Crowded markets selling fruit, vegetables and seafood. Stalls overflowing with pots, pans and electronic goods. Pavements strewn with second-hand clothes and toys for sale. Sham Shui Po, a blue-collar neighbourhood in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, is the perfect example of organised chaos. Historic buildings including pre-war tenement blocks and pawn shops jostle for space with housing estates, creating a dense, partly decaying cityscape with an almost dystopian mood. Scenes from the 2017 sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell were filmed in the area . In the 1950s, Sham Shui Po was the centre of Hong Kong’s booming textile industry, a sector killed off by rising rents and labour costs that sent factories scurrying across the border to mainland China. While remnants of this past remain – shops selling rolls of fabric, zips, buttons and, in a sign of the times, reusable face masks – Sham Shui Po today is known for its burgeoning arts scene. Earlier this month, Time Out ranked it third in its list of the top 40 coolest neighbourhoods worldwide right now. A seamless mix of old stalls and buildings happily coexist with a new wave of art spaces and hip coffee shops. Restaurants, including a large number serving traditional Cantonese cuisine , add flavour to the area. We spent a few days wandering the streets and alleyways to find some of the more interesting things Sham Shui Po has to offer. Book Punch You know you’re in a bookshop with a difference when the owner says home-grown vegetables and home-made soap come with some purchases. “We also give local produce such as these,” says Pong Yat-ming, holding up a packet of locally made dried fruit. “We give produce instead of discounts.” Before opening Book Punch about a month ago, Pong worked as a freelancer with various NGOs, focusing on issues such as social equality, homelessness and mental health. In 2010, the activist made headlines when he took on the city’s monopolies , encouraging people to boycott businesses owned by various conglomerates. Today he’s determined to bring back the bookshop-browsing experience that is lost when buying books online “with a quick click of a button”. On a recent Saturday, the sunlit space is packed. In an adjacent room, children are immersed in a book-reading session. “I want to create a community space where people can browse and read, and to host workshops and talks, not just by authors and scholars but by all members of the community,” Pong says. Another unconventional strategy is how Pong has categorised his stock. “I wanted to walk away from the traditional classifications. We don’t have sections like literature, history, education, kids’ books.” Instead there are categories such as “Human Diversity”, “Endangered Species” and “Pub Survival”. Another section, “Translating Hong Kong”, is dedicated to Hong Kong authors translated into foreign languages. 3/F, Tai Nam Commercial Building, 169-171 Tai Nan Street Parallel Space This culture and design space was established in 2018 by Kim Lam. Its most recent exhibition, The New Normal, by post-’90s Hong Kong artist Giraffe Leung Lok-hei, is a visual feast. Leung went viral in February for his street art series “Paper Over the Cracks”, where he used yellow tape to frame parts of the city’s walls that had been scarred by clumsy government attempts to cover up protest posters related to the anti-government protests at the time . A few doors down is sister space Openground (G/F & 1/F, 198 Tai Nan Street, Sham Shui Po), a creative hub to indulge in some coffee, books and music. It also hosts design-related talks, workshops and exhibitions. G/F, 202 Tai Nan Street Thy Lab Alberto Gerosa from Italy gives a tour of this two-floor creative space that’s tucked away down a back alley, its shelves bulging with hundreds of art-house books. More books overflow from boxes on the floor. “Some of the books we recently collected from SCAD,” he says, referring to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Sham Shui Po that closed down earlier this year. Thy Lab is a visual research hub in the process of compiling the city’s largest archive of Hong Kong family images. It’s also home to Sham Shui Po’s only cinema; the films on show are as eclectic as the collection of seats you can watch them from. “Some of the chairs are from the City Contemporary Dance Company, others from the Goethe-Institut Hongkong,” says Gerosa, who has lived in Sham Shui Po for