To Kwa Wan is often overlooked. Maybe it’s because its name literally translates as Potato Bay (tou2 gwaa1 waan4 土瓜灣), but more likely because it is one of the last areas in Kowloon to remain relatively untouched by urban renewal (read: luxury apartments and sparkling shopping malls). This isn’t to be for long. Construction on a new MTR line that will pass through the neighbourhood has been trudging along, albeit with grave setbacks due to archaeological discoveries and land subsidence. When it finally opens in the middle of 2019, it will no doubt bring higher rents and property values.
To be fair, the area could use a bit of an uplift. Many of To Kwa Wan’s colourful buildings were constructed in the 1950s and 60s, during Hong Kong’s industrial zenith, and they are now falling apart. Informal rooftop housing and subdivided apartments in this historically low-income area have quickened their demise, and new coats of paint do little to disguise their deterioration. But to threaten the replacement of these buildings with a landscape of lavish high rises is to jeopardise a robust community network made up of newcomers and people who have lived in this neighbourhood for generations.
Before it was built up in the mid-twentieth century, To Kwa Wan was made up of farmland. The first two words in To Kwa Wan’s name are said to refer to the sweet potatoes planted by Hakka villagers who settled on the land a few hundred years ago. As in many other districts in Kowloon, such as Kwun Tong, To Kwa Wan was also the site of a granite quarry, which provided materials for construction across the harbour throughout the 19th century, and for Kai Tak Airport in more recent history. Even more recently, To Kwa Wan was a hub for light industry, churning out products ranging from toys to textiles. Housing rose concurrently with factory buildings – this is the To Kwa Wan we see today, with the addition of newer, ever-taller apartment blocks.
You could easily write off To Kwa Wan as yet another neighbourhood that will be gentrified out of existence. But that wouldn’t be accurate. The neighbourhood’s changes have been greeted by a strong community spirit. New creative projects are emerging, tightening existing bonds and drawing strangers together. For many, To Kwa Wan is one of the last holdovers from an earlier, less commercial, less materialistic Hong Kong, and its symbolism goes far towards motivating them to preserve a semblance of this era.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to humble To Kwa Wan, although a to-do list of destinations is only half the story. More than any other neighbourhood, what’s truly unique about this place are the countless small interactions that make up its everyday life. You’ll do best to meander through the endless vegetable and fruit stalls, dip into old congee shops, people watch at the temple, or perhaps strike up a conversation with a fellow park-goer. People living in large cities like Hong Kong carry a reputation of aloofness, but delve deeper and discover that this stereotype hardly holds true, especially for an old neighbourhood like this one. Few in To Kwa Wan speak English (with the exception of most of the destinations in this guide), but even for those not fluent in Cantonese, it is a friendly neighbourhood fully worth the trip.
Cattle Depot Artist Village 牛棚藝術村
63 Ma Tau Kok Road, To Kwa Wan; open daily 10:00-22:00
It’s easy to wander past this nondescript collection of red brick buildings without so much a guess as to what lies inside. Originally built as a cattle slaughterhouse and trade facility in 1908, the Cattle Depot has been home to a small trove of artist studios and innovative gallery spaces since its renewal in 2001. The old slaughterhouse, with its red brick, Chinese tiled roofs, and sloping edges, is an architectural example of late nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts architecture that valued traditional craftsmanship.
Unit 10 used to be the studio of conceptual artist Frog King, but he is currently lending it out to Play Depot, which invites artists to engage with the local community over the course of three-month residencies. The project renews the importance of playing as a creative process, emphasizing that play is not only what children do, but is an act that opens up a whole range of artistic possibilities for people of all ages. On an average day, you’ll find children fooling around after school, but also college students having fun by making steel drums out of old propane tanks, or a retired man building chairs out of scrap wood. Play Depot’s Facebook page and website are frequently updated with the latest artist-in-residence workshops.
Unit 1 holds Wong Chun-wing’s studio, a hodgepodge of wooden sculptures, glass lanterns, and clay creations. Wong has been at the depot for 18 years, and judging by the tangle of tools and artistic creations outside his studio, this comes as no surprise. Wong is usually welcoming but he could be fiddling away at a new invention, so proceed at your discretion.
Next door, in Unit 2, is painter Chan Kwong-wah’s studio. Chan is only there on weekends, but during the week, you might find a man named Mr. Zong playing the guitar or the ukulele. He lives in Wong Tai Sin but comes around almost every day to hang out at the depot. More often than not, he has an extra instrument and might let you play along. Other units include contemporary art gallery 1a space and Videotage, which exhibits video and new media art, as well as On & On Theatre, an independent and experimental performance group.Despite these pockets of creativity, the Cattle Depot remains a wealth of untapped potential. A quarter of the units remain vacant, and the spaces between studios are eerily silent for the most part. In the 18 years it has been running, the artist village has been mired in a dense web of government bureaucracy. Although restrictions on visitors are a thing of the past — you were once required to show your Hong Kong ID card at the entrance — artists have been left to navigate inflexible short-term leases and a hampering on their use of space for events and public gatherings. Embattled by these limitations, the depot is not as spirited as it could be, but take it for what it is: a peaceful haven where one can get a taste of Hong Kong’s creative scene.
