A tour of Shanghai Street with the 'Old Hong Kong' expert

A tour of Shanghai Street with the 'Old Hong Kong' expert

Hulu Culture's Simon Go takes us on a tour of Shanghai Street, a living time-capsule of the 1960s heydays
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Simon Go, co-founder of Hulu Culture, an arts organization that showcases grassroots Hong Kong culture, addresses about a dozen people on Shanghai Street who are waiting for him to lead them on a tour of the street's old shops. 

"Shanghai Street is one of the longest streets in Kowloon and it has been developed for over one hundred years," he says. "Before, the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter was nearby, and many boat people lived around here. They built a community and lots of businesses opened to serve them. Now the typhoon shelter has been filled in, but the shops remain."

Go is deeply familiar with the shops on Shanghai Street. As a photojournalist, he published "Hong Kong Old Shops," a book of photos and stories of Hong Kong's family-owned businesses. By learning more about the history of Hong Kong, he says, Hong Kongers can learn more about themselves. That's one of the goals behind the Shanghai Street tour.

Hong Kong's recent passion for all things nostalgic -- from bottled Vitasoy to the old Star Ferry pier -- has helped stir interest.

"Nostalgia is a means to show people the real value of the old streets and old shops -- which is the relationship between people," says Go. "There's a trust and faith in doing good business with the 'gaai fong' ['neighbourhood']."

And with that, the tour begins.


shanghai street
 
In the early twentieth century, Nathan Road was just a quick way to get to the countryside. The real action was on Shanghai Street where shops served thousands of people who lived and worked in the typhoon shelter a few blocks west. Its nightclubs, brothels and theatres earned the street a somewhat salacious reputation that endures even today -- along with some of the brothels. But with the typhoon shelter gone, replaced by a highway, railroad and new housing estates, the street's pulse has slowed.

 

shanghai street
shanghai street
 

The first stop on the tour is the New Asia Barbershop, which has been unintentionally preserved as a testament to 1960s style. Its decades-old chairs are now antiques that could fetch up to $10,000 if sold to a collector.

"Many people are interested in old things, but a lot of shops don't let them take pictures," says Mr Leung, the salon's owner. "Me, I'm glad to let them come here and see."

 
 
shanghai street

The corner of Shanghai Street and Waterloo Road.

 

shanghai street

Mrs. Ho is known to her neighbours as "the star of Shanghai Street." She learned how to make weighing scales from bamboo and bone when her father opened a small alleyway shop decades ago.

"Business is not good [now]," she says. "There are many different scales -- for medicine, for weddings, for everything -- but nobody wants them anymore. People now use electric scales so manual scales aren't in demand."

 

shanghai street

Wilson Tam, who teaches IT at a local college, joined the tour with his son Simpson, 9, and daughter Yimen, 6.

"When I was young my dad used to bring me here because he worked fixing boats in the typhoon shelter," Tam says. "This area is still very traditional even though the harbor has disappeared. I wanted my kids to see how it's changing."

 

shanghai street

"Shanghai Street's style is the style of old Hong Kong," Go says.

In the past, explains Go, many shops would carve designs on their metal gates to forge a kind of brand identity. The practice is disappearing as traditional gates are replaced by mass-produced pull-down shutters.

 
 
shanghai street

Shanghai Street has always been a hub for gold, traditional wedding clothes and ancestral offerings. In recent years, the street has also carved a niche for itself as Hong Kong's kitchen supply district, with a busy strip of shops selling everything from professional-grade knives to bamboo steamers.

 

shanghai street
shanghai street
shanghai street

Sherman Yu, 23, joined the tour on a date with her boyfriend. They're spending much of the time taking photos of each other in front of pawn shop signs, old barber chairs and other traditional scenes.

"We don't know this area very well so we thought the tour would be a good way to spend the holiday," she says.

Go, who lectures part-time at City University's School of Creative Media, noticed young people are more and more interested in Hong Kong's history and heritage.

"It's a good moment to do something like this," he says. "After the Queen's Pier and Star Ferry [protests], people are alert to the fact that our old spirit and culture is disappearing, and there's a lot of enthusiasm about our heritage from young people in particular."

 

shanghai street
Fung Moon Kee sells tailored wedding costumes and Singaporean medicinal oils. Its owner, Mr Lam, utters a lament for Shanghai Street's heydey: "All the traditions are dying. People aren't wearing the red dresses anymore, calligraphy is disappearing. Everything is different now."
 

shanghai street

shanghai street

Before leaving, Wilson Tam buys some medicinal oil from Mr Lam for his son, who fell and scraped his elbow playing tennis.

"If you put it on when you have an injury, you'll recover much more quickly," Tam says.

 

shanghai street

After 90-minutes on Shanghai Street, the tour ends at Gan Ming Framing, owned by the Chan family for the better part of a century. Two large family portraits, taken by Simon Go, hang prominently on the walls.

"The owners of these old shops think they are just lower-class people, but this gives them a chance to be empowered, to feel very proud and share their family story," he says. "When the old shops close, it's 7-Eleven or Circle K that will come in. In five years, everything here will have changed."

 

shanghai street
shanghai street
Mrs. Chan inside her shop
Editor's note

Hulu's street tours are all fully booked for now. For other exhibitions and events on Hong Kong culture, see www.hulu.org.hk. The Hong Kong Architecture Centre is holding parallel tours of historic landmarks around Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, including visits to the Tin Hau Temple, the Diocesan Girls' College and the Mido Café. Call 2805 7146 for details.


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Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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