Finding Hidden Gems in Hong Kong; A Tram Ride With Laura Laviani
Meet Laura Laviani, a third culture kid, born in Hong Kong but grew up in Indonesia. Four years ago, she moved back to Hong Kong to reconnect with her roots. A keen photographer Laura started exploring her old hometown, carrying her Canon AE-1 film camera by her side. Inspired by the shapes, colours, and smells of the old neighbourhoods like Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok she became fascinated by the city’s heritage. She wandered the streets and wondered about its secrets. As a native Cantonese speaker, she quickly found herself exploring the many nooks and crannies of the city. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we took Laura for a Hong Kong Tram Ride to explore a different side of this city. We hopped on a tram from Wanchai to Kennedy Town to find some lesser-known authentic spots along the tramline.
Our local guide was the iDiscover Ding Ding Map & App, a tram travel itinerary introducing 50 unique and authentic spots in 8 neighbourhoods from west to east, the result of a cool collab between Hong Kong Tramways and the creative team at iDiscover Academy. The people at tramways liked it so much that they even wrapped one of its antique trams into the beautifully illustrated map by Tania Willis, a testimony to Hong Kong’s unique cultural heritage.
1. Egg Tarts at Honolulu Cake Shop . Wanchai
One of Hong Kong’s most iconic treats is the egg tart – and Honolulu Coffee Shop was one of the first places to serve it. Founded in the 1940s in Sham Shui Po, the café originally specialised in drinks, but these days, egg tarts are its calling card. There are many types of custard tarts around the world, but Hong Kong’s egg tarts are unique both for their extremely eggy filling and their flaky pastry. Honolulu makes its pastry the traditional way, by layering ‘shui pei’ pastry made with egg yolks and ice over ‘yau pei’ butter pastry. Mrs. Yan who has been at this popular restaurant for over eight years tells us the local’s favourite items here are the egg tart and the pineapple bun. Laura bites into one of the eggy delights and isn’t disappointed: “The crust is really flaky and the filling nice and rich with a smooth silky texture. This is one of my all-time favourite Hong Kong snacks”.
Nice to know
Who invented the egg tart? Despite its fame and ubiquity in Hong Kong, the origin of the egg tart is a mystery. It seems to have been a European treat that was adapted by Guangzhou dim sum parlours in the 1920s, before making its way to Hong Kong after World War II. Their popularity spread in the 1950s when ‘bing sutt’ cafés opened all over the city, serving coffee, tea and pastries.
Honolulu Coffee Shop . G/F & Mezz Floor, 176-178 Hennessy Road . Open daily 6am-12am . +852 2575 1823 . nearest tram stop: 56W/ 43E O’Brien Road
2. Finding Batman at Chun On Pawnshop . Wanchai
How to spot a pawnshop? The sign is the shape of an inverted bat holding a coin. Pawnshops all over Hong Kong and China have used this sign for centuries. The bat symbolizes fortune and prosperity. The Cantonese words for ‘bat’ and ‘good fortune’ are both ‘fuk’ and are pronounced with the same tone. That the bat is inverted makes it even better, as the word for upside-down in Cantonese, dou (倒; dao in Mandarin) is the same for ‘arrive’ (到). Altogether it means that Good Fortune has arrived. That sounds good to us, so we go to one of Hong Kong’s most well-known pawnshops in Wan Chai in search of some good fortune and of course to find batman.
Pawnshops are Hong Kong’s own version of microcredit. Interestingly in a city that prides itself on its sophisticated financial industry, pawnshops are still very much part of the local landscape, there are still over 200 in operation. The app tells us “These days’ people pawn mostly gold, watches and diamonds. Interest rate is charged at 3.5% per lunar month but if you can’t pay to collect your item after 4 months you might well end up paying up to 15% per month.” We quickly find out that pawnshops aren’t very welcoming places. Privacy matters here. We can’t help but be a bit intimidated by the closed façade and the high screen at the entrance. We understand it’s a feng shui thing to prevent from “money from flowing out of the building”. No fortune for us here, we quickly leave.
