When the British first landed in Hong Kong in 1841, it was on a craggy point of land they called Possession Point in today’s Sheung Wan district. Just a few decades later, that spot had become Hong Kong’s most densely-packed neighbourhood, a seedy, often squalid slum known as Tai Ping Shan, the Mountain of Peace – an ironic name considering its proliferation of opium dens and illicit gambling halls. In 1894, the area was ground zero for Hong Kong’s worst-ever plague epidemic, which eventually spread around the world, claiming 12.5 million lives.
In order to eradicate the disease, Tai Ping Shan was razed to the ground and rebuilt as an orderly neighbourhood with Hong Kong’s first public park, Blake Garden, named after Hong Kong’s then-governor, Henry Blake, who insisted on creating open space to promote sanitation. Now, more than a hundred years later, the district finally lives up to its name. After years as a sleepy working-class enclave, it has become a peaceful outpost of bohemia, with art galleries, cool cafés and cute boutiques – all of it imbued with the richest history of Hong Kong’s urban neighbourhoods.
However as you get to Sheung Wan and approach the neighbourhood of Tai Ping Shan, you’ll find yourself immersed in the scent of Chinese incense. Some of Hong Kong’s oldest and most interesting temples are located here. This bustling neighbourhood was the destination for many of the Chinese migrants to come to Hong Kong from nearby mainland counties in the late 19th century. Some of the first structures to be built were temples, which were — and for many people, still are — centres of community life.
The original Kwun Yum Temple was built at the intersection of Hollywood road and Pound Lane. Over the years, it grew dilapidated and was torn down for residential development, leaving it split into three separate sections in three different locations although all nearby.
The now Kwun Yum Temple (34 Tai Ping Shan Street) honours the ever-popular Chinese Goddess of Mercy. At its entrance is a choi mun – a boat-shaped carving that is a portent of luck and wealth. Inside, you’ll find an altar with a statue of Kwan Yam herself.
Opposite, the Shui Yuet (Kwun Yum Tong) Temple (7 Tai Ping Shan Street) is dedicated to Kwun Yam in her pre-Goddess state as a bodhisattva with 1,000 hands. You can spot this temple by looking out for a pinwheel near the entrance, which can be spun for good luck.
Next door, the Tai Shui Temple ( 9 Tai Ping Shan Street) is dedicated to the 60 heavenly generals; it is a place where clashing zodiacs can find peace. It looks more like a shop than a temple, and photos are prohibited, but offerings to the gods are welcome.
Kwong Fook I Tsz or Pak Sing, which means “Temple for people” and commonly called “100 names temple” (40 Tai Ping Shan Street), pays homage to the Kshitigarbha Buddha, the King of the Dead. It was built in the mid 19th century to house tablets of deceased Chinese who had immigrated from the mainland to find a better fortune in the British colony. Some died homeless without relatives to arrange proper funeral and a burial and hence were scared to have their souls wandering around. Pak Sin offered them a solution by storing their commemorative tablets which were meant to be eventually collected by relatives who would carry them back to the mainland.
Later, coffins containing the dead were stored in the temple, waiting repatriation.
Some terminally ill neighbourhood residents who had been turned out of their homes found refuge in the temple as well. These appalling conditions, even before the outbreak of the plague, — dead and dying laid together — prompted a public outcry, that led then-governor Richard McDonnell to finally agree to a longstanding request from the Chinese community to cede land for a public hospital. This led to the founding of the Tung Wah Hospital in the 1870s, which provided free Chinese medicine for those who were suspicious of novel Western medicine. It still occupies a prominent part of the neighbourhood today.
Today, stepping inside Pak Sing, one can still sense a slightly eerie atmosphere as one gazes up at dozens of incense coils hanging overhead thousands of ancestral tablets inside – tablets that were never reclaimed.
Shop B, 18 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
You won’t find any coffee at this adorable zakka tea shop. Specialising in tea beverages, the signature drink here is the masala chai, a spiced, tummy-warming beverage that Teakha’s owner, food writer Nana Chan, spent years perfecting. Freshly baked treats like green tea cheesecake or roselle scones are ideal accompaniments to a mid-day tea break. “I decided to open Teakha in Tai Ping Shan Street because of its laid-back, relaxed neighbourhood vibe,” says Chan. “It’s funny because this neighbourhood feels so un-Hong Kong, and yet so uniquely Hong Kong at the same time.”
Joe Ange Mas
53-54 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
After leaving a career in the clothing export business, Joe Ange Mas opened her own eponymous boutique in 1999. She started out designing clothes for her friends and clients for special occasions. Her clients trust her enough to often give her carte blanche, so Mas’ creative instincts soar. Her well-cut modern pieces are made with carefully selected yardages of Italian soft wools, Japanese cottons and blends of silk and linen. As Mas works with short lengths of fabrics, all her pieces come in a tiny edition which makes them even more special and unique.
