The Central District
Start: Pedder Street, Central District.
Finish: SoHo nightlife district, Central.
Time: About 4 to 5 hours.
Best Times: Monday through Friday afternoons, when markets are in full swing.
Worst Times: Sunday, when some antiques shops and Man Wa Lane are closed; Monday, when the Museum of Medical Sciences is closed.
Whereas the Central District was developed as the colonial financial center of Hong Kong and is dominated by Western-style architecture, the Western District has always served as the commercial center for Chinese businesses. Today, especially in the Sheung Wan neighborhood, it remains a fascinating area of family-owned shops and businesses, including those dealing in traditional herbs, ginseng, antiques, preserved fish, name chops, coffins, and funeral items. Hong Kong's oldest temple; a market dealing in curios, fakes, and antiques; and an interesting museum comparing traditional Chinese and Western medicine are just some of the things you'll see in my favorite area of Hong Kong.
Named after Lieutenant William Pedder, Hong Kong's first harbor master, Pedder Street connects two of Central's major thoroughfares: Des Voeux Road Central (with its tram tracks) and Queen's Road Central. It is most well known to visitors, however, for its shopping, including:
1. The Landmark
This high-end shopping complex has brand-name boutiques, including Gucci, Tiffany & Co., Vivienne Tam, Manolo Blahnik, and a Harvey Nichols department store.
Across Pedder Street is a nondescript building, the:
2. Pedder Building
At 12 Pedder St., the Pedder Building has been a shopping center since 1926. It is now famous for its dozens of small factory outlets and clothing boutiques; look for the small elevator that services the first to seventh floors. I usually take the elevator up to the sixth floor (there are no shops on the seventh floor) and then work my way down. Be aware, however, that just a handful of shops here are true factory outlets. The rest are simply taking advantage of the location to set up boutiques to sell their usual goods at regular prices; some secondhand shops sell used designerwear. If you have the time, you might want to hunt for some bargains here.
Also located in the Pedder Building, but with its own entrance to the right of the one leading to the factory outlets, is the not-to-be-missed (yet easily overlooked due to its modest size):
3. Shanghai Tang
This small, chic shop (tel. 852/2525 7333)is a reproduction of a Shanghai clothing department store as it might have looked in the 1930s. It offers two floors of clothing, home decor, and accessories, including traditional Chinese clothing with a contemporary twist, jewelry, pillowcases, photo albums, beach towels, stationery, and more. The store also employs Shanghainese tailors who offer made-to-measure clothing.
Exit Shanghai Tang from its lowest level, where you'll find yourself on a narrow lane with makeshift stalls offering the services of locksmiths and shoe repairmen. Turn left here and then the next right (at Theatre Lane) to reach Des Voeux Road Central (the one with the tram tracks), where you should turn left. In about 2 minutes you will come to:
4. Li Yuen Street East & Li Yuen Street West
These two parallel pedestrian lanes, which rise steeply to your left, are packed with stalls that sell clothing and accessories, including costume jewelry, Chinese jackets, handbags, belts, and even bras, daily from noon to 7pm. If you see something you like, be sure to bargain for it. Walk up Li Yuen Street East, take a right, and then head back down Li Yuen Street West.
After walking down Li Yuen Street West, turn left back onto Des Voeux Road Central and continue walking west, keeping your eyes peeled for the:
5. Tak Wing Pawn Shop
Located at 72 Des Voeux Rd. Central, this is one of Hong Kong's many pawnshops, but it's easy to overlook and walk on by. Unlike pawnshops in other parts of the world, which double as stores selling unclaimed personal belongings after a prescribed length of time, in Hong Kong pawnshops simply hold items in storage, selling them to another store if the owner is unable to pay. Hong Kong pawnshops, therefore, look like secretive affairs, with walls shielding customers from casual and curious street observers.
One block farther west on Des Voeux Road Central you'll see the entrance to the:
6. Central-Mid-Levels Escalator
Opened in 1994 as the world's longest covered escalator system, this escalator stretches 800m (2,600 ft.) from Central to the Mid-Levels on Victoria Peak. Contrary to its name, however, it is not one long continuous escalator but rather a series of escalators and moving sidewalks, with 29 entrances and exits. Designed to accommodate commuters who live in the Mid-Levels but work in Central and beyond, the escalators operate downhill from 6 to 10am and then reverse their direction and go uphill from 10:20am to midnight (after this time, you have to walk down the hill -- stairs are set beside the escalators). It takes about 20 minutes to go from one end to the other. Because of the foot traffic, the escalator has spawned a number of easily accessible new restaurants and bars along its length, most in an area dubbed SoHo (more on this later). The building in front of you housing the entrance to the escalator served as the Central Market until 2003; plans call for its eventual conversion into a shopping and dining complex.
