At weekends, the vibrant, crowded streets of Kowloon intensify in Mong Kok to a point where the footfall outpaces London’s rush hour. In the heat and high humidity, it occasionally seems difficult to breathe. Weekdays are busy, too. By rights, the markets here should be extinct, gone the way of rickshaws and shophouses thanks to gentrification, air-conditioned malls and the internet. Instead, they thrive. Here’s The markets of Mong Kok.
Two years ago, Mong Kok made international news when the “umbrella revolution” arrived, student-led occupations and protests aimed at bringing the city to a standstill. Weeks of stand-off followed, then violence erupted as police clashed not only with the students, but traders and triad gangsters frustrated by gridlocked traffic and political deadlock. Today, despite supermarkets eclipsing many of the food stalls, hordes of Hongkongers and visitors still descend on this Kowloon district in search of a bargain.
Toy collectibles | The markets of Mong Kok
The modern Mong Kok marketplace is above ground, forced upwards into the area’s tenement buildings by increased rents. Hong Kong’s property boom isn’t just at the top end (the world’s most expensive street, Pollock’s Path, is less than five miles away), so many stallholders now lease space in cheaper, upper floors. Anonymous doorways can lead to a variety of curiosity shops.
The two floors that make up In’s Point are crammed with new and used toy collectibles; acres of lego, game characters and movie merchandise, stacked floor to ceiling, in clear perspex stalls. Masses of Iron Man masks, retro money-eating monsters, Batmen and Supermen. Some stalls are sublet, divided into smaller perspex cubes, where amateur collectors display and sell on their fantasy trove to the likeminded. Many are online, such as tokyostation.com.hk.
But it’s not just about toys: fashion, retro Japanese shoes, antiques, vintage wear and The Bruce Lee Club are squeezed in here, too. Similar, but roomier, is the nearby CