HONG KONG, CHINA: THERE AND BACK AGAIN IN A 'DING DING'

HONG KONG’S IN­TRIGU­ING OLD NEIGH­BOUR­HOODS ARE BEST EX­PLORED VIA THE CITY’S AN­TIQUE TWO-STOREY TRAMS.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY PENNY WAT­SON

Hong Kong’s in­trigu­ing old neigh­bour­hoods are best ex­plored via the city’s an­tique two-storey trams.

Ever trav­elled on a ‘ding ding’? You may have, but you just didn’t know it. A ding ding is one of Hong Kong’s ex­ceed­ingly char­ac­ter­is­tic old her­itage trams, the tee­ter­ing two-storey va­ri­ety that trun­dle a slow-go­ing route east and west along Hong Kong Is­land’s north­ern coast. The en­dear­ing nick­name is ono­matopoeic. When­ever the trams pull in and out of a tram stop or go head-to-head with that other trans­port icon, the lit­tle red Toy­ota taxi, the high-pitched ‘ding ding’ is the old-fash­ioned warn­ing sound that sings out into the traf­fic. On a busy day in this ex­u­ber­ant city, that ding ding can turn into a ca­coph­ony of ding ding ding ding ding­ing. When this hap­pens, be­lieve me, you want to be on the tram, not in its path.

Ding dings came into be­ing in 1904, on a sin­gle-track sys­tem that ran from Kennedy Town in the west to Cause­way Bay. The ex­ten­sion to Shau Kei Wan at the east­ern end of the is­land was added later and by 1922 the loop around the race­course in Happy Val­ley, the only de­vi­a­tion from the rel­a­tively straight line, was com­plete. In 1925, the first en­closed dou­ble-decker came into be­ing and the ar­chaic ex­te­rior design has hardly changed since, al­beit for the flashy advertising cam­paigns that now dis­tin­guish some of them.

Much like a pas­sage on one of the Star fer­ries – those cen­tury-old an­tique ves­sels that still ply Vic­to­ria Har­bour, a ding ding ride is a quin­tes­sen­tial Hong Kong ex­pe­ri­ence. Even bet­ter, tak­ing a jump-on jump-off ap­proach pro­vides a nov­elty, eas­ily nav­i­ga­ble and, at HK$2.30 (AU$0.37) a ride, is a cheap means of ex­plor­ing some of the small and in­trigu­ing neigh­bour­hoods that have de­vel­oped along the route.

She­ung Wan is one of the first stops head­ing west from Cen­tral to­wards Kennedy Town. Like older res­i­den­tial pock­ets in cities the world over, this one has evolved into a hip­ster hot spot with hidey-hole eater­ies, cor­ner cafes, ar­ti­san sour­dough bak­eries and cool designer re­tail­ers. Pre­pare for a steep walk to the in­trigu­ing Hong Kong Mu­seum of Med­i­cal Sciences in a stat­uesque old-her­itage build­ing, then saunter back down through some of the lit­tle tree-shaded pock­ets. The Po­lice Mar­ried Head­quar­ters, or PMQ, is a ren­o­vated her­itage build­ing with 100 or so stu­dio-cum-shops ded­i­cated to

Hong Kong’s craft and design set. On nearby Gough Street, the first She­ung Wan street to spruik con­tem­po­rary shops, check out home­wares at Home­less and French kids’ clothes in Pe­tite Bazaar. Fur­ther west, Tai Ping Shan is cob­bled and boasts cutesy places like Teakha Tea House and vin­tage shop InBetween. Sniff the air for the in­cense em­a­nat­ing from Pak Sing Tem­ple.

She­ung Wan seam­lessly merges into the smaller but equally in­trigu­ing next-door neigh­bour­hood of Sai Ying Pun, lov­ingly known as the Pun. From the tram, it’s recog­nis­able by the tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine shops that still line Des Voeux

Road West. Step un­der the old awnings to see big jars of dried shark fins, con­tain­ers of dried antlers and sim­i­larly ex­otic in­gre­di­ents. In the grid of streets be­hind, older-style traders sell bam­boo steam­ers and kitchen sup­plies and there’s a whiff of dried seafood com­ing from shops sell­ing salted cod, sea cu­cum­bers, dried abalone and lap cheong, a de­li­cious Chi­nese sausage. These tra­di­tional trades are in­ter­spersed with Gen Y favourites such as Ping Pong Gin­tone­ria, a neon-lit gin bar in an old ta­ble ten­nis hall.