Play Depot (Unit 10); open Wednesday-Friday 14:00-19:00, Saturday-Sunday 11:00-19:00
1a space (Unit 14); open during exhibitions Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-19:00
Videotage (Unit 13); open daily 11:00-19:00
On & On Theatre (Unit 7); open during performances
13 Streets 十三街
Just across from the Cattle Depot, a uniform swath of buildings rises out of the ground, spanning a row of eleven short streets. This mini-neighbourhood, along with the two major roads that bookend it, is called the 13 Streets (sap6 saam1 gaai1 十三街). These colorful eight-storey walk-up apartments blocks were constructed in the 1950s and 60s, when Kai Tak airport was up and running and buildings nearby were kept low to let planes land safely.
When To Kwa Wan was an industrial area, the 13 Streets provided cheap housing for workers and migrants from the Sze Yap (sei3 jap1 四邑) region in southern Guangdong. Since then, it has remained a low-income neighbourhood and a haven for new immigrants. With the exodus of light industry to mainland China, many street-level factories are now car repair shops. A growing Pakistani population brings general stores that sell imported ingredients and snacks. While you’re there, pay attention to the street names – they’re all named after auspicious Chinese animals.
Eastern Cotton Mills 東方紗廠
At the end of Ying Yeung Street, a crumbling concrete facade peeks out over a maroon construction barrier, its windows open to nowhere. This structure used to be part of the Eastern Cotton Mills, a large yarn-spinning complex replete with a dining hall and dormitories for its workers. When the mill was demolished in 2012, it was one of the last yarn-spinning factory buildings left in Hong Kong, a remnant from an era when the city was a centre for textiles production.
When billionaires Fu Duk-jung and C.S. Wan founded the Eastern Cotton Mills in 1954, the textiles industry was already in full throttle. Like many of the entrepreneurs who headed up textile factories in the late 1940s, Wan was from Shanghai and fled to Hong Kong to escape the perils of the Chinese Civil War. Hong Kong’s industrial era has been virtually papered over since its decline in the 1980s, with the exception of a few heritage revitalisation projects such as The Mills in Tsuen Wan. As for the concrete block that is left of this old mill, it will eventually be incorporated into a thirty-storey residential and commercial complex.
Chingchun Warehouse 青春工藝
6 Fung Yi Street, To Kwa Wan; open daily 15:00-19:00, 痛哭酒館 Bitter Weep Pub open Monday-Tuesday 19:00-23:00. Tel: +852 6475 5355
A few storefronts down one of the Thirteen Streets, a cluster of hand-painted signs hangs low behind an old bench, marking the entrance to a well-worn community space. The spot is easy to miss; the small wooden placard that spells out its name, Chingchun Warehouse, hardly screams its presence. But it is precisely the way that Chingchun seems to fold into the fabric of To Kwa Wan that is representative of the way it has embedded itself within the local community.
Chingchun Warehouse was spearheaded by artist Him Lo, who has worked as curator for the Hong Kong House of Stories and the Mill6 Foundaton, but in practice, the space has been moulded by community participation. Local artists use Chingchun as a studio and hold workshops, decking out the walls with their upcycled creations. To Kwa Wan kaifong sit on handmade benches for an afternoon chat. On Fridays and Saturdays, a retired woman offers tailoring services. Monthly meetings with neighbours, social workers, and young creatives determine what will become of the space. Recently, this motley crew of stakeholders decided against installing air conditioning in order to uphold their values of environmental sustainability.
It’s no news that Hong Kong has a dearth of welcoming public space. Chingchun, a creative platform for people from all walks of life to come together, is To Kwa Wan’s answer to this problem. Spend an afternoon at the heart of this neighbourhood with a cup of Chingchun hand-ground coffee or floral tea. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, a crowd spills out onto Fung Yi Street. This is tung1 huk3 zau2 gun2 (痛哭酒館), which roughly translates to Bitter Weep Pub, a pay-what-you-can bar popular with locals, artists and activists. Why the name? Bitter tears is what reading the news brings these days, Lo says. It’s kind of a joke, but with the barrage of headlines announcing the latest MTR scandal afflicting the neighbourhood, the name doesn’t seem too far fetched at all.
