slices and sticky rice (khao neow ma muang), while takoh layers thick coconut cream over a bed of tapioca pearls wrapped in banana leaf.

Except for one rather surprising Korean BBQ supermarket and several long-standing Chiu Chow establishments, you will quickly gather that you have found a little piece of Thailand on South Wall Road. But listen closely: enter any of these shops and you will hear sentences flowing seamlessly from Cantonese to Thai and back again. The story of Hong Kong’s Little Thailand isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.

South Wall Road is named for the infamous Kowloon Walled City, an ancient Chinese fort that became a towering self-organised settlement before it was demolished in 1993. For a time, it was known as the City of Darkness, where even the British colonial forces were scared to enter and triads ruled, though by the early 1980s the Hong Kong police had cleared away most of the organised crime.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from the eastern Guangdong city of Chaozhou — commonly known by its Cantonese name, Chiu Chow — began emigrating overseas in search of better prospects. Chiu Chow people had a reputation for being uneducated but hard-working and many of them found work as coolies in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong many Chiu Chow first settled in the Western District, the wealthy set up businesses and the rest worked as merchants and coolies.Many found their way to Thailand, which had — and still has — the largest overseas Chinese community in the world.

Chiu Chow’s local language, Teochew, became the principle language of influential Chinese merchant groups in Bangkok. This Chiu Chow diaspora initiated a lot of the trade relations between Hong Kong and Thailand, which last year became the city’s eighth largest trade partner. It also led to the marriage of Chiu Chow coolies to Thai women. Unable to find Hong Kong wives, the coolies looked to Thailand, especially in the poorer northern regions where women were willing to marry someone who had better financial prospects.

In Hong Kong, many Chiu Chow settled in Kowloon City, and especially the Kowloon Walled City, 70 percent of whose population had Chiu Chow origins. Since Kowloon City was the centre of Chiu Chow life, it only made sense for mixed Thai-Chinese couples to base themselves there. Despite the notoriety of the Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong was still seen as a safer place than most of Southeast Asia and it presented plenty of economic opportunities for those who came.

Those early Thai-Chinese migrants paved the way for a further influx of Thai immigrants in the 1970s. When Kai Tak Airport closed in 1998, many longtime Chiu Chow shops and restaurants went out of business, opening up space for new Thai-focused enterprises. Today, most shops and restaurants are owned and run by Thai-Chinese couples; often the husband is Chinese and the wife Thai. At the Mayom Thai grocery store, owner Mrs. Wong explains she came to Hong Kong and decided to stay put after meeting her husband here . Sitting outside the shop, she slices lime after lime in half and casually throws them into a large box.

“We used to mainly supply ingredients for Thai restaurants in Hong Kong, though increasingly we do get local people coming to us for products that are difficult to find in other shops,” she says. Produce at Kowloon City’s Thai grocery stores is usually cheaper than at chain supermarkets.

Wong’s Cantonese is near perfect. When asked if it was hard to learn, she laughs. “I’ve been here for over ten years now! In Thai we have seven tones, so it is not that difficult to learn spoken Cantonese. Reading and writing is another matter. I still cannot do that.”

A lot of prepping is done by these wholesale grocers for restaurants around the city. Red and green chilies are being sorted into piles; sauces and pickled vegetables are distributed into portions ready to be used alongside grilled meat. Mrs. Sae-Chan of the Ruamjai Thai Grocery is spooning flower egg yolk custard (tong yip) from a large metal vat into smaller plastic bags. She explains the importance of keeping Thai traditions alive in her adopted home.

“We have flowers flown in twice a week from Thailand so that they are fresh for worship,” she says. Purple orchids, white jasmine, yellow carnations make up the beautiful garlands (phuang malai) ready for customers to pick up for their altars at home. “The green pandan layer cakes (khanom chan) are also something we commonly use for offerings since they have nine layers and the number nine in Thai sounds like progress, which is essential for prosperity,” she elaborates.

There are four Theravada Buddhist temples in Hong Kong, in Yuen Long, Tai Wo, Tuen Mun and Shap Pat Heung. Every Sunday, monks descend from the Tai Wo temple to collect alms in South Wall Road, giving the faithful a chance to do good deeds close to home.

