Neighbourhood Guide: Shek Tong Tsui is Full of Surprises

In Hong Kong novelist Lillian Lee’s magnum opus Rouge, Shek Tong Tsui is portrayed as a place of constant change. When the area’s famous courtesan Fleur returns from beyond the grave to look for the dried seafood shop heir she loves, she is shocked. “Where am I? Is this really Shek Tong Tsui?” she asks. It had only been a few decades since she passed away in the 1930s, but nothing remained the same. And the same is true today. Shek Tong Tsui’s landscape is like a mirage: never quite what you expect.

The neighbourhood’s name was derived from a quarry that once existed nearby; sek6 tong4 zeoi2 (石塘咀) literally means stone pond mouth. Hakka people came there as early as the 17th century and were the first to quarry the granite in the area. Demand for Hong Kong’s abundant natural granite kept increasing over the years, eventually becoming one of its most important commodities. The quarrying industry flourished and Shek Tong Tsui had become a permanent settlement by the 1880s.

Its next phase of life came in 1903, when a fire devastated several of the legal brothels in Sheung Wan. Governor Matthew Nathan ordered their relocation to Shek Tong Tsui, which became Hong Kong’s red-light district. These were its glory days, buzzing with all sorts of people involved in the quarrying business, along with workers, sailors, traders and affluent Chinese who came for entertainment. Numerous gourmet Cantonese restaurants, operas and opium dens were founded. The golden age came to an end when brothels were banned in 1935. Six years later, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. After the Second World War, Shek Tong Tsui’s frivolous past was washed away by decades of urbanisation. It became a quiet, modest area.

Immediately above the neighbourhood, on Bonham Road, the University of Hong Kong was founded in 1911, becoming Hong Kong’s first tertiary educational institution, with British-style courses in liberal arts, engineering and medicine. Today, students from around the world attend the university, giving Shek Tong Tsui a youthful, inquisitive and creative vibe. With the opening of the MTR’s new West Island Line extension in 2015, the neighbourhood has developed into a charming spot with cafés, restaurants, workshops and design studios, all clustered within easy walking distance of HKU Station.

Places of contemplation

Photo by Viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

1/ Lo Pan Temple

15 Ching Lin Terrace, Li Po Lung Path, Belcher’s Street, Kennedy Town. Tel. 2802 2880.

The area around the old Shek Tong quarry is filled with quiet streets dotted by small altars, but one temple stands out. Celebrating its 136th anniversary this year, Lo Pan Temple is the only temple in Hong Kong dedicated to the worship of Lo Pan, the god of carpenters and builders. It is now a Grade I listed historic structure. You can reach the temple from a set of stairs that runs down from Pok Fu Lam Road, or the charming series of pedestrian-only residential streets that climb the hill above Belcher’s Street in Kennedy Town.

Lo Pan was one of the legendary thinkers of ancient China, himself a respected carpenter, engineer, philosopher, inventor, military strategist and statesman. In 1884, the Contractors Guild raised donations from 1,172 craftsmen and builders to raise a temple in his honour. The building was acquired in 1921 by the Kwong Yuet Tong, a builders’ organisation that still runs and maintains it today.

This superb little temple showcases various traditional crafts in its construction. Jagged black and white gable walls are built in a traditional Hunanese style called “Five Famous Mountains Paying Tribute to Heaven.” The sharp, exaggerated form gives way to a façade covered in detailed, colourful sculptures, and inside, the temple contains wall paintings and murals depicting animals, people and nature as well as engravings of poems on the sides of the main door, that celebrate Lo Pan’s contribution to architecture. Normally quiet, the temple explodes with activity on Lo Pan’s birthday celebration (the 13th day of the sixth Chinese lunar month), when crowds of construction workers pay homage to Lo Pan and seek blessings from their patron.

Photo by Viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

2/ South Lane Fook Tak Che

Next to 8 South Lane, Shek Tong Tsui.

This inconspicuous Buddhist temple is a simple shed with a small window where sits a statue of the deity of blessings (fuk1 福 ; “fook”) and charity (dak1 德; “tak”). The temple’s donation box and worshipping desk, where a small incense burner holding joss sticks is placed, takes up half of the narrow pedestrian on South Lane. But don’t underestimate its simple set up, believers who live nearby, mostly seniors, stop by, worship faithfully and offer what they can in the hope that they can accumulate divine blessings in their next lives. Its beneficiaries include the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, as well as Tung Wah Hospital, the first local hospital to provided free Chinese medicine for those who were suspicious of novel Western medicine after the plague of 1894 that ravaged nearby Tai Ping Shan.

