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Hong Kong says goodbye to urban square’s bustling heart

Tripe simmering at Tung Kee Noodle on Beef Brisket Alley. Tripe simmering at Tung Kee Noodle on Beef Brisket Alley. (Joyce Man for The Boston Globe)
By Joyce Man
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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HONG KONG — One recent afternoon, people packed into a lane lovingly nicknamed Beef Brisket Alley to eat delectable slivers of meat stewed in a simmering sauce. Nearby, Eric Leung Kam-hung, a racing-pigeon vendor, tended to 100 cooing birds at the stall his father started in 1979. At the stroke of 3, eight retirees assembled at the adjacent tailor shop and struck up their daily concert on erhus, Chinese stringed instruments, as passers-by slowed to listen.

This was a day in the life of Yue Man Square at the heart of Kwun Tong, an industrial and residential hub in eastern Kowloon — but not for long.

The government is razing the square to make way for flats and commercial spaces in a $3.9 billion project, which will affect 5,000 people. The city’s Urban Renewal Authority is scheduled to complete the project on the 570,000-square-foot site by 2021 in three phases, the first of which began in 2009. The government has acquired 88 percent of the property interests, and the area’s inhabitants are moving or have moved out.

The project signals an end to a way of life. Cage dwellings — minimal-rent bed spaces — and rooftop communities that sprang up with factories in the 1950s and ’60s are gone. The noodle shops of Beef Brisket Alley will disappear. So, too, will Ling Kee Bookstore, whose owner, Peter Chan, 79, still loans out books the way many shops did decades ago, and Yen Wo Tong herbal tea store, appreciated for its tortoise jelly, a delicacy.

Kwun Tong was originally home to salt pans that helped line imperial coffers during the Song Dynasty. In the 1950s, the colonial government developed it as Hong Kong’s first satellite city, and workers and factories moved in. At one time, it was known as Little Hong Kong for being a place where people of all the city’s ethnicities, classes, and political stripes coexisted. Ho Pui-yin, a history professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that before the factories moved out, it reflected how the working class lived in the ’50s and ’60s.

Some lament the loss. “Kwun Tong is like a big stage, with dramatic stories, many colors, multiple focuses. There is so much we can learn and study in that cityscape,’’ said Anson Mak, a film, video, and sound artist who grew up there.

Yuen Chi-yan, a senior research assistant at the Hong Kong Institute of Education who regularly brings students to tour Kwun Tong, sees the area as an unusual place where the cultures of industrial workers and Chinese and Southeast Asian immigrants are on full display. “There’s talk about redevelopment, but not about the identity of Kwun Tong,’’ he said. “Yes, you can compensate residents to move. The problem is, after you compensate them, you break up their community network.’’

With the wrecker’s ball looming, Mak and Yuen, along with a group of artists and photographers, have taken to posting their thoughts, sound and video clips, and images from the square on www.kwuntongculture.hk and kwuntong.wordpress.com — started respectively by Mak and in part by Yuen — to document life in the area.

Mak said she started her site in 2009 with “a future that is of and for us, and also of and for later generations’’ in mind.

The online collaborators say Kwun Tong deserves to be experienced before the bulldozers come.

On Yuen’s must-do list is getting a $5 haircut from barbers at an alley nicknamed Haircut Street. “No one gets my hair like they do,’’ he says. He recommends buying soy sauce at Tai Ma Sauce Co., and experiencing the Hungry Ghost Festival, where participants make offerings to ghosts and ancestors believed to be roaming the earth.

Still, many are happy to see the decaying buildings go. “A change would be refreshing,’’ said Li Chi-oi, 65, a resident and shopkeeper at Yen Wo Tong. “I’m close to retiring anyway.’’

To Ho, keeping Kwun Tong as is would be at variance with the rest of the city’s development. “Hong Kong has become a city of commerce. Kwun Tong was industrial. It has completed its historical mission,’’ she said.

Joyce Man can be reached at joyce.h.man@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do
Tai Ma Sauce Co.
33 Sung Yan St.
011-852-2342-6378
Try “basin salt,’’ crystals formed in soy sauce production, to add punch to soups. Sauces, $2.50-$13.
Eric Loft
154-157 Yan Shun Lane
011-852-2344-1484
Pigeons sell for $25 and up.
Ling Kee Bookstore
89 Fu Yan St.
011-852-2341-2076
Buy Chinese novels for $2.50-$8, borrow them for $1 for five days.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Multiple locations around Yue Man Square
Annually on the 15th day of the seventh moon according to the lunar calendar, which generally falls in August. This year it falls on Aug. 14.
Where to eat
Tung Kee Noodle
94A Fu Yan St.
011-852-2389-0821
Beef brisket noodles in soup, $2.50-$6.50.
Yen Wo Tong herbal tea shop
10 Mut Wah St.
Tortoise jelly, $2.80.