A walking tour of Hong Kong's Little Thailand
Hong Kong's Thai population numbers around 30,000. Some are domestic helpers while others are Thai-speaking ethnic Chinese who came to Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. When you don't have time for a trip to Bangkok but are craving the sounds of Thai pop and the taste of Thai fruit, head to Kowloon City, home to Hong Kong's Little Thailand.
Lunch at the Kowloon City Market's Cooked Food Centre is the best way to kick off a tour of the neighborhood. That's where you'll find Amporn Thai Food, which has been open for 13 years. The lime soda is tart and sweet and the pork neck salad is especially memorable: tender meat dusted with fresh coriander, lime juice and mellow spices.
"Hong Kong people prefer their food less spicy, so that's how we cook it. But if you ask, we will make it as spicy as it should be," says restaurant manager Mrs Wong, who moved to Hong Kong 23 years ago. Hong Kong's Thai neighborhood used to be in Central, she says, but redevelopment pushed it out in the 1990s. Kowloon City ended up being the destination of choice because it's affordable and centrally located.
South Wall Road is where you'll find the biggest concentration of Thai businesses: snack stalls, video stores, beauty salons and grocery stores. The street is busiest on Sundays when Thai-Chinese families and Thai domestic helpers flock here to stock up on food and gossip from back home.
At a Thai video stall in an alley off South Wall Road, a group of woman watch a Thai movie while others browse through VCDs and stacks of Thai magazines. We asked the owners to recommend some Thai music and they suggested a pirated compilation of love songs by Sek Loso, a rocker who has performed at South by Southwest and Glastonbury, available for HK$20.
The grocery stores on South Wall Road sell the cheapest limes, lemongrass, chilis and Thai herbs in town. Pre-made curries and salads are sold in plastic bags. You'll also find packs of curry paste for HK$5 -- about twice the price as in Bangkok, but hardly a bad deal. Along with food, large sections of the stores are dedicated to soap, shampoo and beauty products imported from Thailand.
"I buy these kinds of things here because I can read the label -- I can't read English or Chinese," says one domestic helper we met while browsing for shampoo. "Plus I think it's better quality than anything from Hong Kong. And it's cheaper!"
A crowd gathers around "Ah Mei" Ng as she sells Thai mafai fruits on the sidewalk. Small, yellow and attached to a vine, they resemble oversized longan, but inside the pulp resembles that of a mangosteen. "Watch out," she warns. "it's very sour!" Ah Mei's not kidding. "Some of the Chinese vendors sell Thai fruits, but not the ones that Chinese people don't eat, like this."
Thai sweets, or khanom, are usually bite-sized and made with a huge variety of ingredients, including corn, fruits, jasmine and coconut. The Tang sisters sell sweet lotus root rice wrapped in banana leaf for HK$10 apiece. They also serve a generous portion of mango sticky rice for HK$30.
In Kowloon City, the Chinese altars that are common throughout Hong Kong are given a Thai twist and adorned with strands of brightly-colored flowers.
Many shops also have both Thai Buddhist altars and traditional Chinese altars. "It's just tradition," says Mrs Sze, a Thai-Chinese woman who runs a shop selling Buddha figures and portraits of the Thai king. "Both serve the same purpose, so why stick to just one? We're both Chinese and Thai."
Portraits of Thailand's venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej are also de rigeur in any Thai-owned business. "We're not in Thailand anymore but the king is still in our hearts," says Mrs. Sze.
As the sun sets and Kowloon City gets ready for dinner, offerings are placed in front of Thai altars.
How to get there: Kowloon City is well served by buses and minibuses from throughout the city. Check the KMB's website for more information. Most Thai businesses are located near the corner of South Wall Road and Nga Tsin Wai Road, in the eastern part of the neighborhood, near the Regal Oriental Hotel.