Temple Street (廟街) is a popular hangout for tourists seeking good bargains, cheap knockoffs and seafood restaurants in a lively night-time atmosphere in Hong Kong. The street — named after a Tin Hau (Matsu) temple in the vicinity in Jordan, also has a seedy reputation as it was the setting for a number of gangster movies that depicted it as a hotbed for triad activities and prostitution.
In a 1992 blockbuster ‘The Prince of Temple Street (廟街十二少)’, Andy Lau portrayed the character of an heir to a fading triad leader. To redeem his family honor, the son takes on his father’s rivals and ultimately wrests control of the street after a bloody showdown.
Such movies have lent a unique mystique to the area. Some people fear the place, but they are equally keen to delve deep into the neighborhood that comprises a mix of people from different backgrounds. The notion that bare-chested and hunky chaps sitting and drinking in streetside stalls may suddenly burst into a fierce fight and start slashing at each other hasn’t evaporated completely.
Some are also curious to see girls from nearby brothels soliciting business in the street just like those scenes in the old movies.
Yet in the real world, Temple Street is now just as safe as any other district in Hong Kong, housing a vibrant flea market and popular streetside eateries.
Numerous stalls there mainly patronized by males have earned the place the nickname of being a “gentlemen’s market” (like the “ladies’ market” in nearby Mong Kok). The wares peddled in the stalls in the night market are often knockoffs and fake items, ranging from CDs, cassette tapes, trinkets, menswear, belts, lighters and electronic products to soft porn publications and even adult novelties. Chinese medicine hawking, likely unlicensed, is also an activity during the night.
The street provides an alternative view of elements the rest of modern Hong Kong generally does not offer. The hurly-burly of the century-old place started in the early 1920s when the open space in front of the Tin Hau temple was rebuilt into a park which attracted many hawkers and food kiosk owners, leading to the emergence of a bazaar known as the “Public Square (眾坊街)”.
Hawking was largely prohibited in most parts of Hong Kong but authorities tolerated the activity in Temple Street as they felt that locals would otherwise be unable to make a living. Also, officials bent the rules due to the wide but hidden links between the triad-like Kaifong associations (mutual aid organizations) and the police. In 1975 the then Urban Council gazetted the Temple Street as a hawker area with a total of over 600 stalls.
Apart from stalls, there are a sizable cluster of cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style cafés) with tables and seats on the pavements. Clay pot meals (煲仔飯) are the not-to-be-missed, seasonal delicacy in autumn and winter. Many people like the rich aroma while others love the charred rice crust formed at the bottom of the pots. Clay pot rice is cooked to order at the roadside outlets and sold at prices that are hard to find elsewhere in Hong Kong.
Glutinous rice with preserved meat, nourishing snake soup, casserole lamb brisket and assorted hot pot meals are also among the most-loved choices for those who like streetside dining there. A couple of plates of shellfish, sea snails, prawns and clams with a beer or two can be heavenly, without burning a big hole in the pocket.
Other trades also flourish in Temple Street. Among them are feng shui and fortune-telling. To attract customers, fortune tellers usually gather near the Tin Hau Temple, employ pet birds to pick up cards which can tell the fortune or raise poster-sized pictures in red colour which illustrate palm-reading.
You can consult them, for instance, about which date is auspicious to start a new business. Or, you invite the ‘masters’ on a site trip to your home to discuss ways to change the layout and decoration to enhance your luck. Some of them can even offer services in English, Japanese or Korean. Tarot-fans can also find their advisors there.
Mahjong clubs have sprung up over the years too and the pedestrian area is now also a popular busking location with impromptu cappella performances of Cantonese opera and karaoke lounges every evening. Street performers of martial arts also made a living there in early years.
Two landmark paifang (Chinese-style front gate arches) were erected at the north and south entrance of the street in 2010 following a major facelift to promote the place as a new tourist attraction. It is now among the mostly visited night markets in Hong Kong.
Unlike many other historical streets and neighborhoods in the city that have become mere memories now in the face of sweeping gentrification, Temple Street remains a robust and enduring example of the festivity and traditions of a Chinese bazaar and community.
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