Neighbourhood Guide: Sham Shui Po is Hong Kong’s Most Quintessential Neighbourhood

For decades, Sham Shui Po has been the centre of all things creative. Today, hip cafés and polished art spaces are the latest endeavours in the neighbourhood, but the entrepreneurial maker spirit of earlier years was born out of necessity. First developed in the late 19th century, just before the British leased the New Territories in 1898, Sham Shui Po was transformed by waves of immigration after World War II, when refugees fleeing the Chinese Civil War settled in the area.

People found homes on the roofs of buildings, and inside shared apartments with a handful of other families. With the people came industry, and every nook and cranny was soon populated by cottage factories that spearheaded the city’s burgeoning textiles and garment industry. Even the geography of Sham Shui Po adapted to newcomers, with reclamation that straightened out its curved coastline to accommodate new development.

Sham shui po

Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

By the 2000s, however, nearly all manufacturing had been outsourced to factories in mainland China, and Sham Shui Po came to be dominated by wholesale outlets that connected those factories to buyers from around the world. Now even those businesses are disappearing. In their place is a new wave of artists, designers and entrepreneurs who are setting up shop in Sham Shui Po.

For all the changes, the old Sham Shui Po is no lifeless artefact merely to be remembered. The poverty that has characterized this district for so many years remains a vicious reality for many still living here. In addition to sharing newer creative undertakings in this guide, we have also included businesses that have served this community since its beginnings. After all, this neighbourhood would be nothing without its roots.

But first, we must make a stop a smidge north of Sham Shui Po, in the small area of Shek Kip Mei. After World War II, refugees built squatter villages on the hills just north of Sham Shui Po, but their wood construction made them vulnerable to fire. Shek Kip Mei burned to the ground in a devastating 1953 fire that spurred on the construction of public housing today houses more than half of Hong Kong’s population. A few of the historic buildings in the area have been given new life as part of heritage preservation projects, and now serve as varnished monuments of a pivotal past.

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JCCAC – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

1/ Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre
30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei; open daily 10:00-22:00

Housed in a refurbished public factory estate built in 1977, the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) gathers more than 140 artists and artist studios in its nine-storey complex. Although public factory estates never made up more than a small percentage of Hong Kong’s industrial landscape, they nonetheless mark an important shift in its history.

From the late 1930s to the 1960s, a large portion of the immigrant population lived in informal settlements scattered around Hong Kong. Within these settlements, residents set up small cottage factories that produced metalwares, textiles and home goods, forming the underbelly of the industrial sector. After the infamous fire of 1953, the government launched its plan resettle villagers in public housing estates and their businesses in state-managed factory buildings.

Most of the factory estate’s original architecture remains unchanged, and a display of old machinery in the JCCAC lobby pays tribute to the building’s past. On most days, the centre stays relatively quiet — many of the artists maintain second careers and are not always there — but JCCAC organises guided tours on weekdays in addition to monthly public exhibitions and events.

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Mei Ho House – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

2/ Heritage of Mei Ho House 
Block 41, 70 Berwick Street, Shek Kip Mei Estate, Sham Shui Po, open Tuesdays-Sundays 9:30-17:00

While you’re there, Heritage Tea House on the first floor is a great place to while away a slow afternoon. Wooden decor offers a relaxing backdrop for a pot of tea or two. If you prefer to have your tea at home, Heritage also sells a selection of Chinese teas and teaware from Jingdezhen, a small city in eastern China renowned for its ceramic art.
Block 41, 70 Berwick Street, Shek Kip Mei Estate, Sham Shui Po; open Tuesdays-Sundays 9:30-17:00

Shek Kip Mei was the site of the first public housing estate in Hong Kong. Today, all of these H-shaped first generation estates have been demolished – except for Block 41, also known as Mei Ho House, which has been refurbished into a youth hostel with a wing dedicated to exhibiting the history of housing in Shek Kip Mei.

The ground floor of this small museum charts the neighbourhood’s evolution from a squatter village to public housing, and it displays the minutiae of daily life through oral accounts collected from past residents. Upstairs, you’ll find replicas of residential and retail units in the public housing block, which offer a window into Hong Kong’s recent past, right down to the smallest of details. The wooden planks poking out of the rice barrels in a grocery store are written in Suzhou numerals, a numeric system once popular but now only seen in some red minibuses and older cha chaan tengs.

This museum is no grand affair, but you’ll find its compelling charm lies in its down-to-earth, super-realistic exhibits, which use artefacts salvaged from the original housing estates. For a spectacular view — especially after dark — climb up the hill behind Mei Ho House.