Continue walking west on Des Voeux Road Central for a couple minutes and then turn left onto:
7. Wing Kut Street
This street, the border between the Central and Western Districts, is lined with shops specializing in costume jewelry in a wide range of styles and prices. Some shops sell only wholesale, but others will sell to individual shoppers as well.
After walking through Wing Kut Street, take a right onto Queen's Road Central.
Take a Break -- Instead of turning right onto Queen's Road Central, cross it and continue straight. You will soon come to Wellington Street, where you'll see Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington St. (tel. 852/2544 4556). This old-fashioned dim sum restaurant, open more than 80 years, still sells dim sum from trolleys and is packed with locals. With no English menu, you make your selection from the steaming baskets. Or, if you backtrack in the direction of the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, you'll find a branch of Tsui Wah on the corner of Des Voeux Road Central and Jubilee at 12-13 Jubilee St. (tel. 852/2542 2288), a very popular local chain selling Chinese comfort food at very reasonable prices (closed Sun). Located in the palatial-looking Grand Millennium Plaza, the upscale Gaia Ristorante, 181 Queen's Rd. Central (tel. 852/2167 8200), has a wonderful garden terrace, a contemporary interior, and very good Italian fare for lunch or dinner.
Queen's Road Central will soon curve off to the left, but you'll want to keep walking straight westward onto Bonham Strand. Soon, to your right, just after the Hongkong Bank, you'll see an interesting street:
8. Man Wa Lane
Since the 1920s this street has been the home of one of China's oldest trades -- "chop," or seal, making. Sadly, the recent construction of many high-rises makes the stalls look out of place. Made from stone, ivory, jade, clay, marble, bronze, porcelain, bamboo, wood, soapstone, and even plastic, these seals or stamps can be carved with a name and are used by the Chinese much like a written signature.
You can have your own chop made at one of the several booths here, with your name translated into Chinese characters. It takes about an hour for a chop to be completed, so stop by again later after you've finished your walk. Calligraphy brushes are also for sale, and you can even have business cards made here with both English and Chinese characters; orders for that take about a day. Most stalls are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm.
Back on Bonham Strand, continue west for 2 blocks. Just a few years ago, this area was known for its many snake shops, which did a roaring business from October to February, when snake was in high demand to combat the cold. Now only a few remain, easily identifiable by cages of pythons, cobras, and banded kraits piled on the sidewalk, or by the wooden drawers lining the walls of the shop. Just past Mercer Street is Hillier Street (which is unmarked; it's the second street after Man Wa Lane, just past the corner fruit shop), where you should turn left for the 100-year-old:
9. She Wong Lam Snake Shop
You can recognize this open-fronted shop, at 13 Hillier St., by the many drawers lining its wall. Eaten as protection against the winter cold, snakes are often served in soup. They are also favored for their gallbladders, which are mixed with Chinese wine as cures for rheumatism. Who knows, you might see a shopkeeper fill a customer's order by deftly grabbing a snake out of one of the drawers, extracting the gallbladder, and mixing it in yellow wine. The snake survives the operation, but who knows what other fate it awaits. The more poisonous the snake, so they say, the better the cure. The mixture is also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Backtrack to Bonham Strand and turn left, where you'll pass medicinal shops selling dried organic products such as mushrooms and roots, as well as the:
10. Geow Yong Tea Hong
Founded in 1886 in a tea-growing village in China and established here at this location in 1936, this tea shop at 70 Bonham Strand (tel. 852/2544 0025) offers a wide range of high-quality teas from around China, including a wide variety of oolong and green tea.
Continuing on Bonham Strand, you will soon come to Morrison Street, where a rattan shop on the corner to the left has handmade wares spilling out onto the sidewalks and hanging from hooks outside the shop. It takes an apprentice 3 years to learn the skills necessary to become a master rattan maker; the rattan itself comes from a climbing vine found throughout Asia. As a sign of the times, the shop has branched into plastic housewares. At any rate, take a right here onto Morrison Street and walk to the end where, on the left, you'll find the handsome red brick:
11. Western Market
At 323 Des Voeux Rd., this market was built in 1906 as the waterfront Harbour Office and was then used as a public market until 1988; it escaped demolition when the decision was made to renovate the imposing Edwardian/Victorian landmark into a bazaar for shops and artisans. On the ground floor are a handful of souvenir and gift shops that sell everything from Chinese seals to jade jewelry, with most shops open daily from 10am to 7pm. Up on the first floor, retailers sell bolts of colorful cloth, buttons, clasps, and other sewing accessories. On the top floor is the Grand Stage, noted for its Cantonese fare and dim sum, as well as ballroom dancing nightly from 7pm.
