Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am

Long before Lan Kwai Fong and the contrived area of SoHo, with its forgettably generic and grossly overpriced 'themed' restaurants, Shek Tong Tsui - 'stone pond point' - was Hong Kong's principal Chinese entertainment and nightlife district. For half a century, the city's best Chinese restaurants were found in this corner of western Hong Kong Island.

Establishments on Hill Road, now an unremarkable, mostly residential neighbourhood around The Belcher's housing complex, had the best chefs in the city. In much the same way that Chinatown restaurants the world over advertise Hong Kong chefs as a hallmark of authenticity and quality, a century ago status came from a connection to one of the more famous Guangzhou establishments. In the interwar years, distinction came from claiming one of the former imperial palace chefs as a member of staff.

The two most famous restaurants in Shek Tong Tsui were Kam Ling and Heung Hoi - later renamed Man Kwok. Kam Ling was later renamed Canton, but both continued to operate into the 1950s. Much like the renowned Fook Lam Moon restaurant in Wan Chai - popularly known today as the 'tycoon's canteen' - these places were discreet hangouts for the very wealthy, and served superb food.

High-end restaurants and luxurious opium divans - these were legal and licensed in Hong Kong in that era - could be found side by side and often in the same building. Gambling took place in these establishments as well, just as it does in similar estab- lishments today, whether on 'social' games of mahjong or cards, or stone-paper-scissors and other raucous finger games.

Prostitution, thinly cloaked under various polite-but-hypocritical guises, was another internationally famed Shek Tong Tsui speciality. Pimps and panderers abounded, naturally enough. For dinner parties, women from one of the brothels would be ordered to serve the guests (before, during and afterwards) as a matter of course. Brothels of a higher grade operated openly here until the early 30s.

When government registration of prostitution was progressively abolished and the sex trade driven underground, restaurants here started to lose their popularity.

Close proximity to the University of Hong Kong, just up the hill, made Shek Tong Tsui's 'attractions' a popular evening excursion in the interwar years. Hong Kong students mostly kept away from such places. More worldly overseas students, in particular from Malaya and Singapore, with more money to spend than locals and far from prying family eyes, were the usual participants in prolonged nights of carousal.