History of Hong Kong districts

Tai Po: New Territories’ answer to Central, but with bicycles and picnickers

New town is the place to go for a night or day out. With dozens of pubs, green lawns, clean water, and some of Hong Kong’s best markets, it is a destination made for recreation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 1:06pm

Last month, Staunton Street craft beer joint Beer & Fish opened a second location – in Tai Po. It’s a quiet part of the district, to be precise, next to an old Tin Hau temple, incense smoke billowing from its chimney. Why would a bar from Central expand to a seemingly obscure corner of the New Territories?

“Tai Po is a special place,” says manager Denus Leung. “There are more than 40 different bars and pubs here. For people living around here, in villages or [upscale suburban estate] Hong Lok Yuen, Tai Po is Central.”

In some ways, it’s an apt comparison: Tai Po town centre is an island of activity in a sea of greenery, packed with shopping streets, markets, restaurants and bars. And yet the pace of life is entirely different. There’s something about the extra-long distance between University and Tai Po Market stations on the MTR that slows things down. Tai Po can be busy, but it’s also a green, laid-back place where people get around by bicycle. It’s a kinder, gentler version of Hong Kong.

It turns out that was the plan all along. Tai Po was one of several historic market towns selected for expansion in the 1970s as part of the government’s New Territories development strategy. Urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith was among the consultants hired to work on the master plan. Most of the new development was slated for reclaimed land, through which two nullahs drained the Lam Tsuen and Tai Po rivers into Tolo Harbour. 

Cookson-Smith wanted to avoid the approach taken elsewhere in Hong Kong, which was to treat nullahs as fenced-off drainage channels.

“If you look at the nullahs in some of the other new towns, they are pretty grim,” he says. “In Tai Po, there was an opportunity to transform them into recreation areas. The water became part of the overall planning structure. It’s a connective element with promenades along the sides.”

There was more. “Tai Po was really the first town with a cycleway system, which at the time was really quite innovative,” says Cookson-Smith.

The old market town was preserved and many of its streets pedestrianised, which eventually transformed the area into a bustling commercial hub. Across the river, new development was oriented around leafy boulevards and a large central plaza, with conditions written into land leases to ensure private developers wouldn’t build walled-off compounds. The final result, says Cookson-Smith, is “more than the sum of its parts – it’s a walkable and pedestrian-oriented town centre.”

The effects of this far-sighted plan are evident not only at Beer & Fish, a bright, spacious place with ceiling fans and an open front, where the staff start each day by lighting incense in front of an earth god shrine next door.

You can also see it in the picnickers who flock to the sloping seaside lawn in Tai Po Park or the old folks who gather to play mahjong in the woods next to the Lam Tsuen River. It’s especially obvious in the markets, which are some of the best in Hong Kong.

Tai Po began life as a market town where people from the surrounding villages would gather to buy provisions. That tradition lives on at the Tai Po Farmers’ Market, one of the few permanent year-round farmers’ markets in Hong Kong. Open each Sunday and Wednesday, the market stocks only organic produce grown in Hong Kong.

“Everything is seasonal, unlike in China where somehow they grow watermelons year-round,” says Karena Ng, who runs a stall for Auntie Lan’s Farm. “Auntie Lan was my great-grandmother on my father’s side,” she explains. “She had a farm and my mum took the initiative to turn it into an organic farm.”

On a recent drizzly afternoon, Ng was selling spiky broccoflowers (a broccoli-cauliflower hybrid) and two types of bananas: sweet ngau nai jiu, “cow’s milk” bananas; and dai jiu, a tart and thick variety. In the next stall, Penny Lo from Kam Tin-based Farm 28 was selling purple carrots and fragrant, freshly picked mint. “Put the mint in your coffee, it’s delicious,” shouts Ng from her stall.

Lo says it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the seasons so you know what the market will have in stock. Winter is when you’ll get the best vegetables, along with cool-weather fruits like strawberries. “I look forward to summer – watermelon, honeydew, sweet stuff,” she says.

A short walk away, across a pagoda-style bridge spanning the Lam Tsuen River, Fu Shin Street is home to an unabashedly old-school street market, where live fish flop around in plastic containers and old women sell home-made Chinese pudding next to the entrance of a Man Mo temple. It’s a good route to take to the Tai Po Market Complex, a huge multi-storey structure that contains a wet market and a cooked food centre. Upstairs, you’ll find neighbourhood favourites like Lam Kee, which serves dim sum, and Dung Kee, which is famous for its fried pork chops.

Downstairs is where nonagenarian Auntie Lam has been selling an eclectic array of roots, herbs and san cho yeuk (medicinal “mountain weeds”) for years. Enormous bunches of aloe vera are piled up next to her stall, alongside edible cactus, Chinese olives, sugarcane, water chestnuts and a dizzying array of other goods.

When a customer asks if there is anything that will help with a skin problem, Lam assembles several bags of roots and herbs and hands them over with an instruction: “Wash it, boil it with a bit of palm sugar, drink some and then wash with it.”

“How do you know all this?” the customer asks.

“My great-grandfather taught me when I was young,” replies Lam. “I started learning when I was six years old!”

Across the river, the Tai Yuen Market is another worthwhile destination. Built in 1980 to serve the surrounding housing estates, it later fell victim to neglect, with more than half its stalls shuttered for good. The market reopened in 2010 with input from Ken Greig, whose London-based architecture firm was responsible for the revitalisation of the renowned Borough Market.

Greig did away with the original layout of long, narrow alleys flanked by tiny stalls and introduced larger stalls that were staggered to improve visibility. “You don’t want to be lost – you want to orientate yourself and find what you need,” he said when the renovations were complete.

The market is now a pleasure to explore, with live chickens in one corner and upscale deli stalls selling Iberico ham in another.

If Tai Po feels more connected to farm life than other parts of Hong Kong, you can thank its ’70s-era master plan, which dealt not just with the town centre but with its rural hinterland, too. Several areas were designated as “agricultural rehabilitation areas”, which protected them from development.

We tried to bring the country into the town
Peter Cookson-Smith, planner

“Now you seem them coming back to life as there is sort of a move back to farming,” says Cookson-Smith.

Creating strong links with the surrounding countryside through cycleways and footpaths was among the more innovative aspects of the plan.

“We tried to bring the country into the town,” says Cookson-Smith. The governor at the time, Murray MacLehose, provided inspiration too: “He was a keen hill walker and he would go walking over the Pat Sin hills over the weekend and he would literally phone us on Monday morning [with ideas]”

The result is a district where the rural is remarkably easy to access from the urban. Just a few minutes’ walk away from the bustle of central Tai Po is Kam Shek New Village, a peaceful community along the banks of the Lam Tsuen River. Nestled behind a grove of trees is Sing Kee, a cha chaan teng that won the international Kam Cha competition for best silk-stocking milk tea. Owner Mok Pui-ling brews a cup that is rich, floral, silky smooth and remarkably well-priced at HK$10.

But it’s the cafe’s terrace, flanked by greenery, that makes the experience truly worthwhile. As patrons sip their tea under the awning on a misty spring afternoon, a customer arrives and hangs his birdcage on a laundry line strung across a garden. Nearby, a young woman stands on a bridge over the river, drumming a lazy beat on a tam-tam as a fisherman navigates his dinghy out to sea.