From Western Market, backtrack on Morrison Street to Bonham Strand, where across the street you'll see the large:
12. Urban Council Sheung Wan Complex
One of Hong Kong's largest neighborhood markets, this complex, also called the Sheung Wan Civic Centre, open from 6am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, features fish and poultry on the ground floor, meats and vegetables on the first floor, and a large dining hall (Cooked Food Centre) with stalls selling cheap, cooked meals on the second floor. Early morning is the best time to come, when women buy the day's food for their families and chefs purchase ingredients for their daily specials. Until recently, the Chinese penchant for freshness called for chickens to be killed on the spot, boiled, and then thrown into machines that plucked them, but live chickens are now banned from most Hong Kong wet markets. Still, this is not a stop for the fainthearted, as every part of every animal is for sale, including the liver, heart, and intestines.
Exit the market building back onto Bonham Strand, turn left, and continue straight ahead on Wing Lok Street. This street is nicknamed:
13. Ginseng & Bird's Nest Street
Shops here specialize in ginseng and bird's nest, both valued for their aid in longevity, energy, and a fair complexion. The kings of trade in this wholesale trading area are clearly ginseng, with more than 30 varieties on offer. The most prized are the red ginseng from North Korea, white ginseng from North America, and a very rare ginseng that grows wild in the mountains of northeastern China. Red ginseng is supposed to aid male virility, while the white variety helps cure hangovers. Bird's nests are actually nests, created with the glutinous secretions of small swifts or swallows. Be on the lookout also for window displays of deer products and shark's fin.
By the way, this area has long had an exotic atmosphere -- 150 years ago it buzzed with activity as merchants from Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Fujian, and other Chinese provinces and cities set up shop here, selling products from their native regions.
At the end of Wing Lok Street, turn left on Des Voeux Road West. Along this road you'll see:
14. Shops Selling Preserved Foods
Dried and salted fish, flattened squid, oysters, scallops, abalone, sea slugs, fish bladders, starfish, shrimp, and many other kinds of seafood have been dried and preserved for sale here. You can buy bird's nest here, as well as shark's fin, and in winter pressed duck and Chinese sausages made from pork and liver are also for sale.
Continue west on Des Voeux Road, keeping your eyes peeled for a Citibank and Princeton Tower apartments on your left. Just past it is Sutherland Street, where you should turn left. Almost immediately you will come to a somewhat larger street, Ko Shing Street. This street is nicknamed:
15. Herbal Medicine Street
Based on the Asian concept of maintaining a healthy balance between the yin and yang forces in the body, the range of medicinal herbs in the shops along this street is startling: roots, twigs, bark, dried leaves, seeds, pods, flowers, grasses, insects (such as discarded cicada shells), deer antlers, dried sea horses, dried fish bladders, snake gall bladders, and rhinoceros horns are just the beginning. The herbalist, after learning about the customer's symptoms and checking the pulses in both wrists, will prescribe an appropriate remedy, using perhaps a bit of bark here and a seed there, based on wisdom passed down over thousands of years. A typical prescription might include up to 20 ingredients, which are often boiled to produce a medicinal tea. Because most herbalists are not likely to speak English, you'll mainly be window-shopping here.
Continue on Sutherland heading south (toward the playground). A few years back, this neighborhood was renovated and the Li Sing Street Playground was built in its midst, displacing some of the narrow alleys favored by one of Hong Kong's oldest professions -- street-side barbers. Once plentiful, street-side barbers have now gone the way of the rickshaw. At the top of Sutherland Street, on busy Queen's Road West, I used to see an elderly woman who set up shop on the sidewalk, using only a couple of stools and some thread. She used the thread to remove the facial hairs of her customers, an ancient method that some salons still perform. But like much of old Hong Kong, she and her sidewalk business have vanished.
Take a Break -- There's no better place for Western food in this immediate vicinity than Sammy's Kitchen, 204-206 Queen's Rd. W. (reached from Sutherland St. by turning right and walking about 2 min.; tel. 852/2548 8400). A landmark for almost 4 decades, it's owned by the gregarious and friendly Sammy Yip and his family. It's a good place for inexpensive lunchtime fare, an afternoon snack, a soda or ice-cream sundae, or, in the evenings, fresh seafood, steaks, chicken, and house specialties.
