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Shek Kip Mei: a haven for refugees, and now for artists

Site of Hong Kong's first public housing estate, this corner of Kowloon has preserved some of that past, and its sense of community, while creating space for arts and crafts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:06pm

It started with scrap wood and sheet metal. In the late 1940s, as the first wave of refugees arrived in Hong Kong from the civil war in China, many settled on the slopes of Shek Kip Mei, building crude shacks on the barren outcrop that overlooked the factories and shophouses of Sham Shui Po. Then, a shack caught fire on the night of Christmas 1953. The flames engulfed the whole shanty town, leaving 53,000 residents homeless.

The disaster forced the government to implement a public housing programme, which defined the history of Shek Kip Mei — until now. In recent years, this working-class bastion has taken on new life through a host of government-sponsored cultural initiatives that have converted historic structures into an art school, museum and artists' village, in turn attracting new art spaces and cafes.

This is no headlong rush into gentrification, however; Shek Kip Mei is still dominated by public housing, which has slowed the rate of change to a more reasonable pace than in other neighbourhoods. "These small-scale interventions that keep existing buildings are a great asset to the area, allowing change but preserving some of the character," says Jeanne Lambin, a storyteller and heritage conservationist who has lived in Shek Kip Mei since 2013.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Of all the recent heritage projects in Shek Kip Mei, the one that Lambin loves most is Mei Ho House, the only block of the original 1950s housing estate that has been preserved. In 2013, it was converted into a youth hostel, with a cafe and free museum dedicated to Shek Kip Mei's history. "I like that it brings tourists and travellers into a part of the city that is sometimes overlooked," says Lambin.

Iris Tsang, CEO of the Hong Kong Youth Hostel Association, which runs the complex, says she was struck by how fondly the housing estate's former residents recalled their old neighbourhood, despite the poverty and spartan living conditions. "Neighbours were very close with one another," she says. Evoking that atmosphere was one of the goals for the architects who restored Mei Ho House. The rear courtyard of the H-shaped complex is filled with café tables and chairs; there's a see dor selling beer, soft drinks and confectionary, along with a branch of Mong Kok's Full Cup Cafe, whose decor is a throwback to Hong Kong of the 1960s.

Nearby, you'll find another nostalgic landmark in the original Garden Bakery, whose classic post-war factory — complete with a modernist clock tower — includes a ground-floor café and museum dedicated to industrialised snack production.

Just up the street, the austere North Kowloon Magistracy, built in 1960, has been revitalised by the Savannah College of Art and Design. During the Cultural Revolution, the magistracy was a de facto home base for immigrants sneaking across the border from mainland China. If they were caught by police in the New Territories, they would be sent back, but they could claim residency if they made it to Shek Kip Mei.

You can sign up for a free tour of the building on the college's website, with highlights including a gallery of student work, basement jail cells and a preserved courtroom.

GET AWAY

There's something serene about Shek Kip Mei, despite the towering presence of the newly rebuilt public housing estate. Maybe it's because the neighbourhood is surrounded by green space on three sides. To the west, a sweaty climb up Signal Hill is rewarded with panoramic views of Kowloon. To the north, Shek Kip Mei Park is a treasure trove of retro 1960s-era architectural features.

To the east, Wo Chai Hill is an unexpected bit of wilderness in the heart of the city. Covered in squatter huts until the '80s, it is now crisscrossed by dirt trails that meander past bamboo groves and giant banyan trees. Old-timers from Shek Kip Mei come up here to exercise and play mahjong; wander through the woods and you'll come across little altars and shrines populated by dozens of porcelain gods and goddesses.

Back downhill, past the Italo-Chinese architecture of St Francis of Assisi Church, you'll find one of the city's last clusters of dai pai dong on Yiu Tung Street. On one side of the street, So Kee serves delicious pork chops. On the other, Cheung Fat specialises in fish-ball noodle soup. The adjacent block of tenement buildings is slated for demolition, but in true Shek Kip Mei fashion, the dai pai dong will stick it out despite the changes. "We aren't going anywhere," says Cheung Fat's owner, Edmond Ma.

DRAWING THE CROWDS

To find ground zero of Shek Kip Mei's renaissance, you need to head to the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a former factory building that now contains art studios, galleries and a black box theatre. "I think we were very successful in the first couple of years," says Eddie Lui, its founding director. When the centre opened in 2008, unexpectedly large crowds visited its weekend events. "Now the whole thing has become a permanent fixture."

Every weekend, thousands of people flock to the centre for shows, craft markets, house-roasted coffee at Cafe Golden and scrumptious dumplings at Heritage Tea House. Don't expect a pretentious atmosphere: the ethos here is decidedly grass-roots and democratic. At Lively Life, on the ground floor, you'll find organic food products and kombucha brewing workshops. Next door, Design Port offers leatherworking classes and consignment goods from Hong Kong and Taiwan designers.

The JCCAC has given Shek Kip Mei a certain cachet among young Hongkongers, which inspired former journalist Kecoj Pun to open Toolss, a coffee shop and stationery store that spills onto the street outside the JCCAC, making it a prime spot for weekend people-watching. "There's aren't many places like Shek Kip Mei left in Hong Kong — there's no shopping mall, no chain stores. It's a small place and everyone is friendly," says Pun. "Guys who are into culture come here."

A similarly eclectic atmosphere prevails at Be Tabula Rasa, a studio, gallery, cafe and consignment shop on the first floor of a shophouse on Fuk Wa Street — technically across the border in Sham Shui Po, but an easy walk from the JCCAC. "We were lucky to find a place this big, so we thought we could share it with the public," says Tabu Tsang, who makes dried floral arrangements and runs the studio with her graphic designer boyfriend. "People can do whatever they want here — even sleep."

EAT AND DRINK

Full Cup Cafe Mei Ho House, 70 Berwick Street, tel: 3728 3454, fullcupcafe.com.hk

Garden Bakery 58 Castle Peak Road, tel: 2360 3153

Cafe Golden unit 5, 1/F, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, tel: 2408 8255

Heritage Tea House unit 6, 1/F, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, tel: 2779 1030

Toolss 38 Wai Chi Street, tel: 3954 5135, facebook.com/toolsshk

So Kee 6 Yiu Tung Street, tel: 2779 1182

Cheung Fat 1 Yiu Tung Street, tel: 2777 2400

SHOP AND SEE

Mei Ho House 70 Berwick Street, tel: 3728 3500, yha.org.hk

Savannah College of Art and Design 292 Tai Po Road, tel: 2253 8000, scad.edu.hk

Lively Life unit 2, 1/F, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, tel: 5542 3204

Design Port unit 3, 1/F, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, tel: 2576 9993, d-port.co

Be Tabula Rasa 1/F, 85 Fuk Wa Street, tel: 9010 9515, facebook.com/betabularasa.studio