Neighborhood Watch: Wan Chai

My Chinese relatives were excited in early 2011 when I told them that I had decided to move to Hong Kong. They hoped this was a sign that I was finally “embracing my Chinese side.” Well, not quite. I’m still pretty bad when it comes to being Chinese. I’m terrible at math, not really into electronics, nor am I good at gymnastics or synchronized diving. I am, unfortunately, a bad Asian women driver, though I’m not sure that’s what they meant when they asked me why I couldn’t be more Chinese.

Enjoying my Hong Kong neighborhood of Wan Chai.

My family’s excitement about my “Chinese-ification” quickly turned into abject horror when I told them that I had moved into Wan Chai, an area in Hong Kong with a long history of prostitution and drunken debauchery. Wan Chai is the former landing site for the US Naval ships after all and some habits die hard, I guess.

Blending the new with the old in Wan Chai.

Although prostitution and a rowdy nightlife still exists (now mostly confined to a small section of Lockhart Road), Wan Chai is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with a rich history. Everywhere you walk, you see crumbling old houses mixed in with the new skyscrapers, bustling cha chaan tangs (Hong Kong-style diners) crowded between posh new European style cafes, and overpriced international supermarkets up the street from traditional wet markets. Wan Chai may still be a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of its charm. I loved living there and exploring its seedy past, local roots, and new developments.

Nam Koo Terrace, also famously known as the “Wan Chai Haunted House.”

An afternoon of exploring led me to this abandoned and derelict building off Wan Chai’s Ship Street. Built and owned by a wealthy merchant in the early 1900’s, Nam Koo Terrace was turned into a brothel, or “comfort house,” for Japanese soldiers during the Japanese Occupation in the early 1940’s. Legend has it that cries and screams of the women forced into prostitution can still be heard at the “Wan Chai Haunted House.” I wanted to explore the grounds more, even willing to sneak in, but unfortunately, the site is now barricaded with wire fences and guards.

The Wan Chai Blue House.

I had lived in Wan Chai for over a year before I finally made my way to the iconic Wan Chai Blue House. I don’t know why it took me so long. Perhaps I procrastinated because I knew it just just up the road from my apartment. The upper floors are still residential, though the ground floor shops have changed over time. From hospital to martial arts school to temple, the Blue House of Wan Chai has seen it all. It’s living history in itself.

A cool local bar to enjoy a drink.

Not far from the Blue House is a great little dive bar to enjoy drinks with friends when you want to avoid the raucus down on Lockhart Road. Casual and unpretentious, Tai Lung Fung is the perfect spot for a nightcap (or two) with friends. Doubling as an art studio and gallery, Tai Lung Fung is a true hidden gem in the Wan Chai nightlife scene and I’m quite alright for the crowds to remain on the other side of the neighborhood.

It’s always a stunning view on the Star Ferry.

Of course, my favorite thing about living in Wan Chai was having the Star Ferry just a few blocks behind my apartment building. Whenever I was feeling down, I’d hop on the Star Ferry, take the quick 20 minute ride across Victoria Harbour, take in the beautiful skyline, and somehow, everything would feel right again.

Wan Chai may have a history it can’t escape, just like I have a cultural heritage I can’t ignore. The best we can do is to continue moving forward, and I think we’re both doing a pretty good job of it.

6 Comments

  • mi-an dela cruz says:

    happy belated birthday connie!

  • Maria says:

    Thanks for the tour, looks like it’s got a lot of energy and love the mix of old / new. So are you Chinese enough yet? Can one ever attain a level of being Chinese enough? :-)

  • Ryan @Treksplorer says:

    Thanks for sharing! I’ve only been to Hong Kong for a short period of time but really enjoyed it. After looking at a map, I think I actually walked through Wan Chai (although to be honest had no idea where I was since I was just wandering about). I remember it being a pretty neat neighbourhood with an authentic vibe to it. Have you lived in Wan Chai since you moved to HK?

    • Connvoyage says:

      It’s possible that you were in Wan Chai, but there are a lot of neat neighborhoods in HK too. And yes, I lived in Wan Chai the entire time I lived in HK with the exception of a couple weeks in Mid-levels where I crashed with a friend while I searched for an apartment.

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