Amelie & Tulips
56 Sai Street, Sheung Wan
Step back to the 1950s or 60s as you walk through the home furnishing displays in this store filled with classic Scandinavian style furniture. Focusing on new editions of Scandinavian mid-century design tables, sofas and chairs by brands such as Fritz Hansen and Carl Hanson, as well as select pieces and collections from Shanghai-based designers such as Neri & Hu, this place could very well be the set of a “Mad Men” episode.
22-24A Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
Architect and interior designer Judith Li is passionate about well-crafted fashion that isn’t mass manufactured and sold off the rack at department stores. She’s a big fan of unusual women and children’s Japanese apparel brands like Si-ho Sup and Wafflish Waffles. “The cutting of Si-ho Sup clothes is very good, each item is constructed to fit and compliment a woman’s figure beautifully,” she says. “The designer for Wafflish Waffles uses her very own illustrated fabrics and hand sews interesting lace, beads and trimmings onto her creations, so each piece is truly unique,” says Li.
At her store, you can also order a personalised Kyko the Dog in Disguise crochet doll. “Kyko is supposed to be a pregnant dog disguised as a human,” says Li. “These dolls are handmade by Tokyo-based doll maker and crochet artist Eva Matszushita.” You can give Li a photo of yourself in your favourite outfit and she will send the photo to Matszushita, who will make a Kyko doll wearing a similar outfit to the one you have on in the photo. Other unusual items at 2 Magpies include custom made leather baby shoes by Tokyo designer Aiko Nagai, that allow you to have your infant’s name, date of birth or a special message embroidered on the insole.
Sin Sin Fine Art
53-54 Sai Street, Sheung Wan
On Sai Street, a sculpture of a wiry man with his back pressed up against a wall invites you into Sin Sin Fine Art. The nesting space of respected Hong Kong artist Sin Sin Man, the sculptures, installation art and jewellery that she curates in this art space and shop reflect her longtime love for the cultures of Southeast Asia – Indonesia in particular. The space also showcases works by other artists such as contemporary French painter Louis Cane and Chinese ink artist Sun Guangyi, whose work is on display till February 28, 2016.
Heritage Tea House
4 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
A certified tea master who has studied Chinese tea culture for 20 years, Katherine Yu shares her passion and knowledge at this tranquil, Zen-like space. She brings the pleasures of Chinese tea to the public with a variety of workshops on the art of tea preparation, gathering and brewing. Her shop sells eight types of Chinese tea – pu’er, dark tea, black tea, celadon tea, yellow tea, white tea, green tea and floral tea. “We closely monitor the quality, aroma, flavour, texture and colour of our products,” says Yu. You can sit at a table here and enjoy a pot of tea, or bring home loose-leaf teas and tea ware, which are available for purchase at the store. “Tea drinking is all about taking a slower and more contemplative approach to life,” she says.
1/F, 52 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
Located on the first floor of an old tong lau building, this little shop carries stunning ceramics and glassware made by artisans from Japan, Southeast Asia and around the world. Items that stand out include a wooden Jin Akihiro mug crafted out of tabunoki, a type of evergreen tree native to Kagoshima prefecture in Japan, and a Sea ceramic mug in blue and white from Nom Living in London. Owner Eden Lee has a good eye for timeless design; every item here, which includes stationary items as well as jewellery, is an extraordinary work of art.
Tallensia Floral Art
Shop C, 6 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
A vibrant and enchanting spot, Tallensia is not your average florist. Passionate owner Lowdi Kwan, who has 30 years of experience, believes that we should never be afraid to explore the textures, colours and what she calls the “personalities” of flowers and plants. One way she encourages people to do so is by creating their own flower bouquets. On Saturdays from 2 to 5pm, Kwan transforms her store into a workshop where adults and kids can come to try their hand at making their own floral arrangements. For HK$550 per person, you get seasonal flowers, foliage, a container to work with, as well as guidance from owner. “Participants get the chance to interact with flowers and plants and learn about the art of floral arrangement in a cosy and friendly place,” says Kwan. Ready-made bouquets and individual flowers are also available.
Shop B, 6 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
If you’re gift hunting, but have no idea what you ought to get, InBetween will certainly rouse your imagination. This eclectic curios shop carries rare designer briefcases from Japanese brand Artphere, along with old movie posters, collectable Fire-King vintage mugs, ornamental glass jewellery from local designer Joanna Leung and much more. You can find anything from postcards at fifteen dollars each to a twenty four thousand dollar Louis Vuitton vintage watch here. Owner Kinn Wong is a graphic designer and an avid traveller, so most of the treasures in the store were discovered during his visits to yard sales in the US and UK. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s a nice little place to get lost in.
