Despite the forests of towers sprouting up on both sides of Victoria Harbour, there are areas of Hong Kong that remain as they have for decades. In such places, especially in their markets, you can still experience the heritage of the city.
I have long enjoyed visiting the traditional shops in the Western District of Hong Kong Island, set on meandering streets and narrow alleyways. The following walking tour will give you a glimpse of a bygone way of life.
Begin at Queen’s Road West, where you will find stores whose windows are full of glass jars, packed with dried herbal remedies. At Possession Street, proceed for one block to Bonham Strand West, which is known for establishments selling ginseng. At Des Voeux Road West, turn right for one block, then take another right onto Wing Lok Street. The shops here specialize in dried seafoods, used for their alleged medicinal properties. (These are a source of growing controversy, as many of the products come from rare or endangered species such as the manta ray, whose dried gills are believed to cure a wide range of aches and pains.)
Wing Lok merges into Bonham Strand, noted for its stores selling the key component for bird’s nest soup. Then, at Hillier Street, turn left to see markets displaying the main ingredient for even more esoteric dishes: snakes. Finally, return to Bonham Strand and head east. Just before Queen’s Road veers sharply to the right, you will see a small street called Man Wa Lane. Here, amid a welter of stalls, you will find numerous merchants selling "chops" (name seals), made from a range of materials that includes jade, stone, marble and bamboo. Chops can be carved with transliterations of Western names and make excellent gifts. (The process takes about 24 hours.)
Across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, we spent a delightful afternoon walking through markets in an area north of Tsim Sha Tsui, the district on the harbor at the tip of the peninsula. Using the red line of the Metro — which is easy to use and extremely fast — we exited at the Yau Ma Tei stop and headed to the so-called Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street. Here, you will find stalls packed with goods that make appealing gifts for children, such as kites and silk outfits.
After the Ladies’ Market peters out, continue north, crossing the major thoroughfares of Argyle Street, Mong Kok Road and Bute Street. You will then enter the Goldfish Market. Believed by the Chinese to bring good luck, the fish are much coveted, and you will see varieties you never knew existed, displayed in clear plastic bags dangling on storefront racks. In the back of the stores, you will find rare goldfish that command astronomical prices.
Continue a couple of blocks north to cross Prince Edward West, go two blocks on Sai Yee Street and you will come to Flower Market Road. There, shops abound with a profusion of orchids. Flower Market Road leads to one of my favorite places in Hong Kong: the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. A park for local residents, it has become a place where owners, chiefly older men, come to show off their beloved pets. In addition, around 70 stalls sell an incredible array of birds.