Quarry Bay and North Point, two neighboring stops on the MTR map, are a community in Hong Kong that is best visited during one of the city’s coldest days, when its aged streets are coated with a layer of the grayish dust carried here by the north wind. Though regarded as two separate stations, the distance between the two places is pleasantly walkable and strangely therapeutic. Therefore it is never a surprise why the famed poem ‘midday, Quarry Bay’, written by one of Hong Kong’s most important poets Leung Ping Kwan (1949-2013), is set right in this location. In the poem, the persona states that Quarry Bay is a place where he goes when he wants to escape the boredom at work, and that the vibrant street scene is what cheers him up and ultimately inspires him. If you are a city stroller who takes pleasure in mindlessly wandering on the streets and being inspired by your new discoveries.
Quarry Bay: great for an afternoon walk
As I have stressed in the opening sentence of this piece, what is remarkable about Quarry Bay and North Point is its agedness. Fruit stalls, roadside eateries, laborers, all of which are what one can only find in old neighborhoods in Hong Kong. If you go to newly developed towns like Tseung Kwan O and Ma On Shan, you will be greeted by interconnected mall-webs in which shops and restaurants look no difference from one another. Rarely will you ever find fruit stalls selling freshly pressed juices and hawkers laying clothes and toys on the sidewalk for sale. But in Quarry Bay and North Point, they are everywhere. Curiously, even though this poem was written in June, 1974, the picture that the poet painted in his readers’ minds – this very precipitation of what everyday life in a local neighborhood looks like – still remains more or less intact even after more than forty years. In other words, the scene portrayed in this poem, like the faint smell of tobacco on the street of Quarry Bay, lingers about and mingles with the memory of the place to create a life that outgrows the passage of time. This, is old Hong Kong in its everyday form, not the kind of british-colonial, middle-class, exoticized and eroticized nostalgia that we are so used to seeing in travel brochures (think Central as the prototype in terms of media representation).
Unique local streets and cityscape
That said, as an aged community, Quarry Bay and North Point have no less life and vividness to offer. At one point in the poem, it mentions that there exists a funeral parlor in this vicinity. Just as you may expect the area to be quite dull and lifeless, in reality it is the complete opposite. Surrounding the Hong Kong Funeral Home were not only some florists (as mentioned in the poem), but also a pretty cozy hotel called Harbor Plaza North Point, a construction site, a bookshop, and the Java Road Playground. If we see the funeral parlor as the symbol of death and perishing in a city, what surrounds it are all signifiers of life: the hotel represents mobility and movement, the construction site regeneration (not all the time though), the bookshop inspiration, and the playground energy. This is another very typical state of being of Hong Kong’s old neighborhoods – everything exists in such proximity that the tension between old and new can sometimes be reinterpreted as a kind of constant interaction and dialogue between conflicting lifestyles and ideas.
Photographing the local life
Java Road Wet Market
To look further into Quarry Bay and North Point’s power to regenerate itself, one should leave the comforts of King’s Road, the main road, and retreat to the backstreets where life flourishes. In those streets and alleys, you will see people wander and make frequent stops at shops that interest them. Often time they come here not for the goods, but for the small talks they make with that lady who runs the yarn shop or that old uncle who opens a toy shop round the corner. On Java Road there is a wet market, it is the place where you will find butchers and their bloody chopping boards, just-out-of-the-water fish and their flapping gills, and greengrocers and their colorful fruit and veggies. They together present a highly authentic picture of an average Hong Kong life that is increasingly being shoved to the margins, if not fetishized, in mainstream media representation.
Southeast Asian women and their Sunday roadside picnics
Because this is such an everyday, cheap place, it gathers people from all walks of life. Most surprisingly, on Sundays you will see crowds and crowds of Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers urban-picnicking along the streets and footbridges of North Point. Laid out on their tablecloth are boxes of traditional East Asian dishes they’ve made, with ingredients they bought probably from this market, to share with their fellow-women. All of a sudden you see a community that is more Hong Kong than Hong Kong; what is concealed under the mundane and dull appearance can be a diverse and fluid social space where these invisible, unsung heroes of the everyday can be liberated in their own chatters and songs.
New dining experiences: coffee and vegetarian buffet
It is precisely in such an organic district that new ideas strive. If the backstreets of Quarry Bay are powerful in their preservation of an authentic, down-to-earth way of life, those of North Point are the more adventurous counterpart that embraces young visionary entrepreneurs who want to test the waters. On Fort Street alone there are two spots worth visiting: Brew Note Coffee Roaster and Ahimsa Buffet. In a city where Starbucks and McDonald’s are the only vocabulary in its people’s coffee glossary, opening your own cafe selling mainly hand-drip coffee can be something very adventurous to do. Right across the street is a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Instead of opting for the a la carte mode, Ahimsa offers buffets where one can try all the dishes and get an overall impression of how versatile vegetarian food can be. This is the thing you do when you want to cultivate a vegetarian community rather than attracting crowds of one-off customers. I have always believed that shops in one way or another embody the neighborhood where they are located, just as we embody the city we dwell in. If that is the case, Quarry Bay and North Point are a site in which the old and the new inspire each other, making life possible and pleasurable.