At the top of Sutherland Street, cross Queen's Road West and turn left, heading east. Here you'll pass several open-fronted:
16. Funeral & Incense Shops
Note the paper replicas of household goods and other items (such as houses, cars, running shoes, handbags, and even computers and cellphones) hanging from the shops' eaves and ceilings. At funerals, these paper effigies are burned to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.
After the funeral shops, follow the sidewalk up and down a small hill. Shortly thereafter you will see a road leading uphill to the right. It's the famous:
17. Hollywood Road
This long road, which runs all the way to Central, is a strange mixture of shops selling coffins, funeral items, furniture, antiques, and artwork. In fact, more antiques shops are concentrated along this rather long road than anywhere else in Hong Kong. You'll find everything from woodblock prints and rosewood tables to Neolithic pots, Ming dynasty ceramic figures, silk carpets, snuff bottles, porcelain, round-bellied smiling Buddhas, and plenty of fakes and replicas. Built in 1844 to accommodate stationed British troops, the road takes its name from the woods of holly that used to adorn the area.
Before hitting all the stores just mentioned, to your left will be:
18. Hollywood Road Park
A pleasant garden oasis with a children's playground, a pond with goldfish, and Chinese pagodas, this park makes a nice stop for a few moments of relaxation before continuing on.
Just past the playground, to your left, you'll soon pass a historic landmark:
19. Possession Street
You need not enter, but you might be interested to know that the British first landed in 1841 and planted the Union Jack to claim the island for Britain here. At the time, of course, this was part of the waterfront. The street has a less glorious name in Chinese -- Shui Hang Hau -- named for a big puddle that used to be here.
Continue along Hollywood Road, past Possession Street. One of the first antiques shops you'll come to is:
20. Dragon Culture
One of Hong Kong's largest and most respected shops, Dragon Culture is owned by Victor Choi, who once gave lectures on Chinese antiques for the HKTB's "Meet the People" program but is now semi-retired, concentrating his efforts on educational charities. Browse his shop, at 231 Hollywood Rd. (tel. 852/2545 8098), for everything from Tang pottery to Ming porcelain. If you want to learn more about antiques, buy Choi's Collecting Chinese Antiques in Hong Kong, which answers frequently asked questions about antiques, including important information on how to ship them home. All proceeds from Choi's Horses for Eternity book go to charity.
After Dragon Culture, turn left at Lok Ku Road and then right onto Upper Lascar Row, better known as:
21. Cat Street
For almost a century, Cat Street was famous for its antiques, which could be bought for a pittance; with a growing global interest in Chinese antiques and the pricey antiques shops on Hollywood Road, Cat Street vendors now offer a fantastic mix of curios, replicas, and junk. Pleasantly dotted with potted palms, this pedestrian lane is worth a browse for jade, snuff bottles, watches, pictures, copper and brass kettles, old eyeglasses, bird cages, replica Mao souvenirs, and odds and ends. You should bargain with the vendors who have laid their wares on the sidewalk; most of them do business Monday through Saturday from 11am to about 5pm. You can also bargain at the surrounding antiques shops, where prices are rather high to begin with. If you're not an expert, be wary of purchasing anything of value. During one visit, it seemed that every shop was offering fossilized "dinosaur eggs" for sale. How many can there be?
At the end of Cat Street, turn right and go up the stairs. Across the street you'll see unmistakable:
22. Ladder Street
The extremely steep flight of stairs was once a common sight on precipitous Hong Kong Island. Now, of course, Hong Kong Island has escalators and the Peak Tram, but you're going to find out exactly how steep and tiring these stairs are by heading up them, keeping a lookout for the YMCA on your right and Bridges Street.
Just past the YMCA and Bridges Street, a bit farther up Ladder Street on your left, you will soon see an unmarked flight of stairs leading up to the shady Wing Lee Street sitting area. Walk past the benches and a school to:
23. Wing Lee Street
This narrow street, lined on one side with a dozen tenements once ubiquitous in Hong Kong but now long gone, offers a window into life here in the 1950s. The tenements were slated for the wrecking ball until conservationists -- spurred by the success at the Berlin Film Festival of Echoes of the Rainbow, which was partly filmed here -- lobbied for its preservation. The street's future is now in limbo, as development plans are revised. Although some occupants have moved out, the street now attracts a steady stream of camera-toting visitors.
