Liam Fitzpatrick only lived in the Sham Shui Po police station for a couple of years, but it was a time that forever shaped his feelings about Hong Kong.
‘My father was the resident police inspector, flying the lone flag in a seething quarter of crime and poverty, so we occupied the top floor of the station, which was built in 1924,’ he says. ‘There was obviously a lot of poverty and struggle, but what I saw was riotous Cantonese colour: the shop fronts, the street markets, the noodle stalls and the hawkers. The Chinatowns in Hollywood B movies come nowhere near to being this good. Sham Shui Po is my spiritual home, in a way. It made me.’
Things have changed in the 45 years since then. Sham Shui Po has become a multicultural mosaic home to recent immigrants from mainland China, South Asia and Africa. There are trendy cafes and designer boutiques. ‘It’s cleaned up enormously,’ says Fitzpatrick. But the markets are still there, along with the ebullient street life – ‘all the energy and shabbiness and colour of old Kowloon’, as he puts it. And that combination of the old-fashioned and the avant-garde makes it one of the most alluring – and quintessential – neighbourhoods in Hong Kong.
Sham Shui Po, which means Deep Water Pier in Cantonese, originally comprised a few fishing villages on the shores of Victoria Harbour. It became an industrial and trading hub after the UK leased the New Territories in 1898, and a grid of streets was laid out to accommodate the growing number of workshops, factories and tenements. After World War II, a surge of refugees from mainland China fuelled the industrial growth, but it also put a strain on the area’s housing stock. Shantytown spread like moss over the nearby hillsides and dozens of people squeezed into single apartments. Fitzpatrick remembers entire families living on the streets.
At the same time, the neighbourhood’s shops drew people from far and wide. Electronics, antiques, fabric, buttons, leather, toys – you could find it all in Sham Shui Po. And you still can. Every day, the neighbourhood’s market streets heave with people looking for the perfect circuit board, an affordable pair of shoes or a yard of colourful fabric.
Lately, they’ve been joined by a new wave of creative institutions and businesses. The trend started a decade ago, when a factory building in Shek Kip Mei – one of the former shantytowns above Sham Shui Po – was converted into the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a cluster of art studios and galleries, with a theatre, dumpling house and coffee shop. In 2010, the Savannah College of Art and Design opened a Hong Kong branch in the restored North Kowloon Magistracy, a handsome courthouse built in 1960.
There have been more grassroots efforts, too. Patricia Choi’s grandfather was a Sham Shui Po tailor who eventually bought most of the units in a Lai Chi Kok Road building. When he passed away, she took over its management and began converting empty spaces into a cultural venue called Wontonmeen. There are affordable studio spaces upstairs, a speciality coffee shop on the ground floor and a space filled with vintage Hong Kong memorabilia that often plays hosts to talks, movies and live music.
A few blocks away, street art has brought new life to building facades. Huge, colourful murals from the 2016 HKwalls festival still adorn shop shutters. On Tai Nan Street, Spanish street artist Okuda has transformed a grey 11-storey building into a riotously colourful geometric bear.
It’s that new energy that drew travel journalist Rita Chan and her partner, Pan Tang, to the neighbourhood. ‘It used to be really weird to come here if you’re a tourist,’ she says. But the out-of-the-way feel of Sham Shui Po’s old wholesale district – much quieter than the market district to the north – appealed to them, so they decided to open a ground-floor studio. The result is Midway, which doubles as a shop as well as a workspace. Chan has curated a selection of handmade products she sourced during her travels. Many items come from Japan, but there are plenty of homegrown products, too, like illustrated plates handmade by Hong Kong painter and ceramicist Tat Tau.
In recent years, changes in China’s manufacturing sector have eliminated the need for many of Sham Shui Po’s middleman wholesalers, creating dozens of vacant spaces around the neighbourhood. That has drawn new enterprises like Form Society, where you can browse through books, catch an art exhibition, attend a craft or design workshop or simply have a coffee.
A few minutes away at Bound by Hillywood, a pastel-hued cafe and bar well stocked with local craft beer and decorated with neon signs, members of Hong Kong’s small hip-hop community stage an impromptu rap battle in the back room. A few hours later, members of a local indie band pull up in a van and head inside for a drink.
Bound is one of the reasons local illustrator Jason Li finds himself going to Sham Shui Po more and more these days. When he isn’t making woodcut prints in the workshops for his new graphic novel, The House on Horse Mountain, he is watching the scene at Bound.
‘It seems like Sham Shui Po is in a good spot right now,’ he says. Given how quickly Hong Kong changes, it’s hard to say how long that will last. But for now, he’s enjoying it.