22 March 2019
Neon signboards light up the Yau Ma Tei district at night. The area is a microcosm of old Hong Kong. Photo:
Neon signboards light up the Yau Ma Tei district at night. The area is a microcosm of old Hong Kong. Photo:

Yau Ma Tei theaters and shops: A slice of HK history

For years, Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon was largely under the shadow of its two neighboring districts — Mong Kok to the north and Tsim Sha Tsui in the south.

Occupying a lower rung in the urban scheme of things, the area is now a slightly dilapidated zone with a mix of old residential high-rises and largely unappealing commercial establishments. This is so even as it forms part of a crucial spine in Hong Kong’s transportation network.

Yau Ma Tei has indeed seen better days. That said, all is not lost for the district, as it still holds some unique charms for history and culture buffs. Some of Hong Kong’s oldest trades, shops, markets and neighborhoods can be found there including Gwo Laan (the fruit bazaar) and the Temple Street flea market. The Jordan area is also a microcosm of working-class Hong Kong and ethnic minorities.

The truth is that Yau Ma Tei is a juicy slice of vintage Hong Kong that is vanishing quickly. For anyone willing to spend an afternoon on a casual stroll in the district, here are some attractions that can offer a glimpse of the old way of business and entertainment.

The first stop recommended is the Yau Ma Tei Theatre.

Built in 1930 and now Hong Kong’s only pre-World War II cinema, the theatre was a popular spot for local film buffs back then with a hall that could accommodate an audience of 300.

Western silent classics like Charlie Chaplin’s “Behind the Screen” and “City Lights” were screened there in the past, with background music and narrators explaining the plot.

In addition to films, live shows ranging from kung fu performances to dances and small-scale Cantonese opera shows were also staged there.

The theater has now been converted into a venue for the promotion of Cantonese opera after major renovation works that tried to retain its mixed Chinese and Western design including the pitched roof, the art deco facade and Dutch gable walls as well as two pillars at the front entrance engraved with “crying” and “laughing” masks.

Once a setting for Hong Kong’s vibrant film industry, there had been more than a dozen theaters in the neighborhood. Some mainly featured movies of local stars like Lydia Shum (沈殿霞) and Josephine Siao (蕭芳芳).

Amid fierce competition in the 1960s and 1970s, some even offered budget options for seamen and porters. Several people could share one ticket and they could also bring their own stools into the chamber or even sit on stairs.

The London Theatre (now the Chuang’s London Plaza) on Austin Road was the place to go for fans of Hollywood and Shaw Brothers Studio productions. In 1972 when comedy star Michael Hui’s (許冠文) blockbuster “The Warlord” was on, more than a million people were said to have visited the theater within half a year.

Today’s youngsters mainly patronize modern cinemas operated by theater chains, opting for places such as Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. But few know that Yau Ma Tei used to be the center-stage during the heyday of the city’s movie industry.

Apart from Hong Kong’s oldest theaters, Yau Ma Tei is also home to some fast-fading flavor of the territory’s oldest businesses. Shanghai Street is the address to find them.

Built in 1887, the street is still a main thoroughfare running through Jordan and Mong Kok and home to dozens of time-honored shops. Some of them were founded more than a century ago.

Shanghai Street was a major artery for traffic between Kowloon and New Territories. It connected the then Mong Kok Pier, Jordan Pier and the surrounding typhoon shelter, making it a focal point of trading and sea freight.

Before the rise of Nathan Road as a new shopping precinct since the 1980s, Shanghai Street dominated Kowloon’s business for most of the 20th century with sizable clusters of pawnbrokers, gold dealers, barbershops, grocery stores as well as vendors of watches, silk and ironware. Signboards plastered the building facades and the street was also the place where Hong Kong’s earliest neon lights were installed.

A survey by the University of Hong Kong’s Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences found that Shanghai Street hosts more than 30 of Hong Kong’s longest-living family-run shops, with the business now being run by the second or the third generations. One of them is Wo Sheng Goldsmith (和盛金行), which has been there since 1892.

The vaulted gold store catered to local residents as well as fisher-folk who sought the precious metal as a hedge against economic and political uncertainties and turmoil. Back then rings, bracelets and golden-pig necklaces were among the best-selling items.

The 80-year old Kang Ming Picture Frame and Glass (鏡明玻璃) is another famed establishment in the area.

Back then, every time a storm hit Hong Kong, the owner would expect orders to shoot up. As windows of tenement houses were almost always shattered during typhoons, the shop staff will go door to door to change glasses and charging a premium for the personalized service.

But now, business has waned since new homes are built with aluminum windows. However, the shop still remains and the owner-family’s nine brothers and sisters, along with their kids, get together every week to dine at the place. Three large tables are set up to accommodate more than 40 family members.

Among other old outlets, Wing Hong Chinese Medicine Store (永康藥行) in the same street still uses kerosene and carbon stoves to brew medicine, while Cheung Shing Fans Factory (祥盛檀香扇莊) enjoys customer loyalty that has spanned three generations. Fong Moon Kee Embroidery (馮滿記繡庄), which will turn 80 this year, is still known for its exquisite Chinese embroideries and textiles. 

These shops showcase fine traditional craftsmanship or century-old trades. If you are interested in a bit of history and culture, visit the area before the remaining old shops finally decide to call it a day.

– Contact the writer at [email protected] 


Read more: Hong Kong Places

Temple Street: Why the magic endures

Things you probably didn’t know about Chungking Mansions

Gwo Laan: Fruity story of an old Hong Kong trade

Coming MTR line changing life on the edge of HK Island


Shanghai Street in the 1930s, one of Kowloon’s major thoroughfare and commercial precincts back then. Photo: HKU museum and art gallery

A signboard points to Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei district. Photo: Internet

Yau Ma Tei theater after renovation. Photo: Govt Information Services

Wo Sheng Goldsmith, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2012, is one of the oldest businesses in Shanghai Street. Photo: WSJ

Kang Ming Picture Frame and Glass, opened in 1930s, exemplifies kinship and honesty of Hong Kong’s small business owners in the old days. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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