 

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The former North Kowloon Magistry – Photo courtesy SCAD

3/ Savannah College of Art and Design
292 Tai Po Road, Sham Shui Po; by appointment

Hong Kong’s branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) lives in another historic building in Shek Kip Mei: the North Kowloon Magistracy. The magistracy was built in 1960 and is a rare example of modernist neoclassical architecture. After its legal operations were merged with other courts in 2005, the building was acquired by SCAD, which officially launched its Hong Kong location in 2008. The school preserved many of the old magistracy’s features, including the building’s bronze-studded entrance doors, courtrooms, and a detention cell. For a closer look, check out their regular open days or schedule a guided tour on their heritage website.

 

Man Kee Cart Noodles -Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

4/ Man Kee Cart Noodles 文記車仔麵
121 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily 11:00-01:00

Fuk Wing Street is teeming with popular restaurants, but perhaps one of the most beloved — so much so that it has three stores on the same street — is Man Kee Cart Noodles. Cart noodles (ce1 zai2 min6 車仔麵), a quintessential Hong Kong meal, derives its name from the way it used to be sold in the 1950s. The end of WWII and the beginning of the Chinese Civil War saw a mass exodus of mainland Chinese to Hong Kong, and the streets soon filled with food vendors who served the city’s busy workers. Wooden carts were wheeled around with vats of boiling broth and stewed meats. With a choice of noodles, customers picked out their own combination of toppings and sauces.

Cantonese cuisine is known to be light in flavor; ginger, garlic, salt and not much more is used to spice dishes. Cart noodles, on the other hand, abound in spicy and savoury sauces, gifts brought to Hong Kong by immigrants from farther north. Government regulations imposed in the 1970s have moved these businesses into formal shop spaces, but the customisable noodle bowls and their name have remained. Man Kee has even kept up with the old way of serving: just as with the carts, people can point and choose their favorite ingredients and flavors.

 

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Kung Wo Tofu Factory  – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

5/ Kung Wo Tofu Factory 公和荳品廠
118 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po, open daily 7:00-21:00. Tel: 2386 6871

Kung Wo has been doling out all things tofu to the people of Sham Shui Po for just over fifty years, but the company itself was founded more than 120 years ago in Yau Ma Tei by a man named Lok Pong. The store is no longer run by his family, but a portrait of the man still hangs in the back of the shop as a tribute to its beginnings. With the handover drawing nigh in 1996, the Loks emigrated and sold the business to So Sung-lim, a family friend and fellow shop-owner in Sham Shui Po. The Sos have been at it since, ceaselessly churning out beancurd and stone-ground soy milk at their store on Pei Ho Street.

You’ll have to slip past the street vendors selling polyester clothing popular with the elderly, but the crowd and the soy products stacked tall on trays make this spot hard to miss. Raw tofu bricks (dau6 fu6 豆腐), soy milk (dau6 zoeng1 豆漿), and bags of fried tofu puffs (dau6pok3 豆朴) or tofu skin (fu6 pei4/fu6 zuk1 腐皮/腐竹) are for sale out front. Snacks like tofu pudding ( dau6 faa1 豆花) and fish-paste stuffed tofu (zin1 joeng6 dau6 fu6  煎釀豆腐) can be bought on the go too, but Kung Wo’s old school ambience will make you want to stick around.

 

Hop Yik Tai Snacks – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

6/ Hop Yik Tai Snacks 合益泰小食
121 Kweilin Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily 6:30-20:30. Tel: 2720 0239

Steamed rice rolls known as cheung fun (coeng4 fan2 腸粉) can be found in all kinds of Cantonese restaurants, from the meat-filled dim sum platters in tea houses, to rice-roll wrapped dough sticks of Hong Kong’s congee shops, and finally to the street food variation: plain rice rolls served with generous dollops of sesame sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Hop Yik Tai on Kweilin Street has this snack mastered with their silky smooth rice rolls made fresh daily and homemade sesame sauce. Line up in the alleyway for a bag of cheung fun or join the regulars inside.

 

Sun Heung Yuen -Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

7/ Sun Heung Yuen 新香園
38 Kweilin Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily 24 hours. Tel: 2386 2748

Chugging along on our comfort food train, we come to Sun Heung Yuen, a fifty-year-old cha chaan teng open around the clock. You will of course find the artery-clogging classics here — instant noodles, deep fried french toast, milk tea — but Sun Heung Yuen is best known for their beef and egg sandwiches. Essentially a beef omelette snuggling in between two pieces of crustless white bread, this sandwich is far from gourmet, but it has been a staple in Sham Shui Po for long enough that it deserves mention. Chau Chi-kin, owner of Sun Heung Yuen, has seen children grow up with the restaurant and in turn bring their own children back to enjoy the neighbourhood’s staples, which, along with the beef sandwiches, include braised pig trotter.

