Neighbourhood Guide: Treasures Between the Concrete Blocks of Kwun Tong

At first glance, Kwun Tong seems like nothing more than a collection of looming hunks of concrete. Every block is crammed tight with decaying factory buildings, markers of the neighbourhood’s history as a burgeoning centre for garment and plastic production. Most of the industry has since moved to mainland China, but take another look and you’ll see that Kwun Tong remains as lively as ever. Fruit vendors with their scarlet awnings snake down the gaps between buildings. Congee carts find a home in the cavernous garages of old industrial towers. A dusty display of reading glasses hangs at the opening of an alleyway, selling for twenty dollars each. Inside these industrial buildings, a rattling lift ride away, artists and artisans alike have transformed old manufacturing spaces into roomy studios and galleries.

North of the MTR station, Kwun Tong carries the spirit of older Hong Kong, with some of its businesses spanning decades. The industrial infrastructure recedes and gives way to watch-repair stalls, family-run noodle-shops, and a winding street market where many local elderly residents from the nearby public housing estates gather throughout the day.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Here, you might notice the red minivans that display different Chinese characters for Kwun Tong than at the MTR station or on Hong Kong maps: 官塘 rather than 觀塘 (both pronounced gun1 tong4). The latter is now the official name for the area, meaning “to look over a pond”; it has only been in use for seventy years. For 900 years prior, the area was called 官塘, which stood for 官富場 (gun1 fu3 coeng4) – “government prosperous field.” That referred to the salt ponds that made up the area during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279), when salt was an important source of wealth and power for the imperial government. In the 1950s, when the Hong Kong government started developing Kwun Tong to strain of Hong Kong’s postwar population boom, the new residents were unhappy with the word 官, which carries connotation of authority, so the area was renamed with a more innocuous homonym.

Names aside, here is a list of places we love in Kwun Tong, although a lot of what is wonderful in the neighbourhood is what lies in between. Wander long enough and maybe the peeling paint on the industrial blocks will start to carry its own charm.

 

Local bites

1/ Chu Kee Restaurant 珠記冰室
Westley Square, 48 Hoi Yuen Road. Open Monday-Friday 7:30-18:00.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Kwun Tong’s Chu Kee is only the newest episode in a decades-long endeavour for owner Mr. Lo. The restaurant, which serves classic cha chaan teng dishes elevated by carefully sourced ingredients, found its beginnings in Wong Chuk Hang more than thirty years ago. After a foray in Sai Wan, the restaurant settled into Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai in the mid-1990s, where it stayed for nine years. In 2005, Chu Kee was forced to close shop to make way for the urban renewal project that replaced the street with a high-end retail and residential complex.

Ten years later, Lo and his wife Ms. Cheung started up again in Kwun Tong at the encouragement of their friends who missed the couple’s unique recipes. Chu Kee finds its home in the side of a commercial building, but don’t be fooled by its exterior. Inside, the tiled walls, dark plywood tables and stools, and a Chu Kee sign painted by a Beijing-based calligrapher harken to old dai pai dong Hong Kong. Make sure to give the good old classic milk tea a go. The tea is brewed from an organic blend of high-quality tea leaves. They make their own soy sauce too – try it with an award-winning plate of pork-chop fried noodles (zyu1 paa2 caau2 ding1 豬扒炒丁).

 

2/ Tai Ma Sauce 大孖醬料
33 Shung Yan Street. Open daily 8:30-18:30.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Brush past the heavy plastic curtains at the entrance to Tai Ma Sauce and be greeted by the aroma of a Cantonese kitchen cupboard. Tai Ma has been in Kwun Tong for 20 years, but the Chau family has been making sauces and condiments for more than 50. The soy sauce you find in the supermarket can’t hold a candle to the Chau family sauce. Brewed and bottled in Sheung Shui, it retains the fragrance of the soybean otherwise absent in the mass manufactured stuff. If you’re overwhelmed by all the different bottles, ask for tau4 cau1 (頭抽), the product of the first bean brew. It’s the richest in flavour.

