Hong Kong: Fragrant Harbour, named in memory of those perfumes which once drifted out on the sea breezes to greet incoming ships. I call her Forgotten Hong Kong, for now the smell is more distinctive, a mix of heat and unrecognisable spices, a place where drying seafoods and traditional medicines mingle with wet markets and lush vegetation. Then there is that piquant touch which comes from being one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Like Proust’s madeleines, the unique tang of Hong Kong has become locked in my memory.
As a child, the wall of odours crashed over me as soon as I stepped from the plane. Now, with the airport moved to the reclaimed island Chek Lap Kok, landing in Hong Kong proves much more sterile. No longer the dramatic sudden drop between buildings, looking through windows into people’s lives: a family at dinner, someone shaving. It has become too easy to pass from the air-conditioned airport via waiting car to hotel foyer with only a breath or two of the outside air.
In Lan Kwai Fong, however, I closed my eyes and immersed myself in old Hong Kong. The smells and sounds belong only here. Some penny turtles slept in the foyer of my hotel, readying themselves for a day of swimming in water-filled porcelain bowls and clambering over mountainous pebbles and artistically arranged sticks. I stepped past them into the tiny Kau U Fong Lane. Despite the early hour, I was soon covered in sweat. From a few steps away the bustle of Aberdeen Street threatened at any moment to spill over and drown where I stood, but for a moment I had a few square meters to myself, a rare privilege in Hong Kong.
An Island in the Sea
Hong Kong may be a tiny island, but amongst the all-invasive skyscrapers lie hidden districts. Lan Kwai Fong (or LKF) is one of these. Only a short walk from Central on Hong Kong Island, it is a small neighbourhood of steep streets and tiny lanes. Most of the roads are closed to traffic, and even those yellow minibuses ubiquitous to every quarter of the island have trouble negotiating the few open thoroughfares. In a city where every inch is swallowed by buildings soaring to the sky, the skyscrapers here rise no taller than ten stories – the norm for the island as late as the 1960s.
Most visitors come now not for the sea-borne perfumes, but instead for the shopping, or the food. The MTR whizzes tourists and locals alike across Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and taxis are more numerous than cars. Enormous shopping malls have their own shop-filled multi-level walkways to connect to each other, so a day can pass without ever descending to street level.
Yet, delightful as such visits are, they miss one of the most interesting parts of visiting any city: those things to be seen simply by walking.
Any guide book or Google search will list the endless restaurants and bars of LKF; indeed, Elgin Street boasts nothing but eateries. Most wax lyrical of how this is the place to be for those who come to Hong Kong to wine and dine and party. Little else, however, seems to rate a mention, yet even of a morning the streets are crowded, and there is more to discover beyond those delights of gluttony which draw in vast crowds expats and beautiful young things of an evening and on weekends.
I left my oasis and headed down Aberdeen Street. LKF is best explored by foot. On these steep streets is written the history of Hong Kong. Five minutes downhill leads to Queen’s Road Central, which now runs through the heart of modern Hong Kong but once marked the harbour foreshore. (Not far from Lan Kwai Fong is Ladder Street; I quickly learnt nearly every street in LKF could be so named.) Caught amongst the high-rises and shopping malls, it is easy to forget that Hong Kong is not only an island but literally a mountain in the sea.
The downhill saunter led past a printing factory, with stacks of pamphlets piled on the foot path. In one doorway a game of mahjong was in progress, either the first for the day or the last of a long night. I stood into a motor-bike repair shop to make way for a man with a bamboo pole balanced across a shoulder, a load bouncing at either end with each step. Bike parts and cans of oil lay scattered by my feet.
The squatter workshops a few decades ago have vanished, replaced by boutiques, wine bars, workshops, and corner stores. Water dripped from overhead air conditioners. In any spare space lush vegetation stretched for the sun. Kites and the occasional eagle soared overhead.
As in all of Hong Kong, I was never quite sure what lay within each building. Dress shops or wine-bars greeted me from the ground floor window, signs hung from the second floor advertising beauticians and tailors while high above the street, washing was strung between facing buildings. An optometrist nestled between a jeweller and a traditional herbalist, while music blasted from further down the road. Many signs were in Cantonese, and the other windows gave no clue as to what to lay behind their shuttered faces. I speculated about opium dens.
At lunch, the place is packed with workers and tourists who come for a quick a meal.
Every type of cuisine is on offer. The Lin Heung Tea House stands on the corner of Aberdeen and Wellington St, my favourite place in Hong Kong for yum cha (a big call, I know). At Yung Kee, (a master goose-roaster) traditional Cantonese fare is on offer, including an entrée of 1000 year egg and pickled ginger. Known as the gourmet street, Wing Wah Lane has every foreign cuisine on offer. In Pottinger Street, the dumplings at Mak’s are made from a family recipe dating from the Ching Dynasty.
I never knew what to expect in my wanders. No two shops are the same. Tiny dress shops boast new designers trying to break into the lucrative market. Each day I’d pass one with a new evening gown in the window; as with the food, every taste was catered for. Art galleries hid in tiny corners, spilling down from their traditional home up along Cat Street and Upper Lascar Road.
Street performers are common, especially on traditional feast days. On All Saints Day the locals roam the streets dressed as angles, ghouls and ghosts. This is a reflection of the most important aspect of the place – people live in LKF. It may be packed with tourists by night, but locals pack the area at all times of day. It is this which makes the place fell so alive, and leaves me wondering what is happening behind all the windows.
Coming back as evening fell, I chanced upon a street market. Everything was for sale, from clothes to household goods to the most beautiful of flowers. At the top of the street was the wet market. Stall were being hosed out, and the blood dripping from the chopping boards ran down the road. Despite the hour, all manner of meat and chickens in various stages of nudity hung from the ceilings. Somehow a fish escaped and swam a short way along the pavers.
Exhausted and hungry, I stepped through the welcoming curtain of a small Japanese sushi bar. I spoke no Japanese, they spoke little English – and the food was an absolute delight. A was every meal in LKF.
Once home to hawkers and those elderly women who specialise in arranging marriages, LKF was infamous for its squalid collection of rat-infested tenements. Now it is a place not to be missed, whether for food, or shopping – or simply for discovering an essence of Hong Kong I thought long gone.
The Literary Traveller
John Lancaster’s Fragrant Harbour is an ode to the Hong Kong that was, and the Hong Kong that is. Tom Stewart arrives in Hong Kong in the 1930s, seeking adventure. Adventure he finds, which travels down the generations as four lives intertwine through the expat world of the 30s, the horrors of war and the brutal Japanese occupation, the handover to the Chinese and then the explosion of growth as Hong Kong becomes a financial power house, to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of many.
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