Hong Kong remakes itself with such ruthless efficiency that few physical traces remain of its past. In many neighbourhoods, the only reminders of what came before are the names of streets. Take Mongkok for example. Today, this is one of the busiest and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, a shopping district, transport hub, industrial area and residential zone packed into one rather small patch of land. It has been that way for decades — this is how the New York Times described it in 1988:
In Mong Kok, space, any space, is special. Here, high-rise buildings are so close to one another they touch like row houses, and many of the apartments jammed inside are so small, families sleep on bunk beds stacked three and four high and keep their belongings in chests and baskets suspended from the ceiling.
In Mong Kok, the family pet is a goldfish or a tiny bird.
Mong Kok students often go to the waiting areas of Hong Kong’s busy Kai Tak Airport when they want a quiet place to study, and their parents check into hourly rate hotel rooms when they want privacy.
But Mongkok’s street names tell a different story. They speak of a more pastoral time, though one that was surely short-lived, since the area developed quickly after the Kowloon street grid was extended north from Yau Ma Tei. Above is a picture of Sai Yeung Choi Street — Watercress Street — which is lined by clothing stores and electronics shops, but which once ran through fields that presumably grew the bitter green vegetable.
Below, Fa Yuen (Garden) Street, home to one of the neighbourhood’s most popular (not to mention unfortunate) street markets.
Tong Choi Street’s name refers to ipomoea aquatica, a vegetable known in English as morning glory or water spinach. The street has a split personality: below Argyle Street, it’s known as the Ladies’ Market, a popular destination for cheap clothes and souvenirs, while above Mong Kok Road, it’s Goldfish Street, which is where you go to buy a new aquatic friend. (The two blocks in between Argyle and Mong Kok Road are a kind of purgatory, filled with idling minibuses and late-night restaurants.) You can almost certainly get a dish of tong choi in one of Tong Choi Street’s restaurants, and it’s delicious with fermented bean curd.
To the south, Sai Yee Street is known for its athletic shops, while a northern portion runs through the Flower Market, but most of the street is an unpleasant traffic artery. Its name translates as Clothes Washing Street. Laundry still hangs from many of its apartment windows, but I’m not sure how fresh it would smell.
One much less-known street is Nullah Road, which runs diagonally from the Flower Market to Nathan Road. It owes its name and path to an old nullah that runs from Kowloon Tong to Victoria Harbour. Nullahs are stone or concrete drainage channels dug by the British to prevent flooding in Hong Kong’s low-lying areas. They once criss-crossed the countryside, but as the city developed, many of them became open sewers, and they were eventually covered up. (A lucky few were cleaned up enough to avoid being capped.) The last exposed section of this Mongkok nullah was covered in 2010, but it still cuts a distinct path through the urban landscape.
Tags: Hong Kong, Kowloon, Mongkok, Street Names, Toponymy