If you’re not feeling saucy, Tai Ma is also known for their preserved bean curd (fu6 jyu5 腐乳) and miso paste (min6 si6 zoeng3 麵豉醬), which comes in three different flavors. Wondering what to do with all these new pantry staples? Step down to Shui Wo Market just around the corner and grab yourself a bunch of summer-fresh water spinach (tung1 coi3 通菜) for your bean curd and a fish to steam with spicy miso.

 

3/ 106 Bread 麵包店
106 How Ming Street. Open daily 8:00-18:00

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Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Nestled in the side of Crown Industrial Building, 106 Bread is a tiny shop that sells freshly made Hong Kong-style buns and beverages. Stop here for a quick on-the-go breakfast but only if you miss the long line that snakes down How Ming Street on weekday mornings. The classic pineapple bun — which of course contains no pineapple — comes with a variety of stuffings from red bean to coconut.

 

4/ Wing Hing Soy Milk 永興豆漿王
40A Yue Man Square. Open daily 18:00-2:30.

Photo by Janice Chen

The family that runs Wing Hing Soy Milk is originally from Toishan in southwest Guangdong and has been selling homemade soy milk and tofu pudding at their Kwun Tong stall for decades. The shop is a small affair, just three tables, a few buckets of pudding and a mountain of fried dough sticks next to a narrow alleyway. Wing Hing opens at 6 o’clock in the evening, but their work by no means starts then. The soy beans are soaked the night before and ground the next day in a stone mill for the smooth finish Wing Hing is famous for.

 

5/ Hing Kee Chiu Chow Meat Shop 興記潮汕滷水專門店
48 Shui Wo Street. Open daily 10:30-20:00.

Photo by Janice Chen

Lou5 mei2 (滷味) is a catch-all term for dishes made from braising proteins — meat, tofu, egg, you name it — in a spiced soy sauce brine. Central to Chiu Chow cuisine, this method yields flavorful and tender meats that go perfectly with a steaming bowl of rice. Hing Kee is surrounded by fruit and vegetable vendors in a busy alleyway between Shui Wo Street and Mut Wah Street. Whole geese and ducks, golden-brown under the heat lamps, hang in their storefront — these are the most popular with the locals. Below the suspended fowl sit trays of lou5 mei2 offals. The beef tripe makes a delicious snack.

During the Chinese Civil War, which ended with a Communist victory in 1949, Kwun Tong experienced an influx of refugees from southern China, many of whom were from Chiu Chow. The Chiu Chow community is still strong today, as evidenced by the many restaurants and businesses scattered around Kwun Tong.

 

For the art-inclined

6/ Galerie Huit
Room 205-208, 2/F, KT336, 334-336 Kwun Tong Road. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:00-19:00.

Kwun Tong

Photo courtesy of Galerie Huit

Jane Chao Lee and Yas Mostashari Chang founded Galerie Huit in 2010, along with the art initiative 8ttempt, to offer a platform for local young artists to explore, exhibit and exchange. The well-appointed 6,000-square-foot art gallery encourages local artists to push their creative boundaries by providing guidance along with a rare amount of space. Aside from nurturing young or emerging talents, the gallery also focuses on mid-career international contemporary art. On one hand, it curates a vast array of art projects that involve installations, moving images, music, performances and immersive art experiences; on the other, it fosters the city’s artistic education by hosting lectures, discussions, community projects and meetings for artists to introduce unique perspectives to the Asia Pacific.

 

7/ Colour EXP
8/F Ming Sang Industrial Building, 19-21 Hing Yip Street. Open Monday-Saturday 12:00-18:00.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Artists will feel right at home in the aisles of Colour EXP, an art supplies store specializing in professional-grade materials. Most notable of their products is a full collection of Arches premium watercolor and printmaking paper which, while standing proudly on display at Colour EXP, is usually incomplete and locked away in most Hong Kong art shops. Manager Lolita Cheung does not consider herself an artist — just a hobbyist, she insists — but her background in chemical engineering makes her a helpful resource if you’re looking for the materials to create a specific effect in your work. Every month, she teaches a workshop that focuses on the versatility of acrylic in different mediums, in hopes of addressing what she sees to be a lack of materials-oriented art education in Hong Kong.

