Hong Kong neighbourhood guide: Yuen Long is a blend of old and new
With hole-in-the-wall restaurants, streetside stalls and plenty of greenery and heritage, Yuen Long has much to offer the Hongkonger looking for something different from gentrified urban areas
“Hong Kong is small.”
That’s something you often hear, especially from people on Hong Kong Island who rarely venture across the harbour. But if it is ever necessary to disabuse someone of the notion that Hong Kong is anything but a big city, there’s one place you should take them: Yuen Long.
Sprawling through a broad valley near the shores of Deep Bay, Yuen Long is home to half a million people. It’s like a parallel-universe version of Hong Kong: instead of the tram, there’s the Light Rail; instead of bustling Nathan Road, crowds flock to Castle Peak Road, which is lined by a similar abundance of neon lights and blinking LEDs.
In many ways, it’s an improvement on the urban areas, because Yuen Long has preserved the earthy, unvarnished atmosphere that has been gentrified away from so many other neighbourhoods. Hawkers and dai pai dong-style restaurants throng the streets and independent businesses still outnumber chain stores by a large margin.
“If you go from Sheung Wan to Yuen Long, it’s like a different country,” says Pinky Leung, who runs Accro Café, a renowned Yuen Long coffee shop.
“People have a lot of stereotypes about Yuen Long – they always ask me if there’s cows in the streets. But there’s so much to do here,” says Joey Chung, who grew up in the area.
A lot of what you should be doing in Yuen Long involves eating. The town centre is renowned for its hole-in-the-wall restaurants, like Song Song, which specialises in drunken chicken noodles. The space is tiny, but it maintains a network of surreptitious eating halls down the street, so you may end up feasting behind an unmarked door in a room filled with the fragrance of Shaoxing rice wine.
Not far away, Jing Seen Mei Sik is a streetside stall offering seasonal tong shui desserts, drinks and local honey sourced from a family-run apiary in Tai Po. “I’ve been drinking this honey for 10 years,” says the owner, Mrs Chan. She’s 70, but could pass for 50. She swears it’s the honey.
Chan used to work as a seamstress in a uniform factory, but she’s always loved to cook. Two years ago, she decided to leave retirement and share her recipes with the world. All of her soups are made from scratch, like the delicate almond milk with snow fungus, which is made from hand-ground Chinese almonds. “It takes a lot of time to prepare,” she says.
It’s a passion project as much as a business – and plenty of similar enterprises can be found around Yuen Long, thanks to the district’s relatively affordable rents. Accro Café was founded by Tsuyoshi Mok, who left his office job and moved to Taiwan to study with a coffee master. When he came back, he convinced one his colleagues, Pinky Leung, to follow in his footsteps.
“Five years ago, I was still working as an office lady, and I was drinking coffee every day – but it was instant coffee,” says Leung. “When [Mok] came back from Taiwan, he made black coffee by pourover and siphon. I’d never seen that before. There were so many flavours.”
Mok now roasts Accro’s coffee while Leung runs its day-to-day operations. She is also the 2013 World Siphonist Champion – an award given to baristas who make the best coffee using a mad-scientist Japanese system that involves a beaker, a glass vacuum pot and a bamboo spatula.
“The process looks beautiful and it enlarges the coffee’s flavour and smell,” says Leung. “It’s a clean taste, but it changes as the temperature goes down, so every time you pick up the cup, it’s a little bit different.”
While siphon coffee is catching on around the world, it is still most popular in Asia, where people seem to enjoy the spectacle of the brewing process. Leung reckons it’s because many coffee lovers here see their daily cup as an experience, not a necessity. “Having coffee here is like a holiday, you sit and enjoy it all day. In other countries, people don’t want to wait,” she says.
Yuen Long offers plenty of other places to relax, including Aldou Café, a cosy hideaway with burgers and craft beer on tap. Not far away, the broad, sloping lawn of Yuen Long Park invites you to unfurl a picnic blanket. On clear days, the park’s Aviary Pagoda offers a sweeping view of Shenzhen’s skyline, which rises across Deep Water Bay to the north.
From the park, head west to the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, which winds its way through ancient Tang clan villages. Near the start of the trail, the former Ping Shan police station, built in 1899, has been converted into an exhibition hall. Other sites date back even farther, including the 14th century Tang Ancestral Hall, the 16th century Yuk Kiu Ancestral Hall and the Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda, which was built about 600 years ago.
What makes Ping Shan charming is how, like Yuen Long as a whole, it feels shabby and lived-in, without the antiseptic gloss that is applied to many of Hong Kong’s other historic sites. A cluster of weathered wooden hawker stalls in the main village square is a throwback to the days when similar stalls lined many of Hong Kong’s streets.
The heritage trail ends with the surprise: the modernist Ping Shan Ting Shui Wai Library, which opened next to a feng shui lily pond in 2013. It’s the second-largest library in the city, after the Central Library in Victoria Park, and its airy, serene atmosphere is a rejoinder to anyone who thinks the Hong Kong government is incapable of designing nice buildings. There is even a courtyard and roof terrace where you can take your book and read under a tree.
“It was a challenge to break through the conventional use of enclosed space in public libraries,” says Thomas Wan, who led the Architectural Services Department team that designed the library. But he wanted to make sure the library reflected its surroundings, whether in its use of materials, such as grey bricks and timber, or in its design.
“The design was inspired by the traditional Chinese cabinet,” a repository for books, porcelain, bonsai and curios, says Wan. He says the library “takes its DNA” from the surrounding area: traditional, modern, diverse, eccentric, eclectic. In other words: Yuen Long.
Song Song. Shop 5, Shun Fung Building, 5 Fung Yau Street North. Tel 2477 4988.
Jing Seen Mei Sik, Shop 19, Fortune Centre, 74A Fung Kam Street.
Accro Café, Shop 8, Fook Cheong Building, 21-27 Ma Wang Road. Tel 9430 1433.
Aldou Café, Shop 3, G/F, Yee Fung Garden, 38 Ma Tin Road. Tel 2619 9933.
Ping Shan Tin Shui Wai Library, 1 Tsui Sing Road. Tel 2126 7520