In a valley fed by streams running off Mount Butler, the Hakka settlement of Tai Hang (dai6 haang1 大坑) sat on the edge of Victoria Harbour. By the 1870s the settlement, whose name can be euphemistically interpreted as Big Water Channel, or more literally as Big Ditch, had grown into a village. By 1901, it began to form the now familiar gridded network of streets lined by three storey village houses.
Little else about the Tai Hang of that time is familiar today. Even the landscape has changed, with land reclamation in the 1950s placing Victoria Park between the sea and the village that once stood at its edge. Sand from that reclamation and water from the harbour was used to build the tong lau that replaced the village houses. The streets were mostly renamed for British government officials: Jones, Brown, Ormsby. One exception was Back Street, which divided the village into north and south. It was renamed Sun Chun Street (san1 cyun1 gaai1 新村街, New Village Street), apt for a place that seems to be in constant transition.
“It was very poor. Very poor indeed!” remarks Hak Gor (hak1 go1 黑哥, Dark Brother), who sits in his usual spot under an umbrella on Sun Chun Street. Here the retiree spends his days topping up parking metres for several neighbourhood garages and striking up amiable conversation with the kaifong (gaai1 fong1 街坊, community). Hak Gor is one of only a handful of native Tai Hang villagers left in the area and he vividly recalls the neighbourhood as it was in the mid-20th century. “We relied on washing clothes in the water that came from the mountains,” he says. “The children would help the women with their work. This is why the main street is called Wun Sha Street (wun2 saa1 gaai1 浣紗街, Washing Silken Gauze Street).”
The fresh scent of soap still emanates from a modern laundrette at the corner of Wun Sha and Sun Chun streets. Here, the ground level is raised to combat flooding, and at this convergence stands one of Tai Hang’s last remaining village houses. Built of stone, the house is topped with a gable roof on which perches a terracotta rooster. Just next door is Ah Yuen Garage. The proprietor, another Tai Hang native named Mr. Sin, takes his lunch at a folding table out front.
Sin has witnessed cycles of change before. “In the 60s there were a lot of printers here, not garages,” he says. “It was that way until the 70s, when cars became more common. Hongkongers love cars. Slowly the printers gave way to garages.” Since the 1980s, Tai Hang has been a centre for auto repair shops and various ancillary businesses that supported this industry, such as eateries and all night dim sum restaurants catering to night shift taxi drivers. “It’s funny with garages,” says Sin. “You’ll never see just one or two of them. Why not? Because the government will chase them away – they’re dirty and bad for the environment, so garages tend to cluster together. The Environmental Protection Department prefers the garages to be concentrated in one area so that they can be more easily managed.”
Through his cheery demeanour, Sin remains realistic about Tai Hang’s situation. “The future doesn’t look good for our industry. Not good at all,” he says.
Striding in lock step down School Street, a trendy duo take no notice of a fading red ghost sign painted straight onto a corner building as they pass it by. The inexpertly daubed sign reads “荣合車身修理” (wing4 hap6 ce1 san1 sau1 lei5), and with its thin strokes and dribbled paint, it tells the story of an auto body repair shop that once buffed out scrapes on this quiet corner. Now long gone, the space has been taken over by Buddy, a neighbourhood pub which might once have looked incongruous but now fits in amongst the coffee shops and high end restaurants that have been popping up since the early 2010s.
Diagonally across from Buddy, Wong Jai runs a tiny stall where he has repaired and reupholstered taxi seats for decades. “When I started I was Wong Jai (wong4 zai2, 黃仔, Young Wong) but I’ve been here so long that I’m now Wong Bak (wong4 baak3 黃伯, Old Wong),” quips the upholsterer. “In the 70s and 80s there were over 100 garages. The small shop spaces were the perfect size for them. Now there are far fewer – perhaps 20-some garages. The rent is too expensive. Some may remain if they own their shop spaces but not the ones who rent. I’ll stay here for as long as I can, as long as the landlord doesn’t raise my rent.” He shrugs. “It’s just the way of things.”
Though restaurants and cafés have taken over the neighbourhood, they are just as susceptible to rent hikes as the garages. “The landlords come in and throttle garage businesses by raising rents until they can’t take it anymore and have to close down,” says mechanic Thomas Markar. “Then they drop the rents to attract new tenants – restaurant tenants. After that they do it all over again to the restaurants.”
Since 2001, Markar and his family have run Thomas Motorcycle Company. He is a relative newcomer to Tai Hang but is deeply involved in the community, even drumming for the First Battalion Pipes and Drums of the Fire Dragon Guard. “It used to be so quiet after six o’clock, you’d think it was haunted – maybe haunted by the drug addicts who took refuge in this little enclave. No outsiders came in here.” Markar glances outside his shop at a woman, teetering along the rain slicked streets in red soled Louboutins. “Now look at all these strangers.”