51 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan
The Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong Central Building was built in 1918 and used as Hong Kong’s Chinese YMCA headquarters until 1966. During the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, it served as a refugee centre, then as a community education centre during the Japanese occupation, which lasted until the end of the war in 1945. It is currently used as a workshop space for the mentally handicapped and a community centre for youths and families. This six-storey redbrick building is an early example of Chinese Revivalist architecture, which was popular in the 1920s.
Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences
2 Caine Lane, Sheung Wan
Tai Ping Shan was the neighbourhood most severely impacted by the bubonic plague in 1894 which prompted the establishment of the formal institute of bacteriology in Hong Kong in 1906. The Institute was relocated to a new site in 1972. but the imposing Edwardian red brick style building, declared an historic monument in 1990, has housed the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences since 1995. You can find out more about the plague and its impact on the medical history of Hong Kong and discover exhibits comparing Chinese and Western medical approaches.
Shou Shan Stone Collection Centre
Shop B, Kee On Building, 200 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan
If you’re a fan of handmade ceramic pottery, you’ll be thrilled to find this shop, which carries products made in Jingdezhen, a town in northeast Jiangxi known as the porcelain capital of the world. Jingdezhen is also an art district that is home to thousands of artists and designers from all over the world, who produce ceramics works of different styles and shapes. “The artists whose works we carry have studied ceramics for years,” says shop owner Chan Tsz Ho. “Some of them focus on blue and white porcelains, some focus on wood firing ceramics, some focus on porcelain painting, some focus on porcelain sculpture. They all have styles that are incredibly distinct.”
The items here are particularly special because of their vibrant colours, earthy textures, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. Some of the most intriguing pieces are by Ba Lin, a Harbin-born, professional ceramic artist who co-owns the shop with Chan. Lin, who now splits her time between Jingdezhen and Beijing, creates gorgeous blue and white porcelain tea sets with delicate motifs of feathers and clean, angular forms that make them appear both modern and ancient at the same time.
238 Hollywood rd, Sheung Wan
Serving tapas portioned French and European dishes, 238 is a restaurant where you have control over how much you eat. Here, Dutch chef Patrick Verhoeven’s smaller-sized plates means you can stop by for a little snack anytime you’re feeling peckish, or share a variety of main courses with friends. Treat yourself to delightful items like homemade pasta with mushrooms, black truffle, aged Dutch Gouda and rocket, or drop by for dinner and indulge in a very affordable eight-course tasting menu for just five hundred and ninety-nine dollars.
B.A.M Le Garde Manger
6 Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan
This recently opened delicatessen is a dream come true for francophiles yearning for quality pâtés, saucissons, cheeses, baguettes, pastries and other artisanal French treats. Co-owner Emmanuel Vallier, who opened Stan Café a few years back in Stanley, now brings the best of France to Tai Ping Shan. This rustic deli, café and bakery looks like it might fit just as nicely in a small village in the French countryside as it does here. Drop by to pick up some charcuterie or jams, or grab a seat and enjoy a quiche, café and one of the most scrumptious canelés in town.
Upper Modern Bistro
6-14 Upper Station Street, Sheung Wan
Designed by Tim Shepherd of hip London-based firm Three Wise Monkeys, and decked out in a contemporary, chic blue, blonde and copper colour scheme, Upper Modern Bistro offers classy fine dining without the frills. At the helm is Chef Philippe Orrico, former head chef of Saint George in Hullet who whipped up light and innovative French-inspired fusion dishes such as foie gras crème brûlée and French pigeon with shiitake, piquillos, carrots and mustard seeds.
For Kee Restaurant
200 Hollywood road, Sheung Wan
This typical low key caa caan teng (caa4 caan1 teng1 茶餐廳 ) or tea restaurant is hidden away in the unexpected back street of Tai Ping Shan just at the angle with Pound lane, although its address clearly specifies Hollywood road. Stools, plastic cups, boxes and cans of ingredients are stacked up in the corners. Big menus decorate the walls and the windows. Around for more than 50 years, this unpretentious and traditionnal place offers delicious pork chop and the famous Hong Kong silken milk tea at bargain prices.
19 Shing Wong Street, Sheung Wan
Located near the eastern end of Tai Ping Shan, along a set of stairs connecting Caine Road and Bridges Street, this homey café is owned by twins Joshua and Caleb Ng. They offer frothy cappuccinos, hot salted chocolate, English breakfasts and snacks like portobello mushrooms on toast. This rustic and cosy cafe also has a little section selling knick-knacks and accessories from brands like local designers Protest Design, so you can get your dose of caffeine along with a little retail therapy. In good weather, the outdoor seats get snapped up quickly, so come by earlier in the day for alfresco seating.
If you are lucky, you may also meet a family of 5 dogs walking down the street. For a few dollars one is invited to enjoy a walk with them and get their owner self published book that reveals all their secrets stories. Cute and friendly looking pets, however they can also be unpredictable. So you may just smile at them and pass your way.