Sung Wong Toi Garden 宋王臺公園
Sandwiched between busy Ma Tau Chung Road and the never-ending expanse of development taking place at the former Kai Tak Airport, Song Wong Toi Garden might very well be the least spectacular park in all of Hong Kong. Unfortunate location aside, the small garden houses a 700-year-old relic that bears traces of Hong Kong’s history from pre-colonial battles to World War II political economy. Song Wong Toi, the rock slab monument that gives the garden its name and a reason to exist, translates to Terrace of the Song Emperors (sung3 wong4 toi4 宋王臺). After the Song Dynasty was vanquished in 1279 by the invading Mongol army, local Song loyalists carved these characters into the rockface to memorialize the last two boy emperors Zhao Shi and Zhao Bing — nine and seven — who perished during and after the war by illness and suicide respectively.
Before World War II, Song Wong Toi was originally located on Sacred Hill, a small mountain nearby that was levelled by the Japanese to make room and materials for two new runways at Kai Tak. On Sacred Hill, Song Wong Toi loomed large as a 45-metre tall boulder, but the explosions that destroyed Sacred Hill inevitably left deep fractures in the monument. In 1945, the carving was extracted from the boulder and relocated to its current site. But with the cranes swinging again at Kai Tak, one can wonder when the two emperors might finally be left in peace.
9/F Block A, On Lok Factory Building, 97 Ha Heung Road, To Kwa Wan; open by appointment & during events. Tel: +852 9219 1660
Fung Wing-kuen used to work in the film industry but grew fed up with the inefficiencies of it all and quit his job in the 1980s. Shortly after, he began collecting curious things he found in the streets, eventually amassing an enormous collection of trinkets and old wares, a portion of which now lives in To Kwa Wan. Weathered film scripts salvaged from an abandoned Shaw Brothers studio, boxy tangerine-colored Toshiba televisions, a crate belonging to an ex-FBI agent, too many suitcases to count – you name it, he’s got it.
When asked if he already knew a nondescript metal box was in fact an old fuse box when he found it, Fung said, “You know, there’s not really much that I don’t know.” Jiksap, which literally translates to “to collect at dusk” (zik6 sap6 夕拾), isn’t technically open yet — Fung and his team are working on transforming the ex-industrial space into a gallery for his finds — but if you’re looking for anything in particular, send him a message and he’d be happy to see if he’s got anything for you. The gallery itself will open whenever construction is done which, as Fung says, will be whenever construction is done. Check their Instagram for updates.
Coutou Woodworking Studio 草途木研社
9/F Block C, On Lok Factory Building, 97 Ha Heung Road, To Kwa Wan; open by appointment & during events
Coutou Woodworking Studio is only a year old, but founders Yung Wing-yan and Arthur Li are hoping to revive an age-old craft that saw its heyday in the 1960s. Back then, woodworkers were a dime a dozen in Hong Kong, but with the arrival of imported furniture in the 1980s, their numbers have dwindled, and so has the fix-it spirit that undergirded every household half a century ago. Unlike the myriad of craft workshops that have popped up in Hong Kong of late, Coutou isn’t looking to send their students home with one-off products like another pair of chopsticks, or a pre-designed stool. Rather, their technique-intensive long courses aim to lay a sure foundation on top of which students can dream up and carry through with their own projects specific to what they need and what they have on hand. Indeed, Yung’s frequent excursions to the neighbouring garbage dump for scrap wood speak to Coutou’s dedication to fostering an innovative and sustainable practice.
Although Yung herself was trained as a professional woodworker in Taiwan, she frequently turns to older sifus for their artisanal expertise, inviting them to hold the occasional workshop in Coutou’s customized studio space. Every few months, Coutou puts on Happy Friday, a social evening that brings together these seasoned craftsmen with a younger generation of wood enthusiasts. Even for non-woodworkers, Happy Friday has become a platform for new collaborations. The latest: a guitar fanatic and a luthier band together to brainstorm the best materials for making the instrument. Coutou’s Facebook page carries the latest event and workshop updates (Cantonese only, but English inquiry is available).
Tin Hau Temple 天后古廟
49 Ha Heung Road, To Kwa Wan; open daily 08:30-17:30
This small temple dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, has been sitting quietly in To Kwa Wan for more than 130 years. The temple originally enjoyed views of Kowloon Bay when it was built in 1885 by Hakka villagers, but after decades of land reclamation, it now squats below towering grey housing blocks, 500 meters from the ocean. Nonetheless, the green-roofed temple remains an anchor for the people of To Kwa Wan, especially the more elderly kaifong who hold a closer relationship to the area’s marine past.
