22 Oct Neighbourhood Guide to the Past: Shek Tong Tsui’s Lost Treasures
Sited halfway between Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town, Shek Tong Tsui (石塘嘴) is one of Hong Kong’s many Hidden Gems. Few people know that the area was once an entertainment hub of famous theatres, gourmet restaurants and a bustling night market. Shek Tong Tsui also used to be a well-known red-light district, popular among workers of the nearby factories and quarries and well beyond.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, there wasn’t much left of Shek Tong Tsui’s playful past. Its godowns, theatres and other heritage buildings were slowly being replaced by apartments and commercial buildings. If you look closely, however, you’ll still be able to spot traces of its rich history. In this neighbourhood guide, you won’t find newly opened restaurants or hipster cafés. Instead, we’re going to take you to seven now-vanished places so you’ll get a sense of what Shek Tong Tsui used to be like in the olden days. When you’re there, don’t forget to talk to the neighbourhood’s elderly residents, they’ll be more than happy to share stories of days long gone with you! Now, let’s make our way to old Shek Tong Tsui…
1. Rice Godowns
Coolies loading off bags of rice in the 1920s – Image: HKmemory
Shek Tong Tsui’s waterfront used to be lined with rows of rice warehouses. “Imagine many boats docked by the promenade, lowering their wooden planks to the street so coolies, most of them of Chiu Chow heritage, could load off the heavy bags of rice on their backs,” recalls 70-year-old Mr Wong.
“Life was hard in those days, and unloading rice was perhaps the toughest job of all. A bag of rice weighed more than 100kg. The planks the coolies had to walk were wobbly and they couldn’t stop, as there was always someone behind them. The coolies made it look easy though: a few jumps and they got off the ferries!”
Mr Wong also remembers the frequent fights about missing cargo or unfair deals, as well as angry tram drivers because the coolies blocked the road.
Sai Wan waterfront was lined with rows of rice warehouses – Image: HKmemory
Even though most godowns were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s, many locals haven’t forgotten about them. Granny Wu still remembers buying her rice from Kwan Yick — still a famous oriental goods brand — which has been replaced by three huge residential blocks, “Rice was more expensive at Kwan Yick, but the quality was better,” she explains.
Where: Sum Way Mansion, 1 Belcher’s Street
2. Old Kam Ling Theatre
Kam Ling Theatre was a happening entertainment hub | Middle Image: A poster for the opening of Old Kam Ling theatre in 1951 | Left image: Weshare.hk
When Kam Ling theatre opened its doors in 1951, this part of town was a happening entertainment hub. All popular cinemas were situated right here in Western District: Tai Ping, Kam Ling, Ko Shing and Central Theatre. Lily remembers those days: “My mum was a big movie fan, whenever a new movie came out, she would bring us to the cinema. The front row seats were the cheapest.” Granny Chow also remembers bringing her kids to Kam Ling, “We’d go to the cheapest show, which was at 5.30pm. Tickets only cost 30 cents, so I could bring all three kids and sit at the front row. After the movie had ended, we’d buy sweet potato and chestnuts from the street sellers.”
Kam Ling closed down in 1973 and was turned into an apartment building. A new Kam Ling Theatre opened later on Queen’s Road West, but this cinema was much smaller and known for its selection of seedy movies. This theatre did not survive changing times either and closed its doors in the late 1990s.
If the name ‘Kam Ling’ sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of the famous Kam Ling restaurant on Hill Road. A Shek Tong Tsui fixture for six decades — the restaurant operated from 1900 to 1960 — Kam Ling was the place to be for Hong Kong’s elite. Even U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon came here for a bite when he visited Hong Kong!
Where: Kam Ling Court Commercial Centre, 532-538 Queen’s Rd West
3. Old Guangzhou Restaurant
Guangzhou was the largest and grandest of all restaurants
Restaurant business was booming in 1920s Shek Tong Tsui: more than 20 of Hong Kong posh restaurants were all in this neighbourhood. The most famous restaurants of them all were Canton, Chun Cheong, Kam Ling and Guangzhou. Colloquially referred to as “the big 4”, these were the only four restaurants that managed to survive after the government banned prostitution in 1935.
Guangzhou was the largest and grandest of them all: The restaurant’s first two floors boasted banquet halls, the top floor was home to a dance lounge with a Filipino band, and on the rooftop, restaurant-goers could watch circus acts. In the 1960s and 1970s, Guangzhou Restaurant was the venue of choice for “Ten Most Popular Stars in Hong Kong”, an immensely popular event organised by Wah Kiu Man Pao.
“Ten Most Popular Stars in Hong Kong” organised by Wah Kiu Man Pao was a hugely popular event – Image: internationalscreen
Guangzhou was expensive, catering exclusively to high-spending clientele who came from all over town. Many of the local neighbourhood residents would only go for special occasions, like Granny Chow: “We’d celebrate at the restaurant when my husband had a day off.” Every night at around 10pm when the banquets were done and customers had left, aunties would stop by to collect the leftovers. “I brought them all the way to the squatter area at ‘Pig Mountain Hill’ in Kennedy Town,” remembers Granny Ip. “50 cents and you’d get a lot of food, chicken, goose, vegetables, which wasn’t something we could afford every day.” Guangzhou closed in the 1970s after 60 years of brisk business.