Cheung hopes to expand Colour EXP into an alternative exhibition space for local artists by the end of 2018, but the past lineup of artist lectures, book talks and art workshops already speak to her dedication to supporting Hong Kong-spawned creativity. If photography is more your cup of tea, keep an eye out for a cyanotype workshop next month and be sure to check out their collection of photography books by brownie publishing, an independent Hong Kong publisher.

 

8/ Marble Print & Clay
Flat 5, 7/F Sing Win Factory Building, 15-17 Shing Yip Street. By appointment.

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Photo by Douce D’Ivry

When printmakers David Jasper Wong and Bambi Lam King Ting couldn’t find a space to do art, they decided to make their own. Their studio in Kwun Tong is small but homely, with a custom-made workbench and a bean bag chair for the slower days. Wong and Lam trade their street shoes for slippers at the threshold.

Back in 2015 when Marble Print & Clay was founded, Wong and Lam foresaw that other artists might have the same problem and decided to open up their studio space to the public. Since then, they have held numerous workshops for printmaking beginners and collaborated with artists looking to bring something new to their work. Their most recent collaboration with Hong Kong designer Tommy Li, New 9 Sins, is exhibiting at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum until the end of September.

 

9/ Osage Gallery 
4/F Union Hing Yip Factory Building, 20 Hing Yip Street. Open Monday-Saturday 9:30-18:30; Sunday 14:30-18:30.

KWUN TONG

Photos courtesy of openUU – photo by Nirut Benjabanpot

Osage Art Foundation was founded in 2004 by Agnes Lin with the goals of increasing public cultural awareness and bringing art to young children. At the time, Osage was based in SoHo and served as one of the only spaces dedicated to showing contemporary art in Hong Kong. Almost a decade and a half later, Lin’s motivations remain the same, although it is imperative for her that we always stop to consider the changing needs of society. Osage’s upcoming projects mark a shift toward exploring new media art, including an oral history project featuring three-dimensional images exhibiting in Wan Chai this fall.

 

10/ Sun Museum 一新美術館
4/F SML Tower, 165 Hoi Bun Road. Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-18:00.

KWUN TONG

Photo courtesy of Sun Museum

With the rise in popularity of installation and media art in Hong Kong, Sun Museum aims to renew an interest in more traditional mediums like painting and printmaking, all the while promoting artists from Hong Kong and China. Their exhibitions hope to explore the ways in which mediums historically rooted in the West are grappled with by contemporary Chinese artists in addition to examining how older mediums can be rejuvenated in modern art.

Established by the Simon Suen Foundation, this private museum wishes to encourage other enterprises to support museum education in Hong Kong and to show that the government doesn’t have a monopoly on museums. Director Yeung Chung-tong, who brings decades of experience in art education, frequently organises talks on traditional Chinese art and culture. These are often fully booked weeks in advance so keep an eye out for sign-ups.

 

11/ Kwun Tong back alleys

The reputation of alleyways as dark and dangerous has no purchase in Kwun Tong’s colourful back streets. In a collaboration between the government, RunOurCity and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the back alleys of Kwun Tong have been embellished by the work of local artists. The artwork is dispersed across the neighbourhood; use the arrows painted at the entrance of alleyways as your guide.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Between Hing Yip Street and Shing Yip Street is a series of panels painted by artist Bo Law. The work starts at the west entrance on Shing Yip Street and follows an orange-suited figure through a series of dream worlds as he ventures to find himself. Some of the monsters that feature in his paintings were pulled out of thin air, but many were inspired by the daily passersby who would watch him paint. A bald man in his 50s who drives a delivery truck in the area was Law’s muse for a wide-eyed blue horned creature in one of the first few panels. Other times, he would be spurred on by his environment. Dripping air conditioners had him painting a gooey long-limbed figure oozing from a hole in the wall. In another panel, restaurant customers watching him paint through a window called forth the sitting posture of our main character as he rests on his journey. The entire series was finished in the span of three months last summer with the help of the primary and middle school students that Law teaches in his spare time.