 

SoCO269 Exhibition Centre – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

8/ SoCO269 Exhibition Centre
1/F, 269 Yu Chau Street, Sham Shui Po; open Friday-Sunday 12:00-19:00. Tel: 2713 9165

The Society for Community Organization (SoCO) is a human rights group dedicated to eradicating social inequality in Hong Kong. SoCO has four offices in Sham Shui Po, where many of the city’s underprivileged live. One of their spaces in a narrow walkup just off Yu Chau Street serves as a small exhibition space for their latest projects. Their most recent is a photo exhibition of informal housing in Hong Kong accompanied with a show featuring bags and leather products handmade by economically disadvantaged women in the local community. The gallery also has a selection of SoCO-published books for sale, including collections of photo-essays documenting the lives of ex-convicts and underprivileged children.

 

Sam Tai Tsz & Pak Tai Temple – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

9/ Sam Tai Tsz & Pak Tai Temple 三太子及北帝廟
196 Yu Chau Street; open daily 8:30-17:30

This temple compound features two deities, each spectacular yet elusive. The first, Sam Tai Tsz, has only one home in Hong Kong, right here in Sham Shui Po. When the bubonic plague swept across Hong Kong in 1894, the Hakka people living in the area believed what was wreaking widespread suffering was a rogue mob of demons and ghosts. As such, they decided to bring back a statue of Sam Tai Tsz from their ancestral home in Huiyang, Guangdong.

The legend of Sam Tai Tsz, which literally means “third prince”, is chronicled in Fengshen Yanyi, a lengthy 16th-century novel set during the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty. His mother is said to have been pregnant with him for more than three years and when she gave birth, he came out as a large sphere of flesh. Alarmed, his father, General Li Jing, attacked it with a sword, at which point the ball of meat split and sprouted a grown child already able to speak and walk. Shortly after, he was taken under the wing of a Taoist immortal and after a series of similarly likely events, Sam Tai Tsz  — or Nacha, as was his given name — became known for his ability to shoo away demons and cure the sick. Hence his presence in Sham Shui Po. After the Hakka villagers paraded his statue around the neighbourhood, Sham Shui Po was miraculously cured of the plague, at least according to local lore. This temple dedicated to him was built in 1898.

Pak Tai’s origins are unclear, shrouded in layer upon layer of legend. His name means Northern Emperor and he is said to have lived thousands of years ago during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (2698-2598 BC) or, as another story has it, 1,500 years later when the Shang dynasty was quashed by the Zhou dynasty. Where he came from aside, Pak Tai is often worshipped for his protection over the sea: his temple in Sham Shui Po was erected in 1920 by local fishermen.

 

Tin Hau Temple  – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

10/ Tin Hau Temple 天后古廟
180 Yee Kuk Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily 8:30-17:30

Like many Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong, the one in Sham Shui Po originally faced the sea, soaking up good feng shui to transfer to the fisherfolk who worshipped this sea goddess. Today, after a few generations of land reclamation, it shares its inland street corner with a collection of old office chairs (public seating for the locals) and more often than not, piles of discarded electronics and wooden construction pallets.

Temples in urban Kowloon are hardly ever imposing, especially when they are enmeshed in the fabric of daily life as this one is, but beyond the red latticed gates, you’ll find one of the largest Tin Hau temples on this side of Hong Kong. Besides a gold-clad statue of Tin Hau that stands front and centre, goddess of mercy Kwun Yum, and god of justice Pao Kung, the sixty Heavenly Generals of Tai Sui are also worshipped here. Off to the side, an ancestral hall with high ceilings and colourful paper details is home to altars for the deceased.

 

Q1 Bread & Dessert – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

11/ Q1 Bread & Dessert
315 Lai Chi Kok Rd, Sham Shui Po; open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-21:00. Tel: 2416 6868

There’s nothing about the outside of Q1 that screams Vietnam, but this tiny restaurant serves up one of the most authentic Vietnamese menus in the neighbourhood. The owner, who is originally from Vietnam, started selling bánh mì (a savoury baguette sandwich) and various Vietnamese desserts out of her little takeaway shop in Sham Shui Po four years ago. When the customers started flocking to Q1 in droves, she decided to expand the restaurant into a sit-in affair. There’s still not much seating room — just a few folding tables and stools — but the hearty bowls of vermicelli and wide range of bánh mì options will make it worth your while. To top off the meal, or for a quick afternoon snack, go for a green bean cake, a batch of Vietnamese spring rolls or a creamy avocado shake.

