Cool Tai Hang

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We recently finished our move to Tai Hang, a working class-turned hipster neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, south of Victoria Park and nestled between the crazy shopping mecca of Causeway Bay and the relatively quiet Tin Hau.

Tai Hang from our balcony.

Tai Hang from our balcony.

Tai Hang is a small, irregular grid packed with residential buildings, shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving different kinds of cuisine, especially Chinese and Japanese, like in the rest of the city.

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According to some coworkers, the reason Hong Kong is so full of Japanese restaurants is because locals look up to Japan as a “cool” and advanced place, and therefore Japanese cultural imperialism has taken hold over the years.  I suppose this is not very different than us Turks looking up to nearby Western Europe, although in our case there is a greater deal of inferiority complex due to the differences in wealth and development.  Hong Kong and Japan are similarly developed places, but Japan always seems to maintain a slight edge.  What is more interesting is that Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation during WWII and I would have thought the local population would not want to have anything to do with Japan or the Japanese culture anymore.  Is this another example of Stockholm Syndrome?  Or maybe I am just another ignorant gwei lo* who doesn’t understand the intricacies of Asian politics, history or culture.

Typical discreet Japanese restaurant entrance.  Why so private?  It's almost as if they provide dodgy services that just happen to come with sushi on the side.

Typical discreet Japanese restaurant entrance. Why so private? It’s almost as if they provide dodgy services that come with sushi on the side.

According to Google Maps, the uninteresting-looking hills with shrubs, winding roads and residential blocks south of our grid seem to be the actual center of Tai Hang.  I think this is because the original village (and the cluster of squatter shacks that replaced it in the wake of post-WWII Chinese mainland immigration), was apparently set up on those hills, on the banks of some river or stream which no longer exists.  The grid area that is known as Tai Hang today was just the point where that river reached the sea (Tai Hang literally means “big water channel” in Cantonese).  Careful readers have probably noticed that I mentioned there is a park to the north, rather than the sea.  So what’s the explanation?  Well, as I found out, Victoria Park is actually built on landfill, on a reclaimed part of Causeway Bay (the actual bay, not the shopping district – I know, it’s a bit confusing).  At first I got a bit pissed off thinking that we could have been living on the shore, but then realized the apartment would have probably cost twice as much and we wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway.

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I mentioned that Tai Hang is a hipster area, but it feels like a newcomer to the scene and is probably still a few record stores, tattoo parlors and international coffee chains away from full-blown hipsterdom.  If your thing is to check out vintage clothes stores while sipping your Starbucks latte – or whatever else you hipster types do – your best bet would still be Causeway Bay – if you can stand the crowds.  Right now, Tai Hang basically consists of tiny restaurants with barely any sitting room, Cheers-type neighborhood bars, car repair garages (these kinds of industrial joints seem a prerequisite for any “cool” neighborhood), and your standard fare grocery stores, dry cleaners, etc.  Other “finds” in our area include oyster bars (yes, plural), Western-style delis, wine shops and what might easily be the world’s most pretentious hair salon, with a piano played by the owner dude when he is not cutting hair.  It is a women’s only hair salon and my wife actually loved the piano thing – the “pretentious” comment is my addition.

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Easily the most unflattering landmark of our area is the Warren Street public bathroom, which, unfortunately, happens to be on our street.  The saving grace is that our building’s entrance is from the next street, so we do not endure any stench on our way home.  As if public toilets weren’t gross enough, they also had to place the area’s garbage collection facility in the same block, further adding to the charm.  The compound and its surroundings are actually kept quite tidy, but I guess it’s just the thought of it.  I wish I could just cut and paste that whole block somewhere else to make our neighborhood “perfect.”

Exterior wall detail from the Lin Fa temple.  Love the pomegranates!

Exterior wall detail from the Lin Fa temple. Love the pomegranates!

An interesting thing about Tai Hang is the annual Fire Dragon Parade, on the aptly named Fire Dragon Path, which is a pedestrian-only street I take to and from the MTR station every day.  The tradition is actually not very old.  In a nutshell, a plague hit the village in late nineteenth century and the villagers made a fire dragon and paraded it through the area to shoo the disease away.  The plague ended shortly thereafter, and the Fire Dragon Parade became a Tai Hang tradition.

Christmas carolers.

Christmas carolers.

Bye Kitty.

Bye Kitty.

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* Cantonese slang that roughly means “white man” – recently learned this from a Hong Kong-native coworker and have since been hearing it quite often, especially when waiters talk to each other when seating me at the restaurant, no doubt assuming I do not understand a word of Cantonese.  I am not sure if they are referring to me or to the English menu (i.e. the one for white men”), but in any case this is not a derogatory term today, so one should not feel insulted if they hear it being used by locals in their presence.

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