27 Mar Visit These Unique Old Hong Kong Shops Before It’s Too Late
Hong Kong’s past is still very much present in many of its little mom-and-pop shops that are scattered around town. Many of them haven’t changed much from when they first opened their doors, some fifty years to nearly a century ago. These old shops are the silent witnesses of a rapidly evolving city — they have seen rickshaws rushing by and MTR stations being built around the corner, welcomed cheongsam-clad ladies who paid with five-cent coins and Octopus Card-beeping tourists lugging large suitcases. The coronavirus pandemic has made business come to a standstill, and many of Hong Kong’s historical shops may be forced to shut down, taking away irreplaceable pieces of the city’s history. Now is not the time to travel the world, but it is the perfect time to time-travel in your own neighbourhood. Below, you’ll find a selection of unique and interesting small shops on Hong Kong Island that are worth a visit and your support.
(Editor’s note: As this article went to press, Yeung Chun Lui Herbal Tea — shop no. 8 on this list — has sadly closed down)
1. Lam Pan Chun Tea
Oldest tea shop in Shek Tong Tsui
Chiu Chow heritage
Lam Pan Chun is one of the oldest shops in Shek Tong Tsui. It’s been here for over 70 years and counting, acting as a reassuring anchor in an ever-changing neighbourhood. This historical tea shop is a reminder that Shek Tong Tsui was a place many Chiu Chow people called home. Mr Lam Pan Chun was one of them. He ran a tea business in Shantou and Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong in 1948 when things got difficult in his homeland. “We were the biggest distributor here, every week we would have a container coming in with new stock,” Mr Lam, 3rd generation owner of the shop, shares.
Stepping into Lam Pan Chun is like travelling back to old Hong Kong. The signage, floor tiles, wooden furniture, couplets, and even the tea tins are precious antiques. “No one knows how to make these tins anymore,” says Mr Lam. The characters are written in an older type of font that is no longer used these days. More than just words, the characters form tea poems. They were written by Mr Lam’s uncle, who extracted them from a Kangxi Dictionary from the 18th century. “I also need to check the dictionary, I don’t know how to read these poems,” admits Mr Lam with a smile.
What to buy?
Mr Lam tells us Tieguanyin, a sweet and floral variety of Oolong tea, has been the shop’s bestseller for many years.
586 Queen’s Rd West | open Mon – Fri 7 am – 6 pm | +852 2816 0356
2. Se Wong Kau
The snake king of Sai Wan
Snakes and more
Snake king Kau is where the locals go for a bowl of snake soup. Owner Mr Chan Tat Kau started his career as a helper of the famous snake master Sin in Wan Chai. He quickly developed a passion for the trade and decided he wanted to become a Snake King himself, just like his master. His wife moved to Hong Kong from China and the couple opened their own shop. “I was really scared the first time I touched the snakes. But now I’m not afraid at all, they are just like loaves of bread,” says Mrs Chan while taking out a snake from the wooden snake cabinet. The plaque hanging at the shop’s entrance was a gift from the great snake master Sin.
The shop closes every summer from June to August when Mr and Mrs Chan head back to mainland’s thick forests to catch snakes. “We easily catch dozens of snakes a day,” says Mrs Chan. Snakes in summer are fiercely active and potentially poisonous, so the couple wears tick gloves to protect themselves. Back in Hong Kong, they store their catch in the store’s wooden cabinet, feeding them rats to keep them healthy and happy.
Your choice of snake
There’s something for everyone at Snake King Kau. And Mrs Chan is happy to recommend depending on your health, your mood, or the weather. Try their fried snake roll ($78) or snake meatballs ($29/4 pieces) for a different experience! Not into snakes? King Kau also stocks some other amazing exotic foods like Golden Coin turtle eggs and gecko wine, all very good for your health.
Shop 21, G/F, Dragonfair Garden, 455-485 Queen’s Rd West | Open Mon-Sun 12 nn – 12 am | +852 2816 6969
3. Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer
Family-run shop with handmade steamers
Handmade and sustainable
The Lam family has been making bamboo cooking products for five generations, stretching all the way back to the current owner’s great-great-grandfather, who travelled between village markets in Guangdong to sell his steamers.
