Ng Cho-bang has driven Hong Kong’s double-decker trams through Eastern District for more than 30 years. In that time, entire hills have been flattened and developed with skyscraping apartment towers. A tram route that once meandered along the waterfront has been straightened. Even the waterfront itself has shifted, extended outwards by decades of land reclamation. Where there were once factories and shipyards there are now hotels and luxurious office towers.
And yet, despite the changes, some things remain the same, not the least of which is the tram. Ng says homemakers and elderly people still take it to the wet market to fetch their daily groceries. “Sometimes I help them with their grocery cart,” he says. “There are times that some passengers give me a fruit as a thank you gift when they finish the journey.” While the city around it may grow, the tram remains a throwback to a friendlier, less complicated time.
That’s why it’s the perfect vehicle to explore Eastern District. In 1904, the tram was extended from Causeway Bay to Shau Kei Wan, linking up the neighbourhoods that were quickly growing along the eastern shore of Hong Kong Island. Even today, perched on the upper deck of a tram, a warm sea breeze blowing through the carriage, you can get a sense of the district’s rich history and evolving culture.
Much of the tram’s route takes it along King’s Road, which is lined by distinctive 1960s-style buildings. As you pass Oil Street, look to the left and you’ll catch a glimpse of the century-old clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which has been preserved and converted into a community art space,. You’ll soon pass the remarkable 1950s structure of the former State Theatre, one of Hong Kong’s last remaining movie palaces, which was recently saved from redevelopment by citizen activists. Not far away is another mid-century landmark, the , where Cantonese opera shows are still performed today. Further along, the is a repository of Hong Kong’s unique film heritage, and a must for any film buff.
If you’re on a tram bound for North Point, you’ll end up in the, where motormen ring the tram’s bells as they pass within inches of fruit hawkers and clothing stalls. This market street bears the marks of Eastern District’s unique social history. In the 1940s, after World War II and the Chinese Civil War, many families from Shanghai made their way to North Point, where they opened barber shops, tailoring businesses and restaurants. In the 1960s, they were replaced by migrants from Fujian province. About a third of Hong Kong’s one million Fujianese still live in North Point and there’s no better place to discover their unique food culture than in the grocery stores and market stalls of Chun Yeung Street.
Another market sits just a few blocks away. The Java Road Market is an industrial looking concrete structure — not the most inviting place from the outside, but if you make your way past its butcher stalls and fruit hawkers on its lower floors, you will come to the Cooked Food Centre on the top floor, where seafood specialisthas earned a loyal following for its Cantonese-style seafood. With plastic stools, big round tables and its exuberant atmosphere, it’s an indoor version of the outdoor dai pai dong restaurants that once thronged Hong Kong’s streets.
Tung Po isn’t the only surprise hidden inside the imposing buildings of Eastern District. It may not be obvious from street level, but inside glossy office towers and dingy industrial blocks is a burgeoning creative scene anchored by spaces likeand , which offer art exhibitions, performances and other events. These spaces coexist with new development that is reshaping old industrial areas like Quarry Bay, which has become one of the city’s most important office hubs.
That’s particularly true from November to February, when theMarket brings fresh locally farmed produce, tasty snacks and live performances to the heart of Quarry Bay. “More great things have happened at the market than I could have ever imagined — pop-up food stands becoming brick and mortar restaurants, people getting to meet local farmers first-hand, watching vendors collaborate with each other,” says the market’s founder, sustainable food advocate Janice Leung Hayes.
You can get to the market by bus or MTR — but somehow, the tram feels particularly appropriate. When Ng Cho-bang navigates his tram through Eastern District, he thinks about the “gigantic changes” it has seen, but he is put at ease by the idea that the tram still unites its people and places. “It makes me feel proud and fulfilled,” he says.
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