Shanghai Street, an old street in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, has a long history since the mid-19th Century. In today’s Shanghai Street, we can still find over thirty old stories which serve the area for over forty years; a few of them are even over a century old. Traditional industries and handicrafts linger in spite of their sheer lack of disciples, which very likely means a perishing of craftsmanship. Nevertheless, the old shops owners are still working hard day-to-day and keep facing the challenges with optimism.

In recent years, some of the old shops we are familiar with are closed, such as Honesty Company Chu Yee Shing. Yau Ma Tei in the present day faces serious problems of aging population, infrastructural dilapidation and slackened economic growth. Its lagging behind, however, had preserved at least a fragmented reflection of the demeanor of the old Hong Kong.

What do you see and feel when you walk into the old shops in Shanghai Street?

The Earliest Chinese Community in Kowloon

If we traverse back to the early days of Hong Kong’s open-up, what we saw in Yau Ma Tei was perhaps a barren strip of coastal marsh, a shallow bay where numerous boatmen and fishermen took up a berth. It was said that the name “Ma Tei”, literally the land of hemp, emerged out of the customary practice of fishermen flocking to dry their hemp ropes, row upon row, on the lot outside Tian Hou Temple. Later appeared a myriad of shops selling tung oil, hemp roles and other commodities for the building and repairing of ships, and the place was, in 1875, renamed “Yau Ma Tei”, meaning literally the land of oil and hemp.

The Hub of Chinese Traders and Settlers

After the British Empire took over Kowloon in 1860, inhabitants of Tsim Sha Tsui had to be ousted to give room for the construction of military base. In droves they relocated to Yau Ma Tei. These ejected dwellers and boatmen, together with the influx of able merchants and craftsmen, gave rise to the earliest residential and commercial settlement around the area. In the 1870s groceries, barbershops, brothels, opium dens, coffin shops and rice stores were opened alongside the established shipbuilding-related businesses like maintenance, the sale of hemp ropes and oars, blacksmith and lumber wholesale. Trades began to mushroom and population grew, thronging most notably the neighborhood of today’s Temple Street and Yung Shue Tau Square (also called Banyan Tree Square). Eminent proprietors, most of them merchants and landlords, served both as a handler of community affairs and a mediator of quotidian disputes. In Tian Hou Temple they set up temple committee and kaifong (neighbor) association, which were to become the incipient forms of organized community system within this vigorous Chinese hub of trade and domicile life.

Infrastructural Development and
the Composite of Cultures

From 1876 onwards Yau Ma Tei was preoccupied with a profusion of large-scale construction projects launched by the colonial government. It saw the beginning of Yau Ma Tei structured in line with the model of modern city planning — sanitary facilities and infrastructure were built and improved, and main roads, which linked up the southern and northern parts of the Kowloon Peninsula, like the Station Street (renamed Shanghai Street in 1909), MacDonnell Street (renamed Canton Road in 1909), Austin Road and Reclamation Street, and those which linked up the eastern and western parts, like the Jordon Road, Gascoigne Road and Waterloo Road, were extended. Following the completion of land reclamation in 1904, the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter was built in 1915, where boatmen and fishermen moored yachts and took shield against gale. These municipal developments engendered not only an integrated network of traffic between the sea and land zones in Yau Ma Tei but also a strengthened connection between Kolwoon, New Territory and Hong Kong Island, all which foreshadowed the future development of Yau Ma Tei into a prosperous commercial center and a composite of sea and land cultures.

Hustle and Bustle Makes Prosperity

The growth and blossom of Yau Ma Tei had much to do with its sophisticated sea and land transport network. When, in 1933, the Jordon Road Ferry Pier was constructed to take the place of Yau Ma Tei Ferry Pier abutting Public Square Street, it became the most hectic pier and traffic junction in Kowloon. Since 1920 the Yaumatei Ferry had been travelling between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. In 1933 there appeared the double decker car ferry, which carried passengers and vehicles respectively on the upper and lower decks. What people called “Wa-la Wa-la” at that time referred to the electric boats in operation before cross-habour ferry came into view, and was a means by which people crossed the sea at midnight to dawn. On land, the Jordan Road Ferry Bus Terminus was either a destination or a midpoint for bus travellers — people went on foot to Tsim Sha Tsui, or changed to ferry if they were heading to the Hong Kong Island. The system was simple and clear. Yau Ma Tei, therefore, took to the full its locational advantage, absorbing all the pedestrian flows from and to different districts in Hong Kong.