Photo courtesy University Museum and Art Gallery

 3/ University Museum and Art Gallery

90 Bonham Road, University of Hong Kong. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30-18:00, and Sunday, 13:00-18:00. Tel. 2241 5500.

Located near HKU’s East Gate, the university’s museum and art gallery is home to a permanent collection of more than a thousand Chinese antiquities, including ceramics, carvings, paintings and a dedicated tea gallery. The old building has a peaceful and quiet atmosphere, befitting both a museum and an historical academic institution. Supported by donors, artists, collectors and the university itself, the museum is open to the public for free. Workshops, lectures and panel discussion are also held there on evenings and weekends, covering topics from Japanese lacquer to Flemish tapestries.

A trove for the practical

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4/ Yan Ngai Art Shop

41 Pok Fu Lam Road, Sai Ying Pun. Open Monday-Friday, 10:00-18:30; Saturday, 11:00-17:00. Tel. 6283 2680.

Yan Ngai Art Shop has weathered the intense gentrification and redevelopment that has come with the opening of the MTR extension. Apart from staples such as colour paper, sketch books, pencils, Yan Ngai also stocks more specialist items like foams, modelling materials and giant sheets of acetate. The shop’s clientele includes a range of architectural and art students, as well as the design firms that are dotted around the area.

Lifestyle destinations

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5/ Juju Flowers

Shop 2-3, Jadeview Court, 38 Hill Road, Shek Tong Tsui. Open Monday-Friday, 10:00-18:30. Tel. 2521 9911.

Behind HKU Station exit B2 is a little boutique blooming with orchids, roses, pine trees and many other floral species. This two-decade old flower shop offers home decorations and flower products for different occasions, ranging from table flowers, fruits and hampers to bouquets for weddings and baskets for celebrations. Clients have the option for its ECO Products with plastic-free packaging. Juju Flowers has another branch in Wong Chuk Hang. During Christmas and Chinese New Year, the shop hosts floral art classes and wreath workshops, and it will be filled with festive flowers – a mini flower market itself.

Photo by Viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

6/ Ethos

93-99 Hill Road, Shek Tong Tsui. Open Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday, 12:00-19:00, closed Wednesdays. Open Saturday and Sunday, 9:30-19:00. Tel. 5403 0543.

With 3,000 square feet of space at the top of Hill Road, Ethos brings together a Nordic furniture showroom, retail store and café. Co-founder Jacky Chan hopes to create a progressive lifestyle platform that offers seasonal lines of apparel, cuisine, publications, furniture and other home goods as well as events, housed within a creative free space. Co-founder Tak Shing Lee carefully picks products from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Europe, creating a range of prominently modern and minimalist items, with clean forms in appealing materials.

“We are open to any collaboration with partners sharing similar aesthetic concepts as ours,” says Chan. “We look at the products closely but we do plan to always have new products in store.” Ethos also seeks out collaborations with design brands it admires.

The spacious venue on Hill Road offers a multi-faceted experience of food, fashion and lifestyle products simultaneously. Shek Tong Tsui is the perfect home for the business because of its quietness, which invites freelancers, nearby residents and students from HKU to peruse the shop and work from the café. It serves Western food alongside a selection of cold brew tea and coffee. The front windows open up to the street, creating an al fresco atmosphere when the weather is agreeable.

Café Life

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7/ Artisan Room

8 South Lane, Shek Tong Tsui. Open daily, 7:30-19:30. Tel. 2656 3198.

This small café offers pastries and savouries like quiche, along with craft beer, coffee and tea. One of the best things about this place is the comfortable outdoor seating area stocked with low-slung loungers, covered by large umbrellas and surrounded by greenery.

Photo courtesy Hello Brew Bros

8/ Brew Bros Coffee

1 Po Tuck Street, Shek Tong Tsui. Open daily, 8:30-18:00. Tel. 2803 2323.

A little further up the slope of Hill Road, just behind the boisterous Shek Tong Tsui wet market, is a light blue coffee shop. As the evening sunlight creeps towards the café’s big folding windows, which are often open, diners are seen chatting away and reading. Set up by Hikaru Ono, a Japanese barista who worked in Melbourne, Brew Bros imports coffee beans from Market Lane Coffee in Melbourne every week. Its menu features clean, simple mostly brunch dishes, and a selection of spicy teas.

