Travel: Old Town Central in Hong Kong is where arts, culture, and cuisine comes together

Hong Kong may be best known for its glossy skyscrapers and world class attractions, but this side of the country is seldom talked about

By Bindu Gopal Rao

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Published: Thu 2 Nov 2023, 6:45 PM

As soon as I landed in Hong Kong, I saw the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s office at the airport and casually picked up an illustrated map of the Old Town Central. In hindsight, this was the best thing about my trip.

Old Town call

As I scanned the map, it was quite fascinating to note that there was so much beyond the glitzy skyscrapers that the city had to offer. And on cue, I decided to start my exploration of the old town early in the morning and took the metro from Hong Kong Ocean Park Marriott Hotel where I was staying, to Central. As I stepped off the train, I realised why this is one of the oldest yet most dynamic districts in the city. With sloped streets and small alleys, Central and Sheung Wan are home to some of the earliest developments of the country’s history. Set in these cobblestone streets are century-old temples, fashion-forward concept stores, authentic tea houses and modern art galleries that rub shoulders with each other, giving the city its mix of the traditional and the contemporary.

Street smart

The best part of Central is that it is easily walkable and brimming with attractions at every nook and corner. Possession Street must be your first stop as it is believed that this is the area where the British navy first arrived and began their 150 years of colonial rule. This area was originally perched on a waterfront and has been given a new lease of life through reclamation. Now there are hip restaurants and boutiques alongside historic stores. Next, head to Pottinger Street as this is where you get an insight into how Central's early dwellers would have been like. The unique feature here is the irregular stone slabs that span the entire street. This was because there were many sections between Possession Street (or Hollywood Road) and Pottinger street that were very steep, and the uneven pavement made it easier for commuters and merchants to walk on it and it also allowed rainwater to flow down. The road is flanked by stores that sell festive costumes or handicrafts.

Museum musings

When in Central, a stop at The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences is a must. The façade has an Edwardian brick building feel, and this place is a symbol of the development of Medical Sciences in Hong Kong. Locals say that after the bubonic plague in the late 19th century, the then colonial government stepped up efforts in medical development and set up the first bacteriology institute. The museum is home to important exhibits that depict the city's medical history and is the first institution of its kind to compare Chinese and Western pathologies. Located close to the museum is The Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong on Bridges Street Centre. Dating to 1918, this six-storey building merges the Chicago School of architecture and Chinese roofing techniques in terms of its built architecture. In the early 20th century, it was a major social centre for Chinese youth. Also stop at the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum, dedicated to the life and achievements of Dr Sun Yat-sen, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Republic of China.

Spiritual sojourn

Central is also home to several religious institutions from Chinese temples to Catholic cathedrals. A must see is the beautiful Man Mo temple, built over 150 years ago. Do not miss the old bronze bell, granite pillars and door frames, wooden plaques and ancient mural paintings in this well-preserved historic space. The Jamia Mosque is the oldest mosque in the city and has a typical green- hued Islamic architecture. The Catholic Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, built in the late 1880s is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and was constructed in a cruciform shape with a central spire and has an honourable mention by the UNESCO Asia Pacific heritage conservation award in 2003.

Art attack

One of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, Old Town Central is bursting with creativity in every street corner. PMQ, or the erstwhile Police Married Quarters, is the place to head for an art fix. This area has exhibitions and workshops throughout the year that showcase local talent and urban contemporary artists. Walking around this area, you must stop and admire the wall murals and street art like the two giant swimming koi fish. At Tom Street, check the work of an art pioneer from China who has decorated the wall of an unassuming staircase and a vibrant mural done in a signature, old-school, graffiti-lettering style at Graham Street. Local graffiti artist Alex works as well as the stunning mural of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin on Madera Hotel is not to be missed. So, the next time you are in Hong Kong, go off the beaten path to discover the many secrets of Central. It’s a vibe that is waiting to be discovered.

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