Every now and again, past locals who have moved away return to the temple to purchase offerings and prayer services to the sea goddess and Dragon Mother (lung4 mou5 龍母), who has shared the temple with Tin Hau since 1964. Dragon Mother, a deified woman said to have raised five loyal dragons, once had her own place of worship on Hoi Sham Island, but the temple was demolished to make room for the land reclamation project that joined Hoi Sham to the mainland.
Gam Lo Dessert 甘露甜品
50 Mei King Street; open daily 13:00-00:30
Shopowner Ngai Yuk-lam fled to Hong Kong from southern China almost 40 years ago with her uncle and made a living selling fish balls and other street fare in the Lion Rock squatter settlement where she lived. A few years later, her uncle opened up a Chinese herbal tea shop that eventually evolved into the dessert shop that stands on Mei King Street today.
Although the popularity of egg tarts and waffles might suggest otherwise, the Cantonese sweet tooth hasn’t always been rooted in pastry, but rather in tong1 seoi2 (糖水), literally “sugar water.” There used to be more dessert shops dedicated to selling these kinds of sweet soups and custards, but the Hong Kong palate seems to have diversified, preferring mango pancakes to a bowl of red bean sweet soup (hung4 dau2 saa1 紅豆沙). Even Ngai admits that most of their sales come from their fish balls with homemade satay sauce, but Gam Lo Dessert (gam1 lou6 tim4 ban2 甘露甜品, literally “sweet dew dessert”) still sells the classics: sesame soup (zi1 maa4 wu2 芝麻糊), mung bean soup (luk6 dau2 saa1 綠豆沙), and egg-milk pudding (sin1 naai5 dan6 gai1 daan2 鮮奶燉雞蛋).
For those looking for a pre-dessert dinner, Mei King Street is chock-full of good eats, including a Hakka restaurant with seating outside, and a pristine Chinese vegetarian joint a few steps away.
Swing A Cat
Rear Shop, G/F 241 To Kwa Wan Road, To Kwa Wan; open Saturday-Sunday 15:00-20:00 and for events
Tucked away in its own little alley embellished with colorful murals, this gallery is a sore miss for any illustration enthusiasts. Swing A Cat, which triples as a studio and workshop space, is run by artist couple Catherine Tai, a graphic designer who grew up in To Kwa Wan, and Stephen Case, an illustrator with a love for caricature. Currently, the gallery is featuring Case’s own work, part one of a large project to caricature 700 characters from Coen brothers’ films. Past exhibitions include sketches of street life by graphic designer Adolfo Arranz, watercolor portraits by illustrator Harvey Chan, and their first, a photo exhibition of Marcel Heijnen’s shophouse cat photos. In the coming year and beyond, Swing A Cat will turn more heavily to humorist work and illustration art.
The pair also host a diverse array of workshops at Swing A Cat. Their weekly figure drawing session on Wednesdays is one example, but they have also invited jewelry artists and tea masters to share their craft. If none of this sounds like your cup of tea, keep an eye out for poetry and literature readings, weekend film screenings or public art talks. Or simply swing by for a cup of coffee and kill some time on one of their cozy couches.
Hoi Sham Park 海心公園
Hoi Sham Park used to be Hoi Sham Island, but the little islet lived the same fate as so many others do in Hong Kong: it was eaten up in a land reclamation project. The island was considered an auspicious place especially by fishermen, who saw a symbol for safety in the fishtail-shaped rock at its center. The rock still stands in the park, but the seafood restaurants that once extended out over the rocks on stilts have disappeared. In their place are now park benches overlooking a pink and green pagoda. Come here for a breath of ocean air and a view of Kowloon Bay.
Kowloon City Pier 九龍城碼頭
This iteration of Kowloon City Pier was built shortly after WWII, but an earlier version served Qing officials who were based out of Kowloon Walled City. The original Kowloon City Pier started off as Lung Tsun Stone Bridge (龍津石橋 long4 zeon1 kiu4 sek6), a 200-metre long granite platform that reached out into Kowloon Bay. Built in the 1870s, the pier led right up to the gates of the walled city, which, as a place sequestered from Hong Kong law, was a hotspot for gamblers and drug dealers alike. The bridge was slowly consumed by land reclamation and was eventually buried under Kai Tak Airport when the Japanese carried out further construction during the war. Relatively intact remnants of the bridge were unearthed and will be incorporated into future developments of Kai Tak. Today’s Kowloon City Pier was built farther down south and runs trips to North Point twice an hour.
Ma Tau Wai Service Reservoir Playground
If you’re up for a hike, the top of this park offers great views of To Kwa Wan and Kowloon Bay. Walk along Kau Pui Lung Road, past Celestial Heights, and up the stairs to your right to begin the trip. At night, a woman sits on the road behind Lok Man Sun Chuen Block F to feed the stray cats that live on the hill.