Back on the tram, con­tinue to Kennedy Town, fondly known as K-Town, a wa­ter­side sub­urb at the end of the line. This area, which, like the Pun, is newly gen­tri­fied with the help of an

MTR train sta­tion, still has shops with red plas­tic lamp­shades hang­ing over the fruit and vegeta­bles, but they’re likely to be next door to global eater­ies such as Bistro Du Vin (French), Fugazi (Ja­panese) and Chino (Mex­i­can). Davis Street and New Praya prom­e­nade have a sea­side am­bi­ence with eater­ies that have ta­bles tak­ing in moody views across the wa­ter to the city’s dis­tant ports.

Head­ing West in the op­po­site di­rec­tion past Cen­tral, the tram route doglegs past the old colo­nial gov­ern­ment build­ings on one side and the ar­chi­tec­turally in­trigu­ing HSBC build­ing on the other. Soon af­ter, alight in Wan Chai. This for­mer coastal fish­ing vil­lage, now hemmed in by re­claimed land, is one of the city’s busiest, with a cross-sec­tion of wet mar­ket streets, world-class restau­rants, mega high-rises and old shop­houses. For an eye on the old days, nav­i­gate to the Blue House, an his­toric ten­e­ment block now op­er­at­ing as a mu­seum, and lovely old Pak Tai Tem­ple, hid­den in the back­streets. The Wan Chai Street Mar­ket is a sen­sory ad­ven­ture with stalls sell­ing ev­ery­thing from pig’s ears and flap­ping fish to cheap fac­tory clothes and plas­tic-fan­tas­tic toys. Star Street Precinct, in­clud­ing the quiet en­clave of Sau Wa Fong, is, in con­trast, a heav­enly pocket of calm with pedes­tri­anised streets sport­ing lo­cal bou­tiques like Kapok, hid­den bars such as Ted’s Look­out and edgy art gal­leries.

For a party vibe, head to Ship Street where 22 Ships serves au­then­tic Span­ish tapas and Bo In­no­va­tion has a de­gus­ta­tion menu that traces the his­tory of Hong Kong food.

Take in one of the world’s busiest pedes­trian cross­ings at Cause­way Bay but do it from the top deck of the tram and get off a stop or two later near the charis­matic low-rise neigh­bour­hoods of Tin Hau and Tai Hang. Once the home of the car me­chanic trade, Tai Hang’s grid of streets, wedged into the hills be­hind Cause­way Bay, has qui­etly got its groove on as an en­chant­ing place for a stroll among es­o­teric shops, small one-off bars and spe­cial­ity eater­ies. The neigh­bour­hood’s

“The Wan Chai street mar­kets are a sen­sory ad­ven­ture with stalls sell­ing ev­ery­thing from pig’s ears and flap­ping fish to cheap fac­tory clothes and plas­tic-fan­tas­tic toys”

most re­cent ad­di­tion is Lit­tle Tai Hang, a res­i­den­tial ho­tel with rooms that have ar­ti­sanal touches and views across Vic­to­ria Gar­dens to the har­bour. Celebrity chef May Chow’s Se­cond Draft is here, with 20-some­thing craft brews on tap and, up above it, home-style Ital­ian joint Bond has a good vibe with an al fresco deck. For a dose of cul­ture step into Lin Fa Kung to glimpse the lo­tus lanterns glow­ing in the dark, or the

18th cen­tury Tin Hau Tem­ple. The lo­cal food stalls also rate, in­clud­ing Bing Kee Tea Stall known for its old-school dé­cor and pork chop noo­dles.

Speak­ing of food, you’d be for­given for jump­ing off the tram at North Point for the sole pur­pose of track­ing down Tim Ho Wan, an off­shoot of the orig­i­nal dim sum restau­rant that shot to fame about a decade ago for serv­ing the cheap­est Miche­lin-starred dish in the world. Lo­cated in the midst of one of Hong Kong’s big­gest hous­ing es­tates, it’s as much an off-map ad­ven­ture as it is a mecca for food­ies hunt­ing down that famed bar­be­cue pork bun. Other gourmet go-tos in North Point are Chun Yeung Street Mar­ket, sell­ing Fu­jian spe­cial­ties such as taro cake and Fu­jian meat­balls. Housed in the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal build­ing, the wet mar­ket is where rowdy Tung Po Kitchen serves seafood favourites such as deep-fried grouper.

Up ahead, the tram con­tin­ues to Shau Kei Wan. If you’ve got the time, stay on the line. If not, save it for an­other day. Hong Kong trams have been rat­tling this line for over a cen­tury and they’re not go­ing any­where soon. Ding ding! •

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Penny Wat­son.

Open­ing im­age: A Hong Kong ‘Ding Ding’, the classic and unique style of dou­ble-decker tram of Hong Kong. Clock­wise from right: Dried seafood pro­duce; Hong Kong street traf­fic; Dried seafood jars; Ping Pong ‘keep your body fit’ neon sign.

©JonathanMaloney.

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