Gentrification transforms Tai Hang, but at least one tradition remains

Neighbourhood still hosts fire-dragon dance, but much else has changed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 3:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 12:53pm

At least once a year, Tai Hang makes headlines, because of its famous fire-dragon dance - the parade of a 67-metre dragon through the streets. This year is no different, as residents celebrate the local tradition between yesterday and tomorrow.

But while they may still be clinging to one of the most well-preserved customs, which has been around for more than a century, the neighbourhood's character has changed so rapidly over the past few years that many can hardly recognise it.

Retiree Yu Lin-sang, 73, has lived in Tai Hang since 1947, but most of the buildings and faces from that time are gone.

"My grandfather had a village-type house. And there were wooden 'squats' scattered around the hills," he said, pointing out from a window at Wun Sha Street to the surroundings that are now occupied by modern skyscrapers.

During the day, Ormsby Street would welcome sellers of vegetables and fish - a far cry from the cluster of trendy coffee shops and restaurants it currently hosts.

"Everyone was friendly and we all looked after one another. Many people couldn't afford a fan, so we used to go out and lie down outside to cool ourselves," Yu recalled.

Changes started to sweep in during the 1960s when builders tore down the village-style houses. That was when, from what Yu recalled, five-storey buildings emerged. "After they rebuilt the area, many original people were forced to move out and many newcomers moved in," including garage workshops.

Another wave of change hit Tai Hang in the past decade. Property prices went up and the quiet albeit convenient area located between Causeway Bay and Tin Hau was not immune to the buoyant market, attracting fancy high-rises and new businesses to the neighbourhood.

"The garages suffered a lot and many closed down over the years," Yu said. Although it is still possible to spot a Rolls-Royce or two parked in front of repair workshops, the garages have had to make way for modern cafes, ice-cream parlours and restaurants lately.

"At the beginning, you didn't notice things were changing … but the neighbourhood is very different now."

Yu shrugged. "It's OK. The new restaurants are expensive. I don't go there, but they don't affect me … It's not like SoHo or other neighbourhoods where there are people making noise."

The changes in Tai Hang are so evident that geography pupils at Chinese International School have made the neighbourhood a subject of study in gentrification over the past five years.

"Change will always take place in any community, but the pace of it in Tai Hang has increased. And their change is higher-order services, which is transforming the neighbourhood itself," said David Brian, a geography teacher and head of humanities at the school.

About 60 per cent of shop functions have changed since 2011, the study shows.

"Older people know what change is, because they witnessed it," Brian said.

"But when you're talking to 14- or 15-year-olds, they sometimes don't comprehend its meaning. Tai Hang is a very good example."

These days, Yu knows few neighbours by name and can count with his fingers the businesses that have survived the past few decades. Many elderly people have left, whereas an increasing number of foreigners have moved in.

But despite the changes, Yu said: "I still like it, my son still lives with us and my daughter also lives here … It's my neighbourhood. Unless I receive a good offer to sell my flat, I'll stay around."