 

Sang Kee Canvas -Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

12/ Sang Kee Canvas 生記帆布
37 Yen Chow Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily varied hours. Tel: 2393 5073

Red, white and blue tarpaulins, whether strung across alleyways or wrapped around bamboo scaffolding, are a common sight around Hong Kong. The fabric was originally produced in Japan, and made its way towards ubiquity in Hong Kong via Taiwan, where this colour scheme was used in funerary rituals. Eventually, a Sham Shui Po local named Lee Wah turned the fabric into red, white and blue bags that were handy for shuttling goods to loved ones across the border with mainland China.

His shop on Yee Kuk Street is no longer there, but there are still a few others in Sham Shui Po selling the iconic fabric. The Lee family (unrelated to the Lee Wah) has been running Sang Kee Canvas for around 50 years. Mr. Lee (who is also a master calligrapher) is now 70 years old, but the locals who hang out at the store during the day say he doesn’t look a day past 50. Even so, the shop’s end is near. After Lee retires, there will be nobody to take over the store: his son is pursuing a more lucrative career in the advertising industry and Lee doesn’t wish a lifetime selling fabric on anybody either. As popular as the fabric is in Hong Kong, Lee says its no way to make a living. “If you want to die early, you sell canvas.” Either way, he stays open every day, so if you’re looking to get a hold of Hong Kong’s favourite pattern, you know where to look.

 

Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar -Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

13/ Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar 欽州街小販市場
373 Lai Chi Kok Rd; open daily, hours vary

If there’s anything perching on the precipice of destruction in Sham Shui Po, it’s the Yen Chow Street Market Bazaar. A collection of close to 200 vendors crammed under a roof of tarps and corrugated sheet metal, this textiles market has been under the threat of demolition since the government announced its intentions to redevelop the area in 2000. The eventual removal of these vendors will be for many yet another round of displacement: the bazaar itself was established in 1978 after fabric stalls were cleared off nearby streets.

Unlike many other textile purveyors in Sham Shui Po who mainly sell wholesale, Yen Chow’s vendors are happy to sell fabric yard by yard. For this reason, and for the seemingly limitless array of fabrics stacked high to the ceiling, the market is dear to local fashion designers and students, who are often seen roaming the aisles looking for new inspiration.

 

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The Chinese Public Dispensary – Photo courtesy Prudence Lau

14/ Sham Shui Po Chinese Public Dispensary 深水埔公立醫局
137 Yee Kuk Street, Sham Shui Po; open daily 7:00-22:00. Tel: 2393 1928

The Chinese Public Dispensary on Yee Kuk Street is one of the last remaining examples of Art Deco architecture in Hong Kong. Designed in the 1930s by Chau & Lee Architects, a then-newly established local architecture firm, the dispensary was built to replace a smaller clinic located next to Tin Hau Temple a few blocks down. Today, the building maintains its original role as a public health clinic, although it has moved away from outpatient services and instead functions as one of three methadone treatment centers in Kowloon.

 

Kwan Tai Temple -Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

15/ Kwan Tai Temple 關帝廟
158-162 Hoi Tan Street; open daily 8:30-17:30

With its sweeping courtyard and grandiose gate, it’s almost as if Kwan Tai Temple doesn’t belong in this quiet fringe of Sham Shui Po, next to cramped and forgotten scrap metal and hardware garages. But remembering how temples have always played a central role in quotidian life, it becomes all the more appropriate that temples such as these remain at the core of Hong Kong’s landscape, however striking the contrast might be between the regality of Chinese mythology and the concrete terrain that engulfs it. If anything, temples anchor us to a semblance of the past as other markers of Hong Kong life and history — old neighbourhoods, neon signs, street vendors — flare up and disappear around them.

For Kwan Tai Temple in Sham Shui Po, this past trickles back to 1891, when it was built in worship of the Chinese god of brotherhood, who himself traces back to the Three Kingdoms (220-280). Kwan Tai (Emperor Kwan) is also known by his given name Kwan Yu, and was a general who served under Liu Bei, ruler of the Shu Kingdom. Revered even by his enemies for his unwavering loyalty, Kwan Tai is worshipped by police officers and triad members alike. The annual Kwan Tai is held at the height of summer, and the Sham Shui Po temple is your best bet for the most vibrant of festivities: it’s the largest in Hong Kong and the only in Kowloon dedicated to the god.

 

Café Sausalito – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

16/ Café Sausalito
201 Tai Nan Street; open Monday-Friday 10:00-19:00, Saturday 9:00-19:00 and Sunday 9:00-18:00. Tel: 3689 3292

Café Sausalito’s owner Michael Tam grew up puttering around Sham Shui Po’s streets. His parents worked in the garment industry at its height in the 80s, selling buttons and zippers to local clothing manufacturers. In third grade, Tam’s family moved to California, where he spent the rest of his youth. That’s where the name of his four-year-old cafe comes from: for Tam’s family, Sausalito — a small city just north of San Francisco —was the perfect destination for weekend getaways. Although Sham Shui Po’s cramped streets are a far cry from the seaside town, Tam hopes that his cafe can bring the same kind of magnetism to the neighbourhood, especially after the disappearance of the garment industry brought a dip in foot traffic. Sure enough, their outdoor live music concerts every Sunday afternoon draw quite a crowd. Drop by for some good tunes and a cup of their locally roasted house blend coffee.

 

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Openground – Photo courtesy Openground

17/ Openground
198 Tai Nan Street, Sham Shui Po; open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-19:00

Openground is a new coffee shop and creative space in Sham Shui Po that takes the place of Common Room & Co., a creative hub that closed earlier this summer due to complications with their lease agreement. Headed up by the same team as its predecessor, the space boasts a concrete interior and sleek monochrome furnishings, the reincarnation is fiercely minimalist and an exercise in thoughtful design. Along with the curated assemblage of design-focused books in the corner, this cavernous space is intended to provide a platform for conversations on design, especially seeing as Hong Kong lacks community-level organizations dedicated to that purpose. Their team is constantly populating their Facebook page with the latest story behind Openground’s aesthetic; stay tuned for future events as well.

 

Form Society – Photo by Douce Ogier d’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

18/ Form Society 合舍
186 Tai Nan Street; open Tuesday-Sunday 13:00-17:00

Over the years, artist Wong Tin-yan made a name for himself through his wooden sculptures made out of reclaimed construction pallets. Now, he’s taken his artist know-how and opened up a community art space on quiet Tai Nan Street. Form Society has been up and running since June 2017, featuring exhibitions by local artists and workshops on a variety of topics such as Kintsugi (the ancient Japanese practice of repairing broken ceramics) and the history of photography.

The back corner of the gallery space has also been modified to accommodate a wall of local publications, including an agricultural magazine published seasonally on major natural dates like the summer solstice. There’s not much to choose from; Wong was intentionally sparing in his selection. Especially with the lack of reading culture in Hong Kong, he believes that it’s easy for readers to become overwhelmed with decision in larger bookstores. He wanted his book nook to be welcoming to newcomers. This low barrier-to-entry sentiment pervades the founding vision of the store. Few art spaces are located at the ground level as Form Society is. This too was important for Wong. His wish was that Form Society could engage even the most oblivious of passersby.

Form Society was very much born out of the slump after the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when the demands of democracy were not quite satisfied. Spirits were low, and Wong conceived of this kind of space to rediscover a people’s collective identity and their relationship with the city. While the English name of the art space is meant to convey a sense of fluidity, as in its ability to take on different forms, the Chinese name 合舍 adds an element of togetherness and solidarity.

 

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Bound by Hillywood – Photo courtesy Bound by Hillywood

19/ Bound by Hillywood
32 Boundary Street; open daily 11:00-02:30

Another one of Sham Shui Po’s newcomers, and technically located just across Boundary Street from the official limits of Sham Shui Po, this cafe and bar decked out in shades of pastel and neon lights is heaven for coffee aficionados. When owner Nathan Mintz is on site, he spends an hour perfecting the coffee he makes with a retro teal espresso machine, painstakingly weighing out just the right amount of grounds and experimenting with different water temperatures. Coffee is a volatile science; every cup not only varies with the obvious variables like grind size and extraction time, but also with seemingly innocuous factors like air temperature and humidity.

Mintz got started on coffee twenty years ago, when he worked as a trader in the United States and carried a thermos filled with coffee he made at home. The drip machine he used back then lives on in its own spot behind the counter at Bound but between then and now, he’s learned volumes from seasoned coffee roasters and baristas in Seattle, where he lived for a number of years. The area behind the counter opens up to seating outside; if you want to learn about coffee, this is the best spot in the house. Pick out a drink and watch the baristas work their magic. In the evenings, Bound draws local musicians and other creative types who come for the local craft beer on tap and occasional art exhibitions and live music.

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