Chun On Pawn Shop 振安大押 . 91 Wan Chai Road 灣仔道 . Open daily 10am-8pm . +852 2573 0154 . nearest tram stop: 54W Burrows Street/ 45E Fleming Road
3. Blue House . Wan Chai
No need to feel blue, this is a cute place. “This is the Hong Kong of my parent’s generation, the Chinese shop house. I’m happy this one survived and is now so beautifully renovated. I like the charming balconies with their wrought iron posts, and I love the blue colour.” Laura says. In the app we find out why it’s called the Blue House. “In 1978 when the cluster of shophouses was sold to the government, this was the only colour left in the maintenance depot.”
We check out the House of Stories to get a glimpse in the life of overcrowded Wan Chai in the old days without flushing toilets or air-conditioning. We chat to Suki Chau, the community team leader of Blue House, and learn all about this local initiative to conserve a unique piece of the communal way of living in Hong Kong. There’s exciting stuff happening at the Blue House, we like the community classrooms where the resident community hosts exhibitions, workshop and tours, to share their personal stories with visitors from Hong Kong and abroad. They even have live concerts on the street, where else in Hong Kong would that happen?
Blue House 藍屋 . 72-74A Stone Nullah Lane . Open daily 11am-5pm . +852 2835 4376 . nearest tram stop: 54W Burrows Street/ 45E Fleming Road
4. Sugarcane juice . Sheung Wan
Time for a drink. We’re hot and thirsty so head over to Central for a fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. “I love this juice, it’s refreshing with a hint of sweetness and it’s also very good for you. It helps to rehydrate and gives you a boost of energy at the same time. I like coming here to this shop at Hollywood Road, it’s so old school, it has that unique vintage look and feel.” says Laura. “I also love their sugarcane pudding, it may not look great, but it’s so good”.
Tradition & innovation
We talk to Ben Tsui, 4th generation owner of Kung Lee. He tells us: “Tradition can only be passed on by innovation. Our family has been making sugarcane juice for 70 years. Yet, time changes and so do customers’ preferences. My parents were the first ones to create to make “mini-size turtle jelly” and later invented “sugarcane pudding”. My brother and I are now expanding the business based on what they have built. We now provide delivery service and collaborate with Mak’s Beer, a Hong Kong-based microbrewery to produce sugarcane beer.”
Kung Lee Sugarcane. G/F, 60 Hollywood Road . Open daily 11am-11pm . +852 2544 3571 . nearest tram stop: 76W Man Wah Lane/ 25E Jubilee Street
5. Temple Time . Kennedy Town
We take the tram all the way to the end of the line. To Kennedy Town. The iDiscover map suggests there is a small temple we should visit. It takes us a while to find it, but when we arrive at this lovely little quiet tucked-away terrace, we’re happy we came all this way. Lo Pan Temple is a true hidden gem and immediately my new favourite temple in Hong Kong. Everything about it is special, the charming location the spectacular roof and the friendly temple keeper Ah Fan who tells that the temple has been here for over a hundred years and that this is only two temples in the world dedicated to Lo Pan, the Chinese god of builders and carpenters. We read in the app that this is one of only two temples in the world dedicated to Lo Pan, the Chinese god of carpenters
God of Carpenters
As you would expect from a temple dedicated to construction workers, it is one of the most beautiful in Hong Kong. We love the dramatic, sharply-gabled roof, it’s almost like its designed for a Star Wars movie set in next century Hong Kong. The app tells us that Lo Pan was no ordinary carpenter, he was an engineer who lived a long time before Christ was born and invented a number of military devices including the ‘cloud ladder’, which allowed invading troops to climb walls during a battle. Legend of Lo Pan’s ingenuity lived long after his death, including a story in which he tricked the Dragon King into giving him his underwater palace.
