Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you’ve been on Instagram’s explore page, chances are, you’ve seen photos of neon-washed buildings in Hong Kong that tourists use as backdrops.
For undiscerning visitors, these structures only look like a good spot for a photo, but for many locals, these are their public housing units, which have become physical manifestations of increasing rent prices, unaffordable housing properties, and dormant wages in Hong Kong.
Like many cities, there are contradictions and underlying realities that can only be revealed when actively sought. A tourist going to Los Angeles, California, for instance, may not always know that it’s also home to Skid Row, an area with the highest number of homeless people in the US, or if one were to go to London, you’d know of the Big Ben or the London Eye but you may not be aware of Syrian refugees who are suddenly transported to other areas of the UK without their knowledge.
It’s no wonder it has come as a shock when Hong Kong, a city that sits on a HK$138-billion budget surplus, is also home to McRefugees, a term used for locals who sleep in McDonald’s largely because of their poor living conditions. This is a far cry from the typical picture of Hong Kong as a hub for high-end labels, rooftop bars, all-night partying, and fancy dining.
The former British colony has always been promising to the eyes of its Asian neighbors, what with it being a financial capital akin to New York and London. While Hong Kong Island looks to remain as such, Kowloon Island (the region across Victoria Harbor) doesn’t necessarily share this image. Residents of Hong Kong Island even call Kowloon as “the city’s dark side,” but others argue that Kowloon is “more authentic, more Chinese.”
Gritty, traditional Sham Shui Po
The ‘grittiness’ of Kowloon is most apparent in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorer districts in the island, whose alleys are filled to the brim with vendors selling a variety of goods. In Apliu Street, the strip is packed with electronic products, second-hand devices, and even antique watches and random artefacts.
Right around the corner is Cheung Sha Wan Road, an entire road lined with wholesale fashion stores, and there’s also Tai Nam Street, which is where most manufacturing workshops of leather goods, textiles, and metalwares are. Think Divisoria; only bigger, smellier, and dingier.
Interspersed within these streets are food stalls and pushcarts that serve different kinds of rice pudding, pork intestines, or milk tea, among many others. There are also cha chaan tengs, or small restaurants that typically serve tea, coffee, or macaroni soup with meat. Like most businesses in Sham Shui Po, these are family-owned, passed on from one generation to the next.
One of the most unique, family-owned restaurants in the area is Shia Wong Hip, a brightly lit room with tiled walls that has been offering a vast array of snake dishes (crispy snake meat and snake broth, among others) since 1965. Separating the dining area and the restaurant’s office are stacks of wooden chests, each with metal padlocks. Inside these chests are different types of snakes that they serve their customers.
“[I’m] married but [I have] no children. [The] snakes are [my] children,” says Chau Ka Ling, the owner of the restaurant, in Cantonese. She shares that in the ‘60s, her father found it hard to find people who would want to work with snakes, and because she was the eldest, she felt obliged to take the job.
“[I’m] not a big fan of snakes. To [me], it's just a job,” she says. For the longest time, it was only Ling who was helping manage the restaurant, but when her father passed away in 1991, her other seven siblings started helping out.
Ling, her husband, and her siblings are exploring expanding to Macau, but when asked if they want to modernize their restaurant in Sham Shui Po first, she says that they don’t want to as it won’t really fit within the identity of the district, and that what makes them distinct is the traditional experience that they offer their guests.
A new wave of businesses
While most of the businesses have been in the area since the ‘60s, there has been a wave of new businesses that chose Sham Shui Po as a good place to start in. Rex Yam, the founder of Doughnut, a backpack brand, says that they opened their first shop in Sham Shui Po primarily because the rent is more affordable compared to other places in Hong Kong.
“It’s also very close to Mongkok, the young student center,” he says. “Everyone goes there after work or after school so it's okay because our products are targeted to 20- to 30-year-old people.”
Unlike most shops in Sham Shui Po, Doughnut evidently looks like it belongs to a mid- to high-end mall, with its neon-lit sign and their products displayed in a studied fashion. This is a clear contrast from the traditional stores that seem to pile one product on top of the other or those that fill window displays with a confusing mishmash of goods.
Yam shares that they were initially cautious of setting up shop at this district because they thought the locals who’ve been in Sham Shui Po for decades wouldn’t be accepting of modern businesses such as theirs. He also worried that the people residing there would think that new stores will only urge the government to increase the rent prices in the area. Fortunately, they thought wrong.
“We found that the neighborhood [is] actually friendly and more accepting [to] such a new energy, or new shops in Sham Shui Po,” he shares. “I always say that people living in Sham Shui Po or [those who] are working here are very similar to the ‘90s Hong Kong people. You move back 20 years ago, they're still the same. I think this is very special. I don't see anywhere in Hong Kong like this.”
Another new enterprise that started in Sham Shui Po is Savon, a brand that sells handcrafted soaps, scents, and other bath and body products. Savon’s first floor is where all their products are shown, much like a drug store, while their second floor is where the soapmaking process happens. Wince Lam, the founder, says that they wanted to include a workshop to fit the “workshop culture” in Tai Nam, the street where the shop is.
“There’s a lot of DIY [here]. For the leather shops, they also have a workshop inside the store. So I think it’s providing more experience to the customer,” she says. “Unlike the shop that you can find in a shopping mall, the experience is not the same.”
Like Yam, Lam’s foremost reason for choosing to open at Sham Shui Po is also because she knew rent was cheaper in this part of town.
Increasing prices across Hong Kong
It’s difficult to talk about Hong Kong without discussing either of these two things: increasing rent prices or the lack of space. Sham Shui Po is already so dense and it looks as though it no longer has room for stores or stalls, although vendors say that there used to be even more hawkers in the area.
Apparently, in the ‘70s, the Hong Kong government decided to start limiting the number of licences they give to street vendors, citing street congestion and hygiene as reasons. There were about 50,000 hawkers in the ‘70s, but due to this government policy, only about 6,000 were left by 2015.
In a report, Yip Po-Lam, a convenor of a grassroots group, said that if there are no new licences to foster the business of street markets and hawking, the lower class would suffer the most, as they are dependent on this kind of commerce. The lower class’ conundrum is also exacerbated by the increasing housing prices because of the influx of mainland Chinese in Hong Kong after Britain handed sovereignty to China in 1997.
Considering these factors, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there has been a sixfold increase in Hong Kong’s McRefugees. According to a study conducted by the Junior Chamber International, some McRefugees, even when they actually have public housing units, would rather stay in McDonald’s as they deem it better than their homes. Others would also rather stay in McDonald’s to save on transport or to seek refuge in the fast food chain while they wait for their public housing applications to be approved.
Indeed, Hong Kong is not always what it seems. Tourists may view areas like Sham Shui Po as a “quirky, alternative place” or a chance for some “authentic travel,” but what lies deep within are bigger problems that beg to be acknowledged; not on your Instagram, but on the ground.