Where: Yip Cheong Building, 4-16 Hill Rd
4. Old Tai Ping Theatre
Opened in 1904, Tai Ping could accommodate over 1,000 people – Left Image: Cinema Treasures
Located where now yet another nondescript commercial building stands used to be one of Hong Kong’s grandest theatres. Opened in 1904 and three storeys high, Tai Ping Theatre could accommodate over 1,000 people. Back then, Theatres were multifunctional: people came to watch movies, circus performances and Cantonese opera. In 1932, Tai Ping underwent a makeover and expanded to accommodate an even bigger audience of up to 2,000 people!
Tai Ping was the celebrity hangout back in the day: People came from far and wide to hear Mei Lanfang, also known as “The Queen of Peking Opera”, sing live or watch the famous Tai Ping Theatrical Troupe perform.
Interior of Tai Ping Theatre in 1909 | Old ticket for a show at Tai Ping
Tai Ping was in the same spot for 77 years, and many fond memories were made here. Mr Ko remembers watching ‘Drunken Master’, one of Jackie Chan’s first movies, at the theatre: “It was either playing football or watching movies. This neighbourhood was one big playground for us.” Granny Wu enjoyed watching famous Cantonese opera singers live on stage, like Leung Sing-Bor and Fung Bo Bo. “When I was sick, my father gave me a dollar to go to the doctor, but instead I went to Tai Ping to watch movies,” she recalls with a giggle. “Morning shows were the cheapest, only twenty cents a ticket.”
The famous theatre finally closed its doors in 1981. The last film screened in Tai Ping was the Hui brothers’ comedy “Security Unlimited”, the biggest grossing film of all-time in Hong Kong.
Where: 421 Queen’s Rd West
5. Fire Well
Hong Kong’s first gas production plant, which was built in 1864
Mr Robert Christopher Whitty was the manager of Hongkong and China Gas Company Ltd in 1864 — the year in which his company built Hong Kong’s first gas production plant — hence the street the plant was on was named after him. The plant was huge, comprising four towers that supplied gas for the entire City of Victoria. The plant ran on coal, which was shipped from the nearby Triangle Pier. For many locals, the sight and smell of the burning coal are still firmly imprinted in their memory. Even though the plant closed in 1958, the name “Fire Well” stayed on.
Ask residents about ‘fire well’ and they’ll mention the big 1934 explosion. One of the worst accidents in the history of Hong Kong took place when the biggest of the four towers had a gas leakage. The huge fire, strengthened by the northeastern wind, destroyed more than ten houses on Clarence Terrance (right above the tower) and Chun Sing Street (right next to the tower, now the Shek Tong Tsui Market). The fire burned for three hours, killing over 40 people and making hundreds homeless.
Fire triggered by gas leakage in 1934 – Image: Flickr | Staff waiting outside the plant after the gasholder explosion – Image: Hongkong and China Gas Company
The big explosion could have been a lot worse if the security guard on duty had not run into the fire to switch on the emergency system that released the remaining gas into the sea. Residents installed a memorial tablet at the site in remembrance of his selfless act. When the plant closed and Western Court was built, the tablet moved to Block 8 of the complex, where locals continued to burn incense. When Western Court was demolished, the tablet went with it, and yet another memory was lost forever.
Where: Whitty Street
6. Old HK Artificial Flower Works
Plastic flower production was big business in the 1950s – Image: Hklearner
Shek Tong Tsui residents are proud to share that the factory where Li Ka-Shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, made his “first bucket of gold” was located right here. His factory opened in the 1950s when plastic flowers were in high demand. But what could have been an undisputed landmark, or even a museum, is no longer there: The factory was turned into Hong Kong Plaza in the 1980s.
Li Ka Shing started Cheung Kong Plastics Co. in 1950 – Left image: Fortune Insight
There were more than 3,000 plastic flower factories in HK in 1972 – Right image: Industrial History HK
Artificial flower production was big business in the 1950s. They weren’t just created in factories: many local households resembled small workshops that churned out plastic products. “Many parents would bring parts of the flowers back home and the entire family would work together to put the flowers together,” recalls Granny Chow. “I didn’t like it, I wanted my children to focus on their school work.” “Many of my classmates had to help their parents to put the flowers together,” says Mr Wong. “They worked in rooftop sheds, which got so hot in summer, and they only had wet towels to cool off. it was hard work. We really respect people like Li Ka Shing,” he continues. “They started their own business and succeeded because of the hard work poured in. It gives us a sense of hope, that if we keep working hard, we can be successful as well.”
Where: Hong Kong Plaza, 188 Connaught Rd West
7. Old Hung Mui Hotel
Des Voeux Rd West in the early 20th century – Image: HKU Publication | Hung Mui was the location of choice for many local’s wedding banquets – Image: oceandeep
Shek Tong Tsui used to be home to lots of small hotels, and Hung Mui was one of them. It was the location of choice for many local’s wedding banquets. “Hung Mui wedding banquets were so much more affordable than other fancy restaurants in the neighbourhood,” says Mr Wong, who used to work at the hotel as a repairman. “Banquets normally started at 7pm and lasted 3 hours. If there were any leftovers, people would pack them to take home.” He was sad to see the hotel closing down in the 1980s and being converted into a residential building.
Where: Mei Sun Lau, 442 Des Voeux Rd West
Are you ready to explore Shek Tong Tsui?
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