Wanchai on a Budget

Hong Kong WanChai DistrictWanchai is nestled between Causeway Bay and Admiralty. It’s within walking distance both ways, but the best way to navigate from either point is definitely by tram. Hong Kong Tramways has been in service since 1904 and runs exclusively on the island. The tramway runs from Shau Kei Wan to Kennedy Town and has frequent stops along its routes. Regardless of how far you travel, the standard fare is HK$2 for adults and HK$1 for children and seniors. It is by far the most economical transportation method on the island, especially for short distances. In addition, the window seats provide great vantage points to view the city. Trams do move quite slowly along its own tram line, but when you are stuck in one of the infamous traffic jams in Hong Kong, you will be glad at least you are inching forward. Better still, you have a choice over the other motorists by abandoning ship, get off at one of the many tram stops and walk instead.

If you board the tram near the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay, the tram will pass by a bridge behind Times Square. The hollow space underneath the bridge is one the gathering points of grannies, squatting on wooden stools providing a “service” known as “beating the petty person”. Having written the name of the annoying person on the paper man, the granny will beat the paper man to pulp for you, all the time chanting bad wishes on the unfortunate guy/gal. It is believed to be effective in ridding the “petty” person from your life.

Moving onwards, one of the tram stops in Wanchai is the Wanchai market on Johnston Road, complete with a dry goods market and wet market. You will find many shops selling dried scallop, mushroom and sharks fin. When Chinese New Year approaches, shops are stocked to the ceiling with candied winter melons, lotus seeds and sunflower seeds, all components of traditional candy boxes used to serve guests visiting during the New Year. You will see many stalls selling children’s wear and adult casual wear, too. Garments with brand names are mostly fake explaining the cheap price tags. After walking past several stalls, you will notice they carry almost the same stock. If something has caught your eye, this is the time to flare your radars to compare and haggle. It is a great place to barter for staples like socks, underwear and towels in the bundles.

Stalls in the wet market sell vegetable, meat and live seafood. Some locals will mull around a seafood stall for the exact moment an expensive fish belly up then close in to bargain. The price of the said fish which has been swimming a few seconds ago will be at a big discount now. If looking at raw meat on hooks and live fish killed and scaled turn your stomach, a short sprint will take you to a crossroad selling silk flowers and festival decorations. Prior to Chinese New Year, loads of paper goods emblazoned in red and gold with well wishing wordings will be seen hanging in rows. As with any merchandize nowadays, you will find Disney characters on most of these paper decorations, signifying capitalization is in full rein which makes hunting for traditional decorations an often frustrating and futile endeavor. There are twelve Chinese zodiac signs, each representing a different year. You will find all kinds of products made in the likes of the sign the New Year ushers in. These little trinkets are great gifts for family and friends back home and best of all, they won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

There are many small eateries snuggled in the nooks and crannies of the market, with four tables or so max and mighty uncomfortable seats. This ensures the fast turnaround of tables as great food means brisk business. The eateries encourage takeaways and there are so many choices to choose from, you can easily have a buffet in your hotel room. The market is sandwiched between Hennessy Road and Queen’s Road. Should you emerge from the maze and find yourself on Hennessy Road, there is no missing the Wanchai Computer Center and 298 Computer Zone, both must-go destinations for computer lovers. There are brand new and second hand computer hardware, software plus every conceivable computer related gizmos here. If you are a tech person, there are many bargains to be found with the almost brand new second hand products. Before venturing into the Wanchai market and computer malls, you must psyche yourself for the crowd and jostling. No pain, no gain.

Should you find yourself on Queen’s Road East, you will find yourself breathing easier as it is much less crowded compared to the narrow market streets and the packed computer malls. As you walk up Queen’s Road towards Admiralty, you can feel the area becoming more affluent. At the crossroads of Wing Fung Street and Queens’ Road east, a little slope awaits which will bring you to a very short but distinguished street known as Star Street.

Star Street is linked to Pacific Place 3 and the upscale shopping mall, the Pacific Place Mall, in Admiralty. The street is synonymous with chic restaurants, cool furniture stores and luxury apartments. The branding of the area has become so successful it has come to be known as the Star Street Precinct. It even boasts the first Agnes b.‘s Librairie Galerie outside of Paris. The art gallery though small is big in character and you will be surprised by some of the local art work on display. The restaurants are quite pricey in the Precinct. Cinecitta is an Italian restaurant with a nouvelle menu that gives Italian food a twist. 1/5 Neuvo is a lounge/restaurant where you can chill in cool lounge music with drinks and Spanish tapas. If the prices of these menus take your appetite away, you can always grab a latte at the Pacific Coffee chain. Hopefully you have picked up some egg custard tarts and pineapple buns in the market. Voila you can now enjoy your high tea at the resting area on Wing Fung Street and soak in the ambience. Yes, you haven’t patron the restaurants, but you have still eaten at Star Street.

Star Street is one of the 15 sites on the Wanchai Heritage Trail, newly launched in September, 2009. Wanchai is one of the earliest developed areas and there are many old buildings of note. The trail is introduced by the Old Wanchai Revitalization Initiatives Special Committee to preserve and promote the history and architecture in the district. The Blue House is one of the most famous sites. Its architecture style is known as the “Tong Lau” meaning Chinese building. It’s impossible to miss because the entire façade of the building is painted blue. The goal of the Urban Renewal Authority is to have all these sites fully functional again. The old Wanchai Post Office, built in 1912-3 has been operating for 80 years before it is converted to an Environmental Resource Center in 1992, complete with a library and touch screen environmental information. If you have two hours to spare, you can join the two-hour trail tour to learn more about the conservation value of these buildings. With the scarcity of land in Hong Kong, conservation versus development is a never ending debate. If you are interested in the cultural history of Wanchai, this is indeed an ideal tour. Besides being a freebie, you never know if these buildings will be here at a later date.

By this time if you may be ready for a drink. Wanchai will be forever linked with the Suzy Wong film and sailors seeking fun. The bars and red light district are still in place and the bar scene usually starts at happy hour and will be in full swing as the evening wears on. If rowdiness is not your thing, there is a real gem where you can quietly enjoy your drink with a spectacular view of the harbor. This little cafe is located in the Hong Kong Arts Center in Wanchai North. It is one of the rare places which offer decent and affordable food in the midst of the luxurious hotels and restaurants in this part of Wanchai. After your drink, you may want to browse among the exhibition galleries. Unless otherwise stated, the admission is free.

This is a budget day tour of Wanchai. As opposed to the newer northern part, it may not be as glamorous. However old Wanchai has its own charm with the rich cultural history and lest we forget, the great bargain shopping. You will be amazed by how little you have spent to experience such diversity. It is an area definitely worth exploring.

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Bonnie Wong is a full time writer, bilingual translator and founder of Pastel b. cards. She hopes to share the uniqueness of Hong Kong with everyone through her writing. Learn more about me [+]

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