A Sunset Trade
Tuck Chong Sum Kee is one of the last places in Hong Kong that makes bamboo steamers by hand. It takes three years to learn how to hand-make a steamer from a single piece of bamboo, a skill that is increasingly being replaced by low-quality mass production.
Lam Ying-hung, who runs the business, says factory-made steamers last just a month or two, while his steamers can put up with a full year of intensive use. That may be the reason why his clients include famous restaurants such as Lin Heung and Luk Yu Teahouse.
12 Western Street | open Mon-Fri 9 am – 5 pm | +852 2548 8201
4. Kwan Hing Kee
Soy milk, tofu pudding and other tofu treats
For a truly local treat, have a cold glass of soy milk or a bowl of silky tofu pudding. This local family store has been in Sai Ying Pun for 90 years. It all started with the old Mr Kwan selling bean curd from baskets on a bamboo pole until he made enough money to open a shop, first on First Street, later here moved here, on 3rd Street.
There to stay
Business wasn’t always easy, during the Centre Street reconstruction the little shop nearly went bankrupt but managed to survive by exporting fermented bean curd sauce. The old Mr Kwan’s daughter now operates the business and introduced special products for festive occasions like rice dumplings for Tuen Ng Festival. “My ambition is to keep the price low and quality high. I get contacted all the time by developers who want to buy this place, but I always say no. I hope to pass on the family business to my son,” she says.
Pick up some house-made soybean and fermented tofu paste, essential ingredients in Cantonese cuisine. Thirsty? Try their soy milk. But best of all is the tofu pudding, a light, creamy dessert that is refreshing on a hot day and heart-warming on a cold one.
G/F, 65 Third St | open Mon-Sat 7.45 am-6.50 pm, Sun 8.30 am-6.30 pm | +852 25498625
5. Tin Bo Lau
Traditional joss-paper products reinvented for the 21st century
“Where there are Chinese, there are festivals and there will always be lanterns and papercrafts,” says lion dance master Ha Chung Kin who started Tin Bo Lau 40 years ago. He started out by making lion heads, then also other types of paper offerings, lanterns, and flower arrangements. Tin Bo Lau is now in its 3rd generation. Although you can’t buy lion heads here anymore, this is still the place to go for festivals and funerals. “The paper-crafting industry has never deteriorated. The busiest time of the year are the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Mid-autumn Festival, when our orders can jampack a 20-feet container!” says Master Ha.
Reinventing old skills
Ha is a proud craftsman. “The art is to reinvent your skills. A papercraft master is someone who can create what the customers want and keeps up with the trends. We created our own version of a 2-story Spanish house with veranda and backyard which is now very popular. We also invested in a new type of paper that it is more resilient to water and wind.” In his career, he’s had some unusual requests. “I once was asked to make a giant mummy for Halloween”, master Ha remembers. The Tin Bo Lau crew also gives lantern-making tutorials for students, families, corporates and even prisoners.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of HKSAR’s handover, Tin Bo Lau created the largest hanging lantern in the world and broke the Guinness Record. It was more than five metres wide and nine metres high.
The most precious piece of equipment in the workshop is an old fashioned Chinese ruler “I recently heard the master who makes these rulers in Central was about to retire, so I purchased his whole stock of 1,000 rulers”
Shop C, Basement, Tung Cheung Building, 1-11 Second St | +852 2540 5439
6. Saam Hui Yaat
No-nonsense dim sum joint
This is where the locals go for breakfast! The customer base is a nice mix of elderly and students in the area. Saam Hui Yat has had the same menu for years. The five chefs, who have been in the industry since they were teenagers, start work every day at 3 am. They all have a different role: making dough, slicing vegetables, frying meat, preparing fillings, and steaming buns. Owner Faat Goh insists on using bamboo steamers from Tuck Chong Sum Kee, (number 3 on this list): “[Their steamers] are a bit more expensive but a lot more durable. Also, each dish has limited daily supply to reduce food waste,” he says.
What’s in a name?
Saam Hui Yat literally means ‘three goes one’. The name has nothing to do with how many dims sums fit in a basket, it goes back to the days when the eatery was owned by three shareholders, and one left…
What to order?
