Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 November, 2008, 12:00am

For decades, Kowloon City was best known for two landmarks; the festering, crime-ridden Kowloon Walled City slum and Kai Tak airport, Hong Kong's principal entry and exit point to the outside world. Both have now retreated into the history books. Kai Tak closed in 1998 and to those familiar with the area before, Kowloon City seems strangely quiet today. A fading checkerboard painted on the hillside, just behind Munsang College - Hong Kong's first Putonghua-medium school - marks what was the final approach to the runway.

Mostly built in the 1820s - like many other pre-urban historic sites in Hong Kong, exact foundation dates vary widely - the original Kowloon Walled City was a fortified magistracy complex on the shores of Kowloon Bay. The Chinese magistrate there was expelled in 1899 after disturbances following the lease of the New Territories and in succeeding decades the area became a diplomatic and legal no-man's land. A haven for illegal activity, the city - bereft of walls since they were demolished during the Japanese occupation - was cleared for demolition in the early 1990s. One of Hong Kong's most attractive urban parks was laid out in its place.

Wander about Kowloon City's side streets, south of Kowloon Walled City Park, and the sounds, smells and shop-signs transport you to Bangkok. Small shops sell fresh home-made Thai sweets and jellies, and imported Thai fruit and vegetables can be had for a fraction of the prices gouged by upmarket supermarket chains. Sharp-tasting fresh tamarind is a particular treat and limes cost little more than at a Bangkok market stall. Anti-hawking and littering banners in parks and open spaces are strung up in Chinese, English and Thai; similarly polyglot signage in Causeway Bay and Statue Square caters to the Indonesian and Filipino communities in the same way.

For decades, Kowloon City has been home to a sizeable Sino-Thai population, mostly of Chiu Chow origin. Reasonably priced Thai food can be easily found here - Nam Kok Road has some excellent small restaurants - and the authenticity contrasts sharply with the toned-down, chilli-shy versions generally prepared elsewhere for conservative Cantonese palates.

Hong Kong persists in marketing itself as some kind of 'Asian food paradise', a somewhat inappropriate description considering most Chinese-language restaurant reviews warmly commend establishments that modify Southeast Asia's 'strange' flavours 'to better accommodate Hong Kong people's tastes'. Kowloon City has the real thing and that alone justifies the trip.