There are about 28,000 Thai people in Hong Kong, according to the Thai consulate, and while not all of them live in Kowloon City, it’s the place where they go when they want a taste of home. Every spring, people gather in the neighbourhood for Songkran, the Thai New Year. Part of the festival’s tradition is to splash strangers with water, so every year, hundreds of people flock to a Kowloon City playground with water pistols and buckets.

“We have been here for many years, it is home for us,” says Sae-Chan. “We opened one restaurant, then the grocery store to supply other restaurants since we were already importing for ourselves. Our children go to school here, our grandchildren were born here.”

The neighbourhood is changing, though. Rising rents threaten the survival of many shops. “When Kai Tak Airport was running, building regulations meant a lot of low-rise real estate was protected,” says Wong. “Now that the building limits have been lifted, developers are moving in, sniffing around to buy and demolish. In a few years, rent has tripled.” She says she might return to Thailand when she retires. “Maybe we’ll work hard, make enough money and return. But this will always be home too. We will try to stand our ground as long as we can.”

In the meantime, we’ll be heading to Kowloon City to get our fingers sticky with freshly made papaya salad – and not the one-chili version toned down for Hong Kong palates. The real, four pepper deal. “Are you sure?” asks the lady pounding papaya salads at 20 South Wall Road. Oh yes. All the better to get a taste of Little Thailand while it’s still there.

Little Thailand is a 20-minute walk from Lok Fu MTR station. It can also be reached by the 25M minibus from Kowloon Tong MTR or bus 101 from Hong Kong Island. 

Where to shop for Thai ingredients

Lemon Shop
204 South Wall Road. +852 9237 4758

You can find pretty much any Thai ingredient you need here, from fish sauce to lemongrass to green mangoes for a spicy salad. There are also rows and rows of Thai beauty products and cooking utensils such as rice steamer baskets.

A CAP Coconut Oil
39 South Wall Road. +852 2382 6383

This is your destination for all things coconut, from coconut oil to coconut sugar to coconut cream body lotion.

Mayom Thai Company
29 South Wall Road. +852 2383 2391

Fresh herbs can be found here, as well as chilies, limes, bitter gourds and mini aubergines. The friendly staff can explain what to do with any mysterious ingredients you have never seen before.

Ruamjai Thai Grocery
21 South Wall Road. +852 2716 4808

Here you will find plenty of prepared snacks and desserts, from taro and banana pudding wrapped in grilled banana leaves to sticky rice with mango and spicy prawn crackers. They sell a range of fresh ingredients including fresh banana leaves to wrap your chicken in as well as sambal sauces and of course all colours of chilli.

Where to shop for religious items

LM Thai Supplier
73 South Wall Road. +852 2382 7386

Everything you would need to build a shrine at home, from Buddha statues to golden elephants and flower wreaths.

Thai Monks
10 Lung Kong Road. 

Another place for incense sticks, golden lions and little statues of Ganesh.

Where to Eat

Papaya Salad
20 South Wall Road, Kowloon City. +852 6455 2999

Fresh papaya salads have been pounded on the spot here for three years. The number of chilies can be adjusted to your tolerance levels. Throw in a sticky rice and you have a complete meal for HK$50.

Thai Vegetarian Restaurant
28A Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City. +852 6153 7421

For those looking for something a little different, here is a vegetarian spin on classic Thai favourites such as tom yum kung soup, veggie chicken and basil leaf rice as well as veggie pad thai.

Ruamjai Thai Restaurant
5 Tak Ku Ling Road. +852 2383 6983

Brought to you by the owners of the Ruamjai grocery store, their restaurant is one of the most well-known in the area. It is one of the very few in the area to have the “Thai Select” certification awarded by the Thai government. Go there for classic Thai soup noodles with beef and herbs or for one of their many salads, with chicken, minced pork or spicy squid.   

Thai House
47 South Wall Road. +852 5410 6228

This always busy place manages to attract a local Thai clientele on weekdays, when most other places are quieter. It churns out deep fried fish and mango salad, lemongrass grilled beef, and towering pomelo salads. Go for its super value lunch set with crabmeat fried rice and a cold drink for HK$40.

Taai3 Sik1 Mei5 Ji6 (泰式美食)

With no English name, this popular eatery specialises in Chiu Chow-Thai fusion food, offering Thai-style morning glory vegetables, oyster omelettes, crispy prawn cakes and the Asian version of the Scotch Egg – deep fried batter coated black century eggs.

27 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City, Hong Kong +852 2716 2938

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