An Alternative Neighbourhood: Sham Shui Po

Hong Kong lacks diversity on the scale of London say, or other ‘world’ cities. It has its own delights true, of old China, of a port city, and too the uniqueness of a so recently postcolonial country. But it’s stead fast in its limbo between china and the west, and in some ways is defined by this – with little room for much else. Sham Shui Po however, is a pocket of multiculturalism in outer Kowloon.

A neighbourhood patched together from the cities minorities, an undercurrent of organised chaos bathing in neon red. Some say it’s reminiscent of the Island in times gone by, a vibrancy that can only be achieved through multiculturalism, the cities poor and an influx of new ideas.

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There’s a visible diversity in Sham Shui Po unlike any other neighbourhood in Hong Kong, a prominence of west Asians but nonetheless ethnicities a plenty milling about. The eclectic and unpolished feel of the area is refreshing; it goes against the grain of the citywide move toward the modern, and dramatically against the pretentious haunts of Island.

It is a haphazard combination of hawker stalls, 20-dollar bargain bucket shops and street drinkers. The locals buzz about their daily lives to the continuous chatter of different Asian languages. Many shop shutters are down until at least early afternoon, the bustle increases when the bubbling broths and steaming dumplings fill the hot and dense air with a confusion of aromas.

By night as you weave around the streets truck-fulls of knock off goods, used household wares and broken electronics are laid out in the streets. Everyone’s a seller, and everyone has something to sell. Be it a food blender with one missing fitting, Mao’s little red book in 3 different languages, carefully placed film cameras, or dog-eared, smutty Asian porn. It’s a rummager’s, and an anthropologist’s, paradise.

Poor neighbourhoods have long become the culturally alternative epicentres. It is almost testament that the creative types gravitate toward the nastier areas of a city, the run down, ex industrial, usually multicultural.  As the artistically oppressed search for the grit and grime to inspire their creative flows, the once local no-go areas become overrun with the young, trend – and wallet – conscious.

 

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It’s neighbour Shek Kip Mei, is now so beyond being the shantytown that housed the first waves of refugees. In the 1950s a fire destroyed the ramshackle community and the government created an abrasive jungle of public housing. Now, in typical fashion, the greying area has been hailed as one of the new art scenes in Hong Kong.

While it’s tidier neighbour has been given a lick of paint from government money, it seems that Sham Shui Po is still finding its way up the to do list. And although there is an oriental-fusion charm to the slightly decrepit buildings and old-China traders, there is a more sombre side to this ragged little zone.

The presence of makeshift mattresses in almost every subway, though disturbing as is always, is a reminder that the billion dollar developments are squeezing all the poor into areas like Sham Shui Po. Not just the artists or alternatives looking to betray the norm, but the homeless and marginalised.

But don’t dismiss Sham Shui Po, visit for a few hours in the evening, get amongst the global grime and a bustle. Eat the street food, buy something to collect dust, and export yourself out of glossy Hong Kong for a little while.

 


 

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