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Take a walk on the wild side with Wordie
17 June 2007
South China Morning Post

A street-by-street handbook aimed at Hongkongers, Streets: Exploring Kowloon, takes walkers beyond the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist traps and into a hinterland of housing estates, barbers, bonesetters, tailors and the former Kowloon Walled City, soaking up fragments of history and the atmosphere of today along the way.

Written by local historian Jason Wordie, it's a follow-up to Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island, with a third in the series, on Macau, in the works. Kowloon, for Wordie, constitutes anything south of the Kowloon hills - including Tsuen Wan, the posh houses of Kowloon Tong, second world war battlements at Shing Mun, and what Wordie classes as Hong Kong's post-war success story - public housing.

He doesn't prettify Kowloon, nor is the book a list of highlights. There are the attractions - Kowloon City Park, an oasis set between some of the most densely populated areas in the world, with its canons and displays of the foundations of former 1950s houses that had spaghetti electric wires, drug dens and dentists. But there are also accounts of extreme poverty, open sewers and prostitution.

"I refuse to wear rose-coloured glasses," says Wordie, a columnist with the Post. "I tell it as I see it, and there are pockets of extreme poverty here that don't fit in with Hong Kong's image of itself as an inter-national city."

Wordie has spent years wandering the streets visiting tailors' shops and stopping for a chat, the owners usually disarmed enough by this Australian from Queensland who speaks fluent Cantonese to answer his questions.

Although bonesetter shops may be on the decline, plenty are still to be found, along with other small entrepreneurs who have often worked out of the same shop for decades. But perhaps not for much longer. Areas such as Sham Shui Po, where charm and poverty sit side by side, face the wrecking ball of the Urban Renewal Authority in the next few years, and Wordie's advice is to see them while you can.

Having arrived here in the 1980s from Queensland to teach British army gurkhas in Sek Kong, Wordie then studied Hong Kong history at the University of Hong Kong before becoming a historian. His books include one about Hong Kong's second world war battlefields, written with fellow local historian Tim Ko, and others on Hong Kong and Macau.

When he's not writing, Wordie takes walking groups around Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou. "If you go back 50 years, there were a lot of White Russians and Portuguese," he says. "These weren't transient populations, but people who stayed and ran businesses, including cafes and restaurants." This is why local cafes often have borscht soup and Portuguese egg tarts on the menu.

These days, Hong Kong is about 97 per cent Cantonese-speaking, and Wordie says it has never possessed the multiculturalism behind its Asia's World City branding. But Kowloon's old buildings give an insight into some of the international communities.

The Club de Recreio, which was established in 1906, was one of the premier sporting clubs in Hong Kong for more than half a century. It was a social centre for the younger Portuguese set, while their elders went to Club Lusitano, which is still on its original site in Ice House Street, Central. In Kowloon Tong, St Teresa's church was financed largely by the Italian and Portuguese communities. A plaque by its door records that fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was a major donor.

Wordie is fascinated by these connections. "Take Kowloon City," he says. "You suddenly come across a bunch of Thai restaurants - why are they here?" Because the Thais are Chiu Chow Chinese, who brought in rice from Thailand. In the 50s and 60s in the Kowloon Walled City, they refined heroin brought in from Thailand, then shipped it back via Kai Tak airport just a few hundred metres away.

Alongside historical references, Wordie describes current, urban, housing-estate living: areas where there's no foreign influence - arguably the real Hong Kong.

"Quite a few people still rear chickens in their kitchens," says Wordie. "In Sham Shui Po, we came across a shop that was selling day-old chicks, which are then taken home, live in a cage in the kitchen and, when they're big enough, have their throats slit and become a meal."

Streets: Exploring Kowloon by Jason Wordie (Hong Kong University Press, HK$195)
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