Back on Ladder Street, continue your trudge uphill almost to the top before turning right and following the sign down the short flight of steps to the:
24. Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences
This museum is housed in a stately, 1905 Edwardian-style brick building, at 2 Caine Lane (tel. 852/2549 5123), that once served as the Pathological Institute, founded to combat Hong Kong's worst outbreak of bubonic plague, which eventually claimed 20,000 lives. With most rooms left intact and devoted to various aspects of early medicine practiced in colonial Hong Kong, it is the only museum in the world to compare traditional Chinese and Western medicines. You'll see acupuncture needles, an autopsy room, an X-ray of a bound foot (once considered a sign of beauty for Chinese women), Chinese medicinal herbs, and the Halvo Pelvic Distraction Apparatus, a Hong Kong invention for treating humped backs. Fascinating. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 1 to 5pm.
Head back down Ladder Street and turn right onto Hollywood Road, where you'll immediately see the:
25. Man Mo Temple
This is Hong Kong Island's oldest and most well-known temple. Scenes from The World of Suzie Wong were filmed in the surrounding neighborhood. The temple, which dates back to the 1840s, is open daily from 8am to 6pm and is dedicated to two deities: the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). Mo is popular with the police force and members of the underworld. From the ceiling hang huge incense coils, which burn as long as 3 weeks, purchased by patrons seeking the fulfillment of their wishes; the aromatic smoke is said to carry prayers to the spirit world. Historic relics on display include an 1847 bronze bell and imperial sedan chairs made in 1862. In a room to the right of the main hall is a small souvenir shop and an English-speaking fortuneteller.
Return to Hollywood Road and turn right to continue walking toward its eastern end. Here you'll find more chic and upscale antiques shops selling furniture, blue-and-white porcelain, and goods from other countries, including Korean chests and Japanese hibachi. One of my favorites is:
26. True Arts & Curios
Located at 89-91 Hollywood Rd. (tel. 852/2559 1485), this tiny shop is packed with all kinds of surprises, from antique children's pointed shoes to porcelain, jewelry, and snuff bottles. It also carries about 2,000 temple woodcarvings, most of which are about 100 years old and small enough to carry with you on the plane.
Take a Break -- Just a stone's throw from Man Mo Temple, the Press Room, 108 Hollywood Rd. (tel. 852/2525 3444), is a bustling brasserie offering French cuisine, Italian bistro food, burgers, and, from its adjacent gourmet shop, wine and artisanal cheeses.
Farther along Hollywood Road, turn left onto:
27. Graham Street
This is part of the Central Street Market, with sidewalk hawkers selling fruit, vegetables, slabs of meat hanging from hooks, and flowers. It's been in operation since 1841, but the city has plans to raze it for high-rise development, setting off local protests despite promises to retain a more upscale version of the market. I'm with the protestors: Too much of the Western District has already suffered mindless redevelopment, and Graham Street is a great slice of old Hong Kong that deserves protection.
Return to Hollywood Road. Farther down, just before the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, are a couple of ancient-looking hole-in-the-wall shops selling brick-a-brac, old photographs and postcards of Hong Kong (including portraits of women engaged in that ageless profession), snuff bottles, and other interesting stuff. Walk under the elevated people mover, and just a bit beyond, to the right, on Old Bailey and Hollywood Road, is the former:
28. Central Police Station
Originally built in 1864 and expanded in 1919 and 1925, this is one of Hong Kong's largest clusters of Victorian-era buildings, built in the classical style. Plans call for the building's eventual renovation into a contemporary visual arts center.
Return to the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. Here, on the steep lanes flanking the escalator and on narrow side alleys, is Hong Kong's newest nightlife and dining district:
Though SoHo stands for "south of Hollywood," the popularity of this area has made it blossom into side streets on both sides of Hollywood Road, including NoHo to the north. Most establishments are tiny affairs, serving a great variety of ethnic cuisines at reasonable prices.
If you wish to return to Central, walk downhill on Cochrane Street (which runs underneath the escalator) to Queen's Road Central, where you should turn right.
Winding Down -- Because establishments are opening up in SoHo literally overnight, I suggest you simply walk along Shelley and Elgin streets and their side streets until something catches your fancy. Otherwise, at 10 Shelley St., is Life (tel. 852/2810 9777), a vegetarian restaurant with a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Uphill from Hollywood Road, on the corner of Shelley and Staunton streets, is Staunton's Bar & Cafe (tel. 852/2973 6611), one of the first venues to open in SoHo. If you walk up Shelley Street and make a right on Elgin Street, you will find many ethnic eateries, including ¡Caramba!, 26-30 Elgin St. (tel. 852/2530 9963), serving Mexican fare, and Posto Pubblico, 28 Elgin St. (tel. 852/2577 7160), an Italian restaurant specializing in locally sourced organic food.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.