Try the chicken bun (HK$17), the most popular dish. It’s huge and truly good value for money!
11 Pok Fu Lam Rd | open Mon-Sun 5 am-2.30 pm | +852 25473917
7. Shing Wong Street Barber
Oldschool alleyway barber
The backstreet barbershop
If you feel like a little detour, walk uphill from the tramline to discover a barbershop tucked into an alley. It was once one of many alleyway barbershops around Hong Kong, before they began to dwindle in number as more customers went to salons instead. The barbershop has been in this spot for over 60 years and still grooms the old-fashioned way. A full package — haircut, wash and shave — costs just HK$75. A kid’s cut starts at HK$38.
Nice to know
Long before the British came to Hong Kong there was a Shing Wong temple here. In 1874, a super typhoon hit the city and many houses collapsed, including the temple. Local people had no money to rebuild the temple, so Shing Wong’s statue was moved to the Man Mo Temple, but the name Shing Wong remained.
Behind 88 Hollywood Road | open Mon-Sat 10 am-5 pm
8. Yeung Chun Lui Herbal Tea (closed down)
Traditional Chinese medicinal tea to soothe your ailments
Third generation tea brewers
Established by Mr Yeung 90 years ago, this shop specialises in only one product: herbal tea, or ‘tea-soup’, to be precise. Today, the dark brown homebrew of Chinese medicinal herbs is made by its third generation. There is only one kind of herbal tea sold at the shop — a secret recipe that has never been changed over 90 years — at only HK$ 9 per glass.
The silent transaction
Mr Yeung describes his shop’s unique retail style as ‘silent transaction’: customers leave the money on the table while the tea is being poured, everybody is happy without words being exchanged.
29 Spring Garden Lane | opening daily 11.30 am – 11 pm | +852 2861 6639
9. Tin Yin Coconut Co
The one and only coconut shop in Hong Kong
The natural taste of fresh coconut
You’ll never be able to go back to canned coconut juice once you’ve tried Tin Yin’s natural coconut water. This shop is the only coconut shop in town and has been selling natural coconut drinks and dessert for over 50 years.
Ah Gor opened this shop with a friend in the 1960s. Back then, coconut shops were quite popular in Hong Kong. His business peaked in the 1970s: he sold 200-300 coconuts a day to street stalls, restaurants and even Garden Bakery. All of Ah’s coconuts are imported from Malaysia and Thailand for their quality meat and pleasant smell.
Secret curry paste
Banking in on the emerging popularity of coconut water, Ah Gor has diversified into sauces and other coconut-related products like Pandan cake, coconut and water chestnut dessert. “Our bestseller is the secret recipe curry paste, even five-star hotels buy from here,” he proudly shares.
48 Marble Road | open Mon-Sun 7 am-7.30 pm | +852 2571 6305
10. King’s Slippers
Hong Kong-made embroidered slippers
Popular embroidered slippers
When King’s Slippers company, opened in 1960, their delicately embroidered shoes were a big hit among the upper-class Shanghainese in North Point. “Shanghai people greatly focused on their appearance; they would come here often to buy new shoes,” says shop owner Mrs Li. Back in the day, wearing embroidered slippers indoors was a luxury that only a select few could afford to avoid the dirty kitchen floors of the housing estates. This tiny shop has had many celebrity clients, including the late Li Lihua, a Golden Horse Award winner for Best Leading Actress.
Best gift for Chinese New Year
Still, every Chinese New Year, this small shop gets really busy. Mrs Li needs to call in extra staff to help the many customers who come to here to buy the shoes as gifts. Other days it may be quiet. “In the old days, many local masters were making these shoes, often with their wives,” she explains.
A family business
A typical family business, King’s Slippers entire production line is Hong Kong-based. 2nd generation owner Mr Li buys the fabric in Sham Shui Po and then brings it to a workshop in Tsuen Wan for production. Mrs Li takes care of the sales. Delicate and beautiful, these classic shoes will never go out of style.
G/F, Majestic Apartments, 315 King’s Rd | open Mon-Sun 10.30 am-8.30 pm | +852 2570 3560
There are many more interesting old shops to visit in Hong Kong. Want to know where to find them?
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