 

Brews & craft

12/ Return Coffee House
Shop 2A, G/F Hung Tat Industrial Building, 43 Hung To Road. Open Monday-Friday 8:00-18:00; Saturday 10:00-19:00; Sunday 11:00-18:00.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Dive past the lorries and bamboo scaffolding on Hung To Road and find this easy-to-miss café that serves coffee brewed from beans churned out from their Tsuen Wan roastery. Specialty coffee-brewing equipment stand on display at the bar, but barista Parko Lee prefers to do a pour-over for the customers that are curious about coffee. This minimalist brewing method gives her time and a dynamic, hands-on way for her to talk through the flavour profile of a particular bean blend. Customers often come in with a palate weighed down by the bitterness of cha chaan teng coffee or Starbucks dark roast. It’s important to Lee that Hongkongers begin to understand the lighter and fruitier aromas possible in coffee. If you’re looking for something specific, don’t be shy — Return’s baristas are more than happy to whip up a blend of beans just for you.

On a hot summer day, try the cold version of their signature drink Return Black, a refreshing concoction of double espresso, milk foam, bamboo powder and citrus syrup.

 

13/ HOW Department
Block AB, 3/F How Ming Factory Building, 99 How Ming Street. Open Monday-Saturday 12:00-22:00; Sunday 12:00-18:30.

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Photo by Douce D’Ivry

HOW Department, a lifestyle concept store that overlooks How Ming Street, aims to define what it means to live well. Originally conceived of as a furniture store, the space is now a restaurant café, a hair salon, an art exhibition space, a lifestyle goods store, and a design studio all thoughtfully organised in the expansive third-floor of an old factory building. HOW almost exclusively sells Japanese products. In response to what they see to be the fast fashion culture of Hong Kong, creative director Fung Lan and his fellow co-founders have curated furniture and home products that are of a high quality and are distinctly timeless, features that characterise many Japanese design companies and artisans they have come across.

 

14/ Twenty One From Eight 廿一由八
11 Floor, Pang Kwong Building, 59 Hung To Road. Open Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-18:30.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

When pieced together, like tenons and mortises, the Cantonese characters for Twenty One From Eight form the symbol for Wong, the last name of the founder of this handcrafted furniture store and gourmet café. Thomas Wong dreamed up this store-concept during his final year of college in 2014. At the time, he was living on a student budget in a barebone London apartment and began to build his own furniture from scrap wood that he salvaged from the streets at night. Twenty One From Eight’s logo — a fox balancing a tree branch in its jaws — pays testament to the company’s humble beginnings: on his evening excursions, Wong would often be joined by foxes nosing in and out of garbage piles looking for food.

Wong and his small team of carpenters make all their furniture on-site in a workshop adjacent to their showroom and office space. Find Wong in his store and he will be dressed in a smart button-down shirt, but underneath is always the grey t-shirt he switches to when he starts building the furniture he personally designs for his clients. Even if you are not looking for a new walnut coffee table, Twenty One From Eight is worth visiting just to see one of Hong Kong’s only furniture artisans at work. If exploring Kwun Tong has you looking for a snack, drop by the little café in the corner for a pastry made by Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Shena Wong.

 

15/ Moonzen Brewery 門神啤酒
2A New East Sun Industrial Building, 18 Shing Yip Street, Kwun Tong. Open Friday 18:00-21:00.

KWUN TONG

Photo courtesy of Moonzen Brewery

Founded in 2013 by husband-and-wife team Laszlo Raphael and Michele Wong Raphael, Moonzen Brewery is a must for beer fans looking for a dose of local creativity and craftsmanship. Moonzen is a rough transliteration of the Cantonese phrase for door gods, the warriors that guard the entrance to buildings, although the brewery’s dedication to exploring Chinese folklore doesn’t stop there. Each of their year-round beers carry a backstory rooted in Chinese mythology. A honey porter for Kitchen God to sweeten his tongue, Sichuan peppercorns for King Yama, overseer of the underworld – and the list goes on. During the week, the Moonzen team is busy making new brews and reviving old stories, but they are open on Friday evenings for visits to their taproom. Get there early enough and be treated to a tour of their brewery.