Markar’s son, Boris, was raised in Tai Hang. He looks up from a 1979 Honda and chimes in. “The media wants to promote Tai Hang as a place for man4 cing1 (文青, hipsters), with coffee shops and things like that. Developers want it that way – for people to forget what Tai Hang is really like, a place with a real human touch. A place where people did things like play badminton in the streets. A community.”
Not far from Thomas Motorcycle, a si6 do1 (士多) stands shuttered. Its smart red sign flakes paint in the sun and its white frontage has been all but papered over with flyers. “That whole block is empty,” says Calvin Wang, who runs a shop with his wife, Ammis. “The landlord wants to destroy everything and build something high.” As of 1999, Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance (Cap. 545) has set out that anyone holding over 80 percent of the undivided shares of a residential building over 50 years old can apply to the Lands Tribunal for an order for sale. This low threshold for redevelopment puts the character of Tai Hang at risk, but more importantly, it threatens the fabric of its community.
“There’s a time limit on me being here,” says Yau Gor, who runs a small fleet of three taxis and a garage out of a corrugated metal shed. For over 40 years, his business has occupied this spot on a government licence. He indicates the two tong lau that flank his property. “When it comes time for these two buildings to be redeveloped they won’t let me stay. They’ll take the licence back and I’ll be gone.”
At current property prices, compensation paid out for expropriation won’t be enough for most to relocate within Tai Hang. Many longtime residents will be forcibly ejected from their community and with each will go a valuable part of a place where everyday life intersects with rich cultural heritage and folklore.
“Over there,” says Hak Gor, pointing down Sun Chun Street. “That’s where they dug up the dragon ball in 1973. That’s a pearl that a dragon chases through the sky.” He clarifies. “They were digging a foundation for that building and they unearthed it. It was smooth and round. I wrapped my arms around it and it was cold to the touch. It looked dark but it was translucent. Some said that it was a meteorite.” Many Tai Hang residents feel their neighbourhood to be particularly auspicious and, to ensure that this luck continues, each Mid Autumn Festival is marked with prayers at the Lin Fa Kung Temple and a spectacular fire dragon ritual.
“The old kaifong are mainly gone but they come back for the fire dragon and we’re always happy to see them,” says Wong Jai. “I’ve taken part so many times that I struggle to wear all the shirts in rotation.” The upholsterer pulls open his smock to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with a crimson dragon.
“I used to be a head carrier!” crows Hak Gor. “I could carry it three car lengths. When you put the joss sticks in, the object becomes a god. He won’t allow you to lift him if you don’t have faith. Doesn’t matter how big or strong you are.”
Alongside the gods and cryptids who roam its streets, Tai Hang has a penchant for producing champions. In 1936, China fielded a national football team to compete at the Berlin Olympics. Eight of the 11 players were from Tai Hang and amongst them was Lee Wai-tong. Nicknamed Iron Foot, he is regarded as one of the biggest football talents to have ever lived.
Today, Tai Hang is still home to a coterie of colourful characters. None boast of their own achievements, but the neighbours proudly make them a part of local lore. “I saw that you were talking to Markar sifu,” whispers Calvin Wang. “Did you know that he was a motorcycle racing champion? He only quit because it was dangerous and he had just started a young family.” Boris Markar confirms this. “Yes, that’s right. In 93, he came seventh at the Macau Grand Prix and in 94, he came second. My dad is my hero.”
He states this matter of factly before changing subjects and relating tales of “the fat Auntie who made dim sum all night” and “a taxi driver who was the first to complete the Guia Circuit in under three minutes.” Gesturing down Sun Chun Street, he enquires, “Did you know that Hak Gor used to be a stuntman in the 80s and 90s? Watch Road Warriors,” he says, referring to the 1987 movie. “He played a traffic cop. I believe he had dialogue too!”
Winding down for the evening, Thomas Motorcycle’s fluorescent lights and the sound of quiet laughter spill into the street. Friends and neighbours gather round on folding stools. “Growing up, this was a happy place,” says Boris. “You could rent VCDs in the spot where [hotel complex] Little Tai Hang now stands. One year, over 30 people gathered in the street to watch the World Cup on a tiny TV – that would never happen nowadays. Everyone was close. Everyone was warm. We welcome the new neighbours, but we don’t want to lose that old feeling.”
As the night wears on, more stories are exchanged and memories shared. In this way, the old Tai Hang lives on.