six years. For Halloween, Thy Lab is hosting an Italian cinematic gore fest called “Masters of Horror: Halloween Movie Marathon”. The line-up includes 1960 Gothic horror flick The Mask of Satan , directed by Mario Bava; Deep Red (1975) by Dario Argento; and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), directed by Lucio Fulci. Screenings will be held from October 31 to November 3. “The cult soundtracks to these movies are spectacular,” Gerosa says. 135 Yu Chau Street Mudheytong Gallery It’s a Monday afternoon and Mudheytong Gallery is a hive of activity. Students, surrounded by pottery and clumps of clay, are spinning away on pottery wheels. “They’re taking part in one of our pottery workshops,” says co-owner Karen Wong. Founded by Wong and fellow ceramic artists Coco Li and Janet Mok, Mudheytong Gallery runs pottery workshops as well as outreach programmes with the wider community. Upstairs is an exhibition space. “I like people to start by shaping and building the clay with their hands, but most people want to get straight on the wheel because they watched the movie Ghost ,” Wong says. 175 Tai Nan Street. Tel: 9863 2210 The Good The Bad and The Creative Nostalgia lovers will feel like a kid in a candy store at The Good The Bad and The Creative. Retro clocks, watches, action figures, phones, fans, posters and books cram the two-storey space that owner Ricky Lau recently moved into. He’s filled every inch – there are about 3,000 items – with a mix of old toys, magazines, household items, black-and-white photos, books and some local designers’ products. “I was born into a working-class family in the 1960s and lived in public housing but couldn’t afford export toys, so I played with plastic toys that were made in Hong Kong,” says Lau, who has been collecting old toys for 30 years. “My favourite items are toy robots from the ’60s because I couldn’t afford the expensive ones when I was a kid, so now I find them on eBay. Some of the items are from my collections, some from other collectors, and others donated by friends and neighbours.” 124B1 Nam Cheong Street. Tel: 9095 3027 What else? Creativity isn’t the only thing flowing thick and fast in Sham Shui Po. So too is coffee. One of many new spots is Flow (shop 3, G/F, Hing Ga Building, 195-201 Tai Nan Street, tel: 2452 2345). Classical music adds to the chilled vibe of this corner establishment, which opened four months ago. Its speciality is drip coffee, with three pages of varieties on offer. Sweet tooths can indulge in Swiss rolls in flavours such as purple yam, black sesame and tiramisu. On a table are books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian-American psychologist who discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness he called “flow”. For drip coffee Vietnamese style, head to Pho Dem (72C Nam Cheong Street, tel: 9555 4966). Owner Susan Hien arrived in Hong Kong in 1989, one of the thousands of refugee boatpeople from Vietnam who arrived in the city during the 1980s and ’90s. Hien spent six years in the Whitehead refugee detention centre in Sha Tin district. Today she’s dishing up flavours of her home country, including banh mi, a traditional crusty baguette filled with vegetables, coriander and pickled daikon. If you visit on a hot day, indulge in an icy passion fruit drink. At Sher-E-Punjab (G/F, 2R B Shek Kip Mei Street, tel: 6184 0786), owner Imran Mohamad from Lahore in Pakistan is dishing up a taste of his home country with halal curries (chicken and mutton) and rotis to soak up the sauce. It also has a selection of pizzas. On December 1, Sher-E-Punjab will host a screening of Miss Hong Kong (1979), the first Pakistani film shot in Hong Kong. Nomad (G/F, 32 Poplar Street, tel: 6608 6697) serves coffee and snacks during the day (on a busy Friday the queue was too long to enter). A return visit for a snacky dinner the following day proved a treat with Japanese chicken wings, beef cubes and Instagrammable pork cutlet sandwiches. It also has a wide selection of sake and gin, including a rare craft variety from Kagoshima, on the Japanese island of Kyushu, that’s distilled and harvested from eight different ingredients. Vegans hitting the district are well catered for with the opening last month of The Park by Years (G/F, 132 Yu Chau Street, tel: 5336 4000). The menu is 100 per cent plant-based and includes bamboo charcoal tofu burger and beetroot forest toast. The Impossible Thai burrito with a spicy mango kick is a must.