 

Quiet spots

16/ Kwun Tong Promenade
Hoi Bun Road

KWUN TONG

Photo by Douce D’Ivry

Weaving in between Kwun Tong’s towering industrial blocks can bring on a bout of claustrophobia for even the most seasoned of city dwellers. The promenade that underscores south Kwun Tong offers a one-kilometre long reprieve from the crowdedness of the streets. Lay out a blanket for a picnic, or take a stroll with sweeping views of Hong Kong Island East. Kowloon Flour Mills stands tall just across the road as the only flour mill in Hong Kong still in operation today. Before the land in front of the mill was reclaimed in the 1960s, the orange and forest-green crane that extends from the mill’s second floor used to transport wheat straight from pontoons docked in the typhoon shelter.

 

17/ Cha Kwo Ling Village 茶果嶺村
Cha Kwo Ling Road. Tin Hau Temple open daily 8:00-17:00. How to get there: Walk 20 minutes along Wai Yip Street and Cha Kwo Ling Road to get to the village or take the green minibus 23B from Yue Man Square.

KWUN TONG

Photo by Janice Chen

Cha Kwo Ling is said to be named for the many Macaranga tanarius trees that grow in the village. The leaves of this tree are used to wrap cha kwo, a traditional Hakka snack, as they are prepared for steaming. Set on the coast of East Kowloon, Cha Kwo Ling has a story longer than that of Hong Kong. The Tin Hau Temple in eastern Cha Kwo Ling was first built in the early nineteenth century. Although temples that worship Tin Hau — goddess of the sea — are a dime a dozen in coastal Hong Kong, there are few that have a granite construction like the one in Cha Kwo Ling.

The granite — beige and pink on the outside but blackened with age and incense smoke on the interior — was mined in the village, which served as a stone quarry site starting from the mid-nineteenth century when Hakka settlers headed up the industry. Besides its unique composition, the temple also stands out for its worshipping of Lo Pan, the god of builders and contractors. Look closely in the bushes behind the temple and find a small statue of Kwan Yu clad in a bright blue robe. In Chinese tradition, this deity is revered as a compass of loyalty and bravery. In the mornings, don’t be surprised to find a villager or two reading the newspaper in the leaf-strewn temple backyard. Many of them have already left moved to neighbouring areas — Cha Kwo Ling is now a tenth the size it was in the 1950s — but it’s hard not to return to where their family had lived for generations.

Wander westward through the village for a bite to eat in one of the cha chaan tengs or at the only noodle shop at 106 Cha Kwo Ling Village. On the way, you might pass by a dragon boat with a fresh coat of golden paint. It hasn’t been on the water for more than twenty years. The villagers who used to take it out are now in their late 1960s and have since moved away after the eastern half of the village was demolished to build the Eastern Harbour Crossing.

 

18/ Tai Wong Ye Temple 大王爺古廟
Behind Tsui Ying House. Open daily 7:00-19:00.

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Photo by Douce D’Ivry

This multi-tiered temple dedicated to Tai Wong Ye, who keeps ill fortune and bad health at bay, is located on a hill behind Tsui Ying Estate in Kwun Tong. To get there, follow the stairs up the Tsui Ping (South) Estate Car park. The facade of the main temple is adorned with intricate porcelain murals painted in deep blue and turquoise hues. Inside, the temple is just as vibrant, with clay renderings of a tiger and a dragon on opposite walls. Around the back, altars for the recently deceased stand in a small room where they stay for 100 days or for three years, before they are moved to the larger memorial hall next door. 85 year-old Ms. Lam sits at the temple every day and folds paper offerings to burn for them, as she has for the past twenty years. From where she sits, the rattle of mahjong bricks can be heard from the tier below, where locals like to congregate for a mid-morning tea and gamble.

 

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