Discover the new old Hong Kong

Honkers. Been there, done that. I lived there for 25 years, a long time ago. Thought I knew it all.

Until a recent return visit changed my mind. Because this amazing place keeps pressing the refresh button - finding new areas to explore, neglected precincts to cover, new experiences to enjoy… the result of the same driving forces and entrepreneurial people that keep Asia’s world city alive and prospering through the highs and lows of economic and political life.

There’s an area close to Central [Hong Kong Island] that we used to drive through without really noticing, on our way home to the residential suburb of Pokfulam. It’s only in the last couple of years that Sheung Wan has hoisted its tourism flag, a precinct that says, “Hey stop, I’m worth a look. I’m the real Hong Kong”.

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Spiral incense hangs at the Man Mo Temple

So we did recently – not only stop, but stay a few days. And it was an eye opener.

Sheung Wan’s streetscape is a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of lanes, alleys and stairways designed to test the knees and thighs. The architecture is a beguiling mix of extremes… from old shop-front houses and terraces to modern high-rise offices and apartments.

Luckily much of the character of the area has been preserved, and community activity at the historic Man Mo Temple and other places still draws crowds.

There’s a walking tour of Old Town Central and Sheung Wan that covers both the old historic and new trendier elements of the area, so equipped with good walking shoes, we embarked on a leisurely stroll of discovery, a photographer’s delight, with our charming and knowledgeable guide Olivia from Walk Hong Kong.

Colonial and Chinese history combine to make this a worthwhile excursion. Our tour includes important sites such as Possession Street, the birthplace of Colonial Hong Kong, where British soldiers landed and planted the flag in 1841.

Then there is the Court of Final Appeal (1912), the original YMCA building (1918), now a community centre and workshop, and Tai Kwun (“big station”) incorporating the former Central Police Station, the Magistracy, and Victoria Prison… soon to be a heritage, arts and leisure hub.

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The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences sits in a historical haven amid the high rise apartments

There have been many points of interest on this tour, so the next day we embark on a different walk with a small group led by Lilian of Foodie Tours. We’ve been warned that as the tour starts at 2pm to avoid the lunch hour rush, we should arrive with an empty stomach… and we are certainly glad we did.

We walk around the narrow streets, up and down steps of “Ladder Street” and others, linger a while for Lilian’s informative commentary, and partake of a moveable feast of Cantonese delights. These range from special wonton noodles to roast meats such as barbecue pork, preserved fruits, pure cane juice, herbal teas and the best dim sum you’ll ever try.

We learn that the day of the dai pai dong (street food market) is nearly over, as licenses are not being renewed much to the chagrin of local residents.

However, on the positive side, the entire precinct is alive with the buzz of new ventures including quirky bars, Western-style bistros, cafes and ‘fusion’ places where the culinary world meets in a plethora of tastes, smells and sounds.

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The old meets the new in the street food landscape of Sheung Wan

Even in a week, you wouldn’t be able to cram in everything that Sheung Wan has to offer.

There’s another important facet to the area that should be mentioned. This is the advent of a new flock of interesting small hotels, not big corporate giants flooded with business travellers (and their no-limit credit cards), ranging from boutique style to suites and apartments.

The One96 Hotel with its hi-tech appointments, clean modern interiors and ideal location was perfect for couples like us, while sister hotels like Jervois, Putman and 99 Bonham also cater to family travel.

These represent just some of the accommodation options of Sheung Wan and its close neighbour, Sai Ying Pun which is catching up… fast.

Have you been to Hong Kong recently?

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