Relic Hunter

For a slice of retro life or a solid DIY find, look no further than Shek Tong Tsui

In a city with satellite towns springing up overnight and land consistently being reclaimed, it is refreshing to find a neighbourhood relatively unchanged for decades. Shek Tong Tsui is one such gem.

Tucked between Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town, it was formerly a town. Shek Tong Tsui, or stone pond spit, was named after a quarry that existed between Hill Road and The Belcher’s. Used by Hakka people as early as the 17th century, granite miners began to settle in the area in the late 19th century.

For a time in the early part of the 20th century, Shek Tong Tsui became infamous as Hong Kong’s red light district. The rich and famous frequented the area for entertainment, and Cantonese opera and restaurants flourished alongside the houses. Men were treated lavishly by perfumed and coiffed ladies who sang, played instruments and conversed brilliantly; the area’s working girls were more akin to geisha than Wanchai’s Suzie Wongs. Their notoriety became the inspiration for colourful novels and films such as the Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung 1987 melodrama Rouge.

After the war and the government’s ban on prostitution, the area cleaned up and underwent an intense period of development. Most of the buildings erected in the 1950s and ’60s still make up the urban fabric of the neighbourhood.

Mary Chan, an independent book publisher and founder of MCCM Creations who operates The Bookshop in Hong Kong Arts Centre, grew up in Western District. She lived with her five younger brothers and sisters on Water and Whitty Streets as well as Queen’s Road West, and currently resides on Pokfield Road. She recalls that the area had a more intense neighbourhood feeling when she was a child.

“We knew everyone,” she recollects. “All the shop owners and neighbours would say hello and chat to us. The Hill Road flyover and wet market didn’t exist yet, and there were still regular Cantonese opera performances. Those were a big deal for the district. My grandmother loved Cantonese opera and we would all hike up the hill the day of the performance with our little stools to secure a good seat.”

Part time real estate agent Susan Tsoi with New Fortune Property Agency in Kennedy Town also lived on Whitty Street as a young girl. She agrees that Shek Tong Tsui is populated by hardworking, honest folks who have been in the same home for generations.

“There are a lot of elderly people who enjoy the proximity to the wet market,” she says, referring to the LCSD-operated building on Queen’s Road West that also houses a library, ball courts and a set of the slowest escalators in the city. Numerous sitting out areas encourage seniors to socialise while deliberating over a game of chess, while the tram is a convenient mode of transportation. University station on the West Island Line extension due to open in 2014 will have an exit near Queen’s and Whitty, making it even easier to avoid Central’s traffic jams.

“Most of the people who rent here are students studying at the University of Hong Kong up the hill or who work in Central,” says Tsoi. “You can still pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a room or around $15,000 for a nicely decorated one-bedroom furnished flat. There are plenty of older buildings from the 1950s and ’60s here that investors like, but with the recent government restrictions, there has been very little buy and sell movement lately.

“Though there has been some gentrification of buildings, such as the exterior upgrade of Western Court on Queen’s Road West, many of the landlords here cannot accept the costs involved. So in general, the larger apartments that are over 600 square feet are not renovated, nor are their exteriors. Many of them, such as Yip Cheong Building on Des Voeux Road, are solidly constructed with high ceilings. It offers very good potential for those who are willing to put in the effort to spruce it up.”

Chan credits the entrepreneurial spirit of the area to the people who seek out Shek Tong Tsui as their home. Like many, her mother ran her tailoring business out of their home at a time when Hong Kong was the world’s garment producer. “Our living room was like a mini factory,” she recalls. “There were and still are many family run businesses in the area selling roast goose or fresh bread catering to customers who have become friends over the years. This character has been retained.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, there were many new immigrants to Hong Kong who settled in Sham Shui Po, Shek Kip Mei, Ngau Tau Kok and Kwun Tong. They were happy to find anywhere to live. If they couldn’t get into public housing, then they lived on rooftops. But Shek Tong Tsui never had any public housing; it is all privately owned properties. People who live here may have had a great life in China but arrived in Hong Kong with nothing. That’s a different type of spirit — they are much more independent. And this meant a lot of people who loved being their own boss.”