A Thriving Nucleus of Commercial Activities

Back then, buses running between Kowloon and New Territory invariably passed through Shanghai Street, which was close to the boat-clustered Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter, with its two ends adjoining Mong Kok Pier and Jordon Road Pier. Being the junction of sea and land traffic, Shanghai Street naturally grew into a thriving nucleus of commercial activities. Burgeoning as early as the 1920s, Shanghai Street came to its golden age in the 1950s and 1960s when vibrant neon signs lighted up streams of cars and people and construed up a glamorous panorama comparable, if not surpassing, today’s Nathan Road. Along the Street were shops selling a variety of commodities like watches and clocks, ironware, rice and imported goods; there were also pawnshops, groceries, Chinese herb stores and barbershops. Most remarkably, though, was the plenty of upscale shops trading silks and satins, gold, incense and Buddha statuette, rendering Shanghai Street almost a miniature of the greater dazzling world.

Leisure under the Moon

If Shanghai Street was an all-embracing and bizarre commercial street for the common folk, Yung Shue Tau Square, Temple Street and the Typhoon Shelter as a whole was a grass-root carnival both on the land and sea. In the 1950s and 1960s, Temple Street at dusk was swarmed by a myriad of stalls brightly lit with kerosene lamps, which spotlighted not only goods but also the curious faces of buyers and tourists. People hunted for their own need: those toothsome dishes of the always-overcrowded Dai Pai Dong, fortune telling, chess gambling, Cantonese opera and stunt performance. These were the entertainments characteristic of Yau Ma Tei. In the Typhoon Shelter, boats arranged themselves according to types and formed a pseudo-street, which earned the epithet “Shanghai Street on water”. It was also called the “commoner’s nightclub on water”, offering drinks, food, music and boat ride to all who came for leisure.

Apart from providing standard, “accepted” entertainments, Temple Street and the Typhoon Shelter were also described as an arcane, odious locale where prostitution, gambling and drug use were manically running underground. It was a time when the light and dark worlds coexisted under the veneer of splendor and clamour, from which uncloaked the trait, temperament and liveliness of Yau Ma Tei, a grass-root paradise that never sleeps.

The Afterglow of its Heyday

Yau Ma Tei, once a foremost district, began to lose color in the 1970s when Hong Kong’s transport network improved further. The opening of Cross Habour Tunnel and MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in 1972 and 1980, for example, brought down the demand for ferries and piers. After 65 years of illustrious service, ferries in Yau Ma Tei ceased operation altogether in 1998 to make way for reclamation and the launching of Western Habour Crossing. The broadened, lengthened Nathan Road outstripped Shanghai Street and spawned a new prominent commercial zone. Buses that used to pass through Shanghai Street were directed to Nathan Road, causing an abrupt drop of pedestrian flow and thus trading activities in the area. Land redevelopment and other government housing policies drove most tanka, the boat people, to move onshore; the Typhoon Shelter became more and more unpeopled, and was gradually reduced to a mere vestige of its glamorous past.

Yau Ma Tei in the present day faces serious problems of aging population, infrastructural dilapidation and slackened economic growth. Its lagging behind, however, had preserved at least a fragmented reflection of the demeanor of the old Hong Kong. In the light of dawn, decrepit old buildings exude the fragrance of history, and tourists were still ambling around Yung Shue Tau Square and Temple Street, which were as glaring as in the past…

West Kowloon Cultural District — the Afterlife

Shanghai Street today is a capsule of memory: thirty some old shops, which aged over forty years, remain, and a handful of reputable hundred-year-old shops persist in keeping alive the attachment of the older generation to the time bygone. Traditional industries and handicrafts linger in spite of their sheer lack of disciples, which very likely means a perishing of craftsmanship and the shops’ subsequent closure. The relatively low rentals and living costs attract many South Asian ethnic minorities (Nepalese, Pakistani and Indians, to name a few) to live and work in Yau Ma Tei, most of them taking up laborious jobs or doing businesses like barbershop, stall, food store and video rental. Though nonnative, these ethnic groups live peacefully in Yau Ma Tei, enjoying social lives both within and outside their ethnic circles under the hospitable atmosphere of the place. All these get to be the seedbed of new forces of economic and cultural growth in Yau Ma Tei.

With the completion of the West Kowloon reclamation project, new MTR stations, namely the Kowloon Station, Austin Station and the Airport Express Line (AEL) Stations, are constructed on the reclaimed land west of Jordon Road Pier and around the China Ferry Terminal. Residential and commercial real estates are developed above the stations, integrating with the MTR network. The government is planning to make the area the terminus of Express Rail Link, which runs between West Kowloon and Shenzhen; also underway is the establishment of West Kowloon Cultural District north to the reclaimed land, a project to boost the city’s cultural and artistic development. Foreseeably it will be the cultural hub and creative landmark of Hong Kong.

A question remains: will the charm of Yau Ma Tei, both in the past and at present, be forgotten amidst all the upheavals and transformations? Or will it glitter afresh, bringing us another legendary epoch with the revitalization of old urban area and the development of West Kowloon?