Walk on the wild side, along paths less trodden
Wong Nai Chung Road is known for being the path to happiness: It surrounds Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Happy Valley racecourse where, every Wednesday, punters try their luck at a ticket to financial freedom.
Many people on their way to watch the races are oblivious to the four cemeteries along the western side of Wong Nai Chung. Here, in the Muslim Cemetery, St. Michael Catholic Cemetery, Hong Kong Cemetery and Parsee Cemetery, the history of the city is written across crumbling gravestones and mausoleums, forever hushed next to all the racing action.
Walkin is hoping to change that by bringing locals and visitors seeking in-depth knowledge of unusual sites. Founded this summer by four friends who love and know their city well, the group offers 120- to 150-minute themed and district-based walking tours.
All the founders double as guides and have day jobs throughout the week. Walkin is currently operated only over the weekends, with a rotating schedule of different tours.
From Monday through Friday, Paul Chan works in finance; Chow Chung- wah writes for travel publications, including Lonely Planet; Dora Choi is a television producer; and Haider Kikabhoy is an editor and translator.
Once Saturday dawns, the team turns into walking and talking vessels for obscure facts and did-you-know commentaries, unveiling hidden corners of the city to budding history buffs. In just a few short months since their inception, Walkin has risen to become TripAdvisor’s number 12 of 98 activities in Hong Kong.
I joined Walkin’s inaugural cemeteries tour, held on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Our group assembled in the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel at the very end of Queen’s Road East, and Chow was our guide.
“Happy Valley isn’t happy because of the racetrack,” she begins. “It is a euphemism for our final resting place.”
Our group consisted of tourists, expats and locals who trouped after her as she led us to Hong Kong Cemetery’s entrance. Once within its gates, the sounds of nearby traffic along Wong Nai Chung and Canal roads receded and we were surrounded by the peace and tranquility of its well-manicured gardens.
That couldn’t be said about the actual grave sites. Many of the older ones were sadly neglected, as the cemetery housed expats including tai pans and missionaries from Hong Kong’s infancy. There were women who died during childbirth or who fell during the plague of 1894. I spotted a few familiar names like Pottinger and pointed them out to Kikabhoy.
“It’s an unusual surname, so he was most likely related to our first colonial governor Henry Pottinger (1789-1856),” agrees Kikabhoy.
“The Hong Kong government takes care of the cemetery’s grounds, but it is up to the deceased’s descendents to take care of the graves themselves,” Chow notes, as she continued the walk. “You can see that many of the headstones have eroded over time — many of these people probably don’t have relatives who live in Hong Kong anymore.”
On another tour, the theme was urban myths and aimed to expose some of the city’s most popular legends. “We use the term myth loosely,” Kikabhoy says, as he proceeds to tell tall tales about how popular culture relates to each of the sites we’re visiting.
We started at the Hopewell Center and moved onto places like the 1937 Wanchai market with The Zenith, a new residential tower, grafted on top of it. We moved onto the neoclassical 1920s Grade 1 historical building Blue House before climbing up the hill to Pak Tai Temple.
“This temple includes a chamber that pays homage to Bao Zheng, an 11th century Chinese government official who still stands as a symbol for justice,” says Kikabhoy, drawing connections between the architectural gems we were looking at to how we live our lives today. “As recently as last night, he was being depicted on TVB serials.”
Haider Kikabhoy (right) leads a tour of Wanchai.