A city of contrasts, Hong Kong by day is filled with the hustle and bustle of cars and noise. But as night falls on the streets of Kowloon, cars are replaced by people and, instead of exhaust, mouth-watering scents hang in the air.
Just north, within walking distance of the touristy part of Tsim Sha Tsui’s waterfront, the luxurious Peninsula Hotel (the oldest hotel in Hong Kong) and exclusive designer boutiques on Nathan Road, lies the Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood.
We specifically chose to stay in Yau Ma Tei on our first visit to Hong Kong so that we could experience some local flavor first-hand. I looked out the window of my hotel on Nathan Road, watching the laundry hanging outside the windows of the high-rise across the street. The clothes swayed in the wind, immune to the smog created by the double-decker buses down below.
Being first-generation Canadian-born Chinese, I found myself unaccustomed to the hectic pace of my temporary home. Instead of struggling through the crowds and choking on the exhaust fumes of the traffic along Nathan Road, my husband and I walked along Shanghai Street.
In the morning, en route for our morning bowl of congee (rice porridge), we mingled with the Po-Pos (Chinese grannies) as they shopped the local stores for kitchenware and groceries. For lunch, we munched on savory barbeque pork buns and sweet egg tarts fresh from the ovens that seemed to appear on every street corner.
By late afternoon, Shanghai Street would begin its transformation. Where earlier the Po-Pos shopped for produce, barbequed meats and housewares, street vendors started to appear. They robotically lined up their displays of jewelery, electronics, t-shirts, trinkets, socks and knock-off purses on temporary tables and racks. It’s a routine that they perform nightly, like a dance that never ends.
By sunset, folding tables and stools from the dai pai dongs (food stalls) filled the street. Where mere hours earlier the streets were packed with cars, now hungry diners sat and ate al fresco, nestled in among the white lines on the road. The delicious aromas of clay pot rice, crispy oyster omelettes and delicate steamed fish with ginger, green onions and soy sauce wafted through the air.
As the sky turned black with the stars high overhead, the shoppers and diners returned to their homes, the street cleaners appeared and by sunrise, the day began anew.