Lo Pan Temple . 15 Ching Lin Terrace 青蓮台 . Open daily 8.30am-5pm . +852 2802 2880 . nearest tram stop: 98W Kennedy Town Praya/ 03E Holland Street
6. Dim Sum Delights . Kennedy Town
We’re hungry and happy to find a dim sum place on the map nearby in Kennedy Town we should try: Sun Hing Restaurant. The app tells us that Sun Hing’s first customers arrive well before dawn and you find yourself among an unusual mix of early-rising old-timers and party animals looking to line their stomachs after a night of drinking. Later in the day, the early birds and night owls are replaced by students from the nearby University of Hong Kong. Sounds like our type of place.
We love this place. This is our type of dim sum place, not the large banquet hall variety, but a typical small neighbourhood joint, jampacked, lively and with some pretty amazing food. There is no menu here, but we know to keep an eye out for the house specialities: quail’s egg wontons and deep-fried milk. The baskets of steamed delights emerge piping hot from the kitchen, and we tuck in. We share our table - at Shung Hing you all sit at communal tables - with Dicky and his friend James from Taiwan. Dicky has been coming here for years, his dad used to take him for yum cha when he was a kid. He shares, “I brought James here, because it’s the best place for dim sum in the city. This place hasn’t changed a bit in 50 years and it still has the old original taste.” Dicky is still a regular, he knows all the chefs and they know his favourite dishes. He makes us try some of the sweet dim sum, steamed black sugar cake and creamy custard dumplings and one instantly becomes my personal favourite. Sweet, light in texture and rich in flavour. I’m loving this local food experience. Dicky has been coming to Sun Hing Restaurant for years, his dad used to take him here for yum cha when he was small
Sun Hing Restaurant . Shop C, G/F, 8 Smithfield . Kennedy Town . Open daily 3am–4pm . +852 2816 0616 . nearest tram stop: 102W Smithfield/ 01E North Street
Laura never leaves the house without her Canon AE-1 film camera. She documents the city’s many faces, day and night. Laura calls Hong Kong home, but loves to roam around in the South East Asian region, especially in Indonesia, where she lived as a child and has fond memories of the sounds, smells and spices.
Find her at @lauralaviani. The photos of this tram ride were made by Jaap Smulders at @jaaperr.
Explore along the tramline
Want to explore authentic neighbourhoods along the tramline? Pick up the iDiscover Ding Ding map – illustrated by the amazingly talented Tania Willis – at the end of the popular Tramoramic sightseeing tour or download your free copy here. Or access the digital map if you like your travel tips on the move at your fingertips. We’ve got you covered. Choose app or map, this is your go-to guide for hidden gems, popular local hotspots and surprising sites in the hood. All are handpicked, so you can shop locally and travel responsibly.
HK Tramways 香港電車
Hong Kong Tramways (Tramways) has been serving Hong Kong since 1904 and operates nowadays a fleet of 165 tramcars including 2 antique party tramcars and 1 unique “TramOramic Tour” sightseeing tramcar. It is the world’s largest fleet of double-deck tramcars in operation, carrying up to 200,000 passengers every day. 香港電車有限公司（「香港電車」）自 1904 年起竭誠服務乘客。現時，香港電車擁有165 輛雙層電車（當中包括充滿懷舊氣息的兩輛古董派對電車及一輛古董觀光電車「電車全景遊」），是世界上仍在服務中的最大雙層電車車隊，每日接載可多達 20 萬人次的乘客。www.hktramways.com
Tania Willis Tania Willis
Tania is an illustrator whose work has been profoundly influenced by her life in Hong Kong. Tania's illustrated world is defined by colour, pattern, warmth and humour, all drawn directly from her experiences in this vibrant city. She thinks map making is the best job on the planet... Tania 是一名插畫家和製圖師。她將偉大的想法轉化為人們可以聯繫到的引人入勝的圖像。她認為這是這個星球上最好的工作......www.taniawillis.com