A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining the Hong Kong Tourism Board for a beautiful neighborhood walk in the West Kowloon district. West Kowloon is quickly growing in popularity, thanks to brand new exhibits, art museums, restaurants, hotels, and parks popping up around the neighborhood as it sits near the picturesque waterfront of Victoria Harbour. West Kowloon is also home to the tallest building in Hong Kong – the iconic International Commerce Centre (ICC) – which proudly displays a beautiful and artful light show every night on the skyscraper. But inside the West Kowloon district are little neighborhoods thriving in culture and history.
One thing I love about Hong Kong is the city’s ability to beautifully blend modern and contemporary with the classical and antiquity. Old Hong Kong and new Hong Kong alluringly come together in places such as West Kowloon, where you can still find treasures of Hong Kong from decades past in neighborhoods like Yau Ma Tei and Jordan. On this visit, we got to experience both the old and the new, celebrating one of the liveliest areas of the city. With that said, grab some tea and come take a neighborhood walk with me!
Stop One: Liu Ma Kee
On a warm Saturday afternoon, our first stop was in Yau Ma Tei, on a quiet street beside a small park, facing residential complexes and a basketball court, which currently being used by a group of active teens playing a game in the warm sun. It was here that we stepped inside Lia Ma Kee, a family-owned business since 1905 specializing in fermented bean curd. Founded by his great-grandfather and great-uncle 116 years ago, Jay Liu now runs the shop and eagerly welcomed us inside. Their famous fermented bean curd, along with the other condiments they make from scratch in the shop, have no additives so it’s really easy to see why they are intentionally sought after and so well known.
Fermented bean curd is a lovely marriage of salty and sweet, specifically used as a flavor enhancer or condiment. Since it’s texture is similar to that of a creamy cheese, it should come as no surprise that Jay Liu decided to begin making and selling fermented bean curd carbonara, made with garlic fermented bean curd sauce (it’s his mom’s own recipe from 1990s). With their items so popular, Liu Ma Kee has posted recipes on the outside of their shop to tell you how to make some incredible dishes with their fermented bean curd (including their carbonara) and other equally delicious condiments and sauces.
Liu Ma Kee, Yau Ma Tei, Min St, 1-7號廖孖記樓地下
Stop Two: Cheung Shing Fans Factory
For those who know me, you know that I have a deep love for fragrance appreciation, as scents are extremely important to me in establishing an atmosphere or creating a vivid memory. My friends tease me for my dedicated love of candles, incense, oil diffusers, and perfumes. The truth is, fragrance is such an immense part of my everyday life, and Chinese culture is rich in fragrance appreciation. In fact, the name “Hong Kong” is believed to be derived from the Cantonese hēung góng, which phonetically translates as “fragrant harbour.” Incense factories were quite common in northern Kowloon, thus making the nearby harbours of Hong Kong quite fragrant.
Located on Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei and just a few blocks from the famous Temple Street Night Market, the family-owned Cheung Shing Fans Factory began as a pioneer in the sandalwood fan industry in Hong Kong. Now one of the leading makers of incense sticks, the generations-run shop has had quite a history when it comes to sandalwood fans (now a rarity). First founded in 1958 by Lo Che-tak and his friend, Cheung Shing Fans Factory specialized in selling handmade sandalwood fans for export as well as incense sticks for worship.
Each artfully and articulately designed mold was initially made by hand, meaning one person could only make a few fans each year. Owning a fan was a high status symbol. Eventually, Lo Che-tak developed machinery to assist in the production. But as the prices of sandalwood increased and the number of skilled craftsmen for the task decreased, production on sandalwood fans stopped around 20 years ago. Now, they are a beautiful rarity. Although production on the fans stopped, the use of incense increased. Back during production of the fans, the sandalwood dust from creating such elegant fans would be collected and dried on the roof (incense require drying naturally in the sun). This would create a powdered incense, which would be delicately filled inside a beautifully designed mold. You could then light the pattern after the mold was lifted. A more common way to enjoy incense these days is the use of incense sticks, which I personally prefer. The sandalwood incense sticks at Cheung Shing Fans Factory do not have added fragrance or chemicals to them – they are completely natural (something else I also prefer). I was lucky to get to take some sandalwood incense home and I have been obsessed ever since (I currently have one burning as I write this post!). Sandalwood incense calms me, as well as calms my frequently queasy stomach. I can’t wait to return to Cheung Shing Fans Factory for more!
Cheung Shing Fans Factory, Yau Ma Tei, Shanghai St, 185號, 171-195 Shanghai Street, 號地下
Stop Three: Tin Hau Temple
This was my first temple visit in Hong Kong, so this temple is already special in my heart. The temple complex was recently declared monuments in May 2020, with most of the temples having been built back in the late 19th century. In 2000, they became a Grade 1 historic building, meaning every effort possible must be made to preserve this temple complex. Tin Hau Temple used to face the harbour, and was a common place for sailors to pray for safe sea voyages, but now sits a few miles inland due to land reclamation. It is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Yau Ma Tei, sharing its name with the nearby popular Temple Street.
It is still an active temple, so while we were on our visit there were several people scattered throughout the complex deep in prayer. I observed one woman present offerings to the gods, and another man rang a bell to awaken the gods just before his prayer. In the corner of the temple was a golden dragon boat, beckoning worshippers to place strips of gold on certain locations on the boat for a specific prayer. Placing gold on the sailors is a prayer for work, placing gold on the boat is a prayer for wealth, and placing gold on the stern is a prayer for work and wealth for everyone (I placed my strip of gold on the stern). It’s very important not to touch the gold, or your prayer won’t be answered, so you use two small pieces of paper to place the gold very gently on the boat.
Tin Hau Temple Complex, 56-58 Temple Street, Temple St, Yau Ma Tei
Stop Four: Tung Nam Lou Art Hotel
For our final stop on our neighborhood walk, we had the chance to visit the Tung Nam Lou Art Hotel in the nearby neighborhood of Jordan. After hopping on a quick bus and passing the famous Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market (which comes to life at midnight when all the fresh produce arrive), we arrived at the former seafood restaurant-turned-boutique hotel. Tung Nam Lou Art Hotel is more than just a hotel – it’s an art haven for those seeking a bit of an artful escape in the heart of Kowloon. Each floor is dedicated to hundreds of local art, focusing a lot on local artists. On the 3rd floor, you’ll find small rooms begging to be the scene of your next Instagram shot, with one room designed to look like you’re having tea with Alice in Wonderland.
The top floors are another special treat, being known as the House of Memories. Vintage antiques are beautifully displayed throughout the two floors, including an old telephone and a working gramophone from the early 20th century (fellow Downton Abbey lovers will squeal like I did!). Something else that caught my eye was a newspaper clipping from April 1912, just two days after the sinking of the Titanic, with the front page devoted to the maritime disaster.
Before we said goodbye to Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, we sat down for some tea overlooking Kowloon on the top floor at the hotel. We were lucky it was a clear, sunny day, as you could see buildings for miles. It was the perfect ending to a lovely afternoon that introduced me even more to the city I’ve been calling home.
Tung Nam Lou Art Hotel, 68 Portland St, Yau Ma Tei