Photo courtesy Plantation – Teakha

9/ Plantation

18 Po Tuck Street, Shek Tong Tsui. Open Monday-Friday, 11:00-18:00. Closed weekends. Tel. 3482 2660.

Nana Chan has a knack for creating a buzz in new, just-under-the-radar locations. “I wanted to find somewhere with the same vibe and potential that I saw in Tai Ping Shan,” she says, referring to the trendy section of Sheung Wan where Chan opened her first tea shop eight years ago. “Po Tuck Street is slightly off the beaten track, but still close enough to public transport. It’s a mix of the old and new.”

Chan set up Teakha to bring people together through tea and cake; with Plantation, she is going one step further – to introduce tea appreciation which stems from a childhood memory. “Growing up, afternoon tea was a big thing in our family. My father would make milk tea from Lipton tea bags, creamy and smooth to perfection, and my mother would bake mysterious walnut cookies from scratch because we couldn’t get them in the small city we lived in in Taiwan. It was the happiest time of the day, when the family always sat together, rain or shine,” she recalls.

There is only tea from Taiwan, some regions of China and India on Plantation’s menu, but it comes in a wide variety of blends – classic, new or tailored to suit one’s taste. Tea enthusiasts perfect their art of brewing fine tea at its tea blending and appreciation workshops. But there are those who visit the place just for some peace and quiet and they sit next to the wooden pane of Chinese screen for a nice pot of tea.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

10/ ARF Café

23 Po Tuck St, Shek Tong Tsui. Open Wednesday-Monday, 10:00-19:00. Tel. 2548 3261.

When Candy Lien and Simon Dean took over Artisan Garden Cafe in 2006, they had no barista experience at all. “We worked in the banking industry, but Simon likes the café culture back in Australia, and we were enticed by the laid back vibe of coffee places,” Lien recalls.

When they came to Hong Kong, they chanced upon the café which was looking for a new owner, and they instantly fell in love with the place. There was a wall of vintage Fire-King mugs and Anchor Hocking glassware dating back to the 1940s. The couple serve their coffee in a retro collection of regal teacups with elaborate zodiac patterns and iconic cartoon characters. “My favourite is the Snoopy series,” Chan says. “Some of these mugs are out of production, so every piece is a rare find.”

But it doesn’t only attract vintage mug collectors. With HKU just up the hill, the cosy café becomes a buoy in the midst of the district where students gather for casual and intellectual conversations. Lately, the couple has even turned it into a semi-gallery featuring local artist Michelle Chan’s and Agnes Pang’s paintings.

Food and snacks

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11/ Lung Wah Food Products

18 South Lane, Shek Tong Tsui. Open Monday-Saturday, 9:00-18:00; Sunday, 9:00-14:00. Tel. 2573 9963.

Most of the newcomers to Shek Tong Tsui are Western-style cafés and restaurants but this grocery store opened in 2006 and it feels a bit like a throwback. There is often a long line coiling up next to the shop as nearby residents queue up for the shop’s wide range of chilled and frozen meat, including organic and hormone-free chicken feet from Australia, lobsters from Canada, turkeys and blue mussels from France, lamb from China and fish maw from Spain – perfect for a family hotpot. This aside, hungry customers are also after the glistening Chinese salumi hanging down the shop front door, which fat and aroma elevate the piping hot clay pot rice deep in winter.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

12/ The Junk Yard Dog

Shop 1A, 14-16 Woo Hop Street, Shek Tong Tsui (entrance on South Lane). Open Monday-Saturday, 16:00-00:30. Tel. 2817 7898.

A classic-looking pub with creamy yellow window sills and colourful bricks, the Junk Yard Dog was once the only place to get a pint of beer in the entire neighbourhood. That certainly isn’t the case today, but it still holds its own thanks to the homey Nepalese and Indian cuisine it serves from its kitchen. Fried chicken and pork momos (Nepalese dumplings) are the standout, alongside papadam, samosas, lamb satay, fried yak cheese and lassi.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

13/ Café Hunan

420-424 Queen’s Road West. Open daily, 12:00-15:00, 17:30-22:00. Tel. 2803 7177.

Particularly popular with HKU students, Café Hunan is perfect when you’re craving something spicy. The Yin Yang fish head dish is one of the most popular and it can sell out by 8:30pm, so arrive early. The shredded potato dish has a moreish sour vinegar flavour, which nicely complements the spicy heat of the fish. With wood panelling and a long Chinese painting on one wall, the space is cosy, but it’s definitely the food and not the decor that makes it special. It was listed as a Michelin Bib Gourmand Restaurant in 2017.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

14/ Saam Hui Yaat

11 Pok Fu Lam Road, Sai Ying Pun. Open daily, 5:30-14:30. Tel. 2547 3917.

This dim sum joint has been around for decades. On a busy day, customers spill onto the streets, waiting in line, while others are seated at extra tables that are set up outside. There’s nothing fancy about Saam Hui Yaat, but as with many Chinese restaurants, it’s about flavour, not presentation or service. What this hole-in-the-wall restaurant offers is a traditional neighbourhood style of dim sum, handmade at 3 every morning by Chef Wong Charn-chee, who has been in the dim sum industry since 14. For the most authentic experience, rise with the sun and be there with the first customers of the day.

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Other landmarks

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15/ Tak Tai Pawn Shop

540 Queen’s Road West, Shek Tong Tsui. Opens daily, 9:00-19:00. Tel. 2819 8470.

There are around 200 pawn shops in Hong Kong, including this one, which opened in 1953. With roots that go back centuries, pawn shops offer easy credit in exchange for personal possessions. Tai Pawn still runs its business the traditional way by counting the loan period according to the lunar calendar. Apart from the saloon-style screen blocking outsiders from peeking into the shop, the neon light sign hung outside is another classic detail. Its outline is in red while the traditional Chinese characters of its name are in white. The sign depicts a bat holding a coin. It refers to fuk1 zoi6 ngaan5 cin4 (蝠在眼錢; “bat on [the eye of] a coin”), a pun for “happiness before your eyes” and a welcoming symbol to the pawnbrokers awaiting in the bat cave.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

16/ Shek Tong Tsui Market

470 Queen’s Road West, Shek Tong Tsui. Open daily 6:00-20:00. Cooked food centre open 6:00-2:00, but hours vary by restaurant.

With each floor offering different products, flowers, newspaper, vegetables, meat and groceries, this four-storey wet market tends to the needs of nearby residents. If you’re looking for a quick and easy meal, head up to the top floor where dai pai dongs, Thai eateries and seafood restaurants cook up sumptuous meals late into the night.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

17/ St. Anthony’s Church

69A Pok Fu Lam Road, Shek Tong Tsui. Tel. 2546 6221.

Sitting opposite HKU’s campus across a highflyer is a colossal, dusk-yellow church with a tall tower and dark brown tiles on its roof. Its roots go back to 1864 when the priests of Milan Mission Seminary in Bonham Road, on the current site of King’s College, established a small chapel. It was expanded several times to keep up with local population growth until the current version was finally established in 1953. It is now a Grade II historic building.

Photo by viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

18/ The University of Hong Kong

Founded in 1911, the university traces its origins back to the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, which was set up in 1887 in Hong Kong to train Chinese doctors to practise Western medicine. The university is the oldest tertiary institution in Hong Kong, and the first university established by the British Empire in East Asia. One of the world’s top 20 research universities, its faculty include those who helped isolate the coronavirus that caused SARS in 2003.

19/ St. Louis School

179 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun.

Since the British colonial days, Christian organisations have played a major role in setting up schools in Hong Kong. St. Louis School, a Catholic primary and government-subsidised secondary English grammar school, is no exception. It was founded in 1864 by the Fathers of the Catholic Mission. Formerly a vocational school, it became one of the most reputed grammar schools in Hong Kong. The primary section made its name in the 1970s and the 1980s by reaping almost all the trophies at RTHK’s inter-school quiz competitions. The formidable-looking L-shaped architecture fortified with grey bricks is now a Grade III historic building.

Photo by Nicolas Petit for Zolima CityMag

20/ Whitty Street Depot

Whitty Street Tram Depot, Connaught Road West, Shek Tong Tsui. Tel. 2118 6338.

As the main depot for current tram operations, this Shek Tong Tsui depot is where historic teakwood trams roll in to get repaired, and the city’s newest generation of trams are built by hand. Although it is not normally open to the public, it is the departure point for party trams that are available for hire.

Don’t get lost

Notes: All opening hours and contact details were accurate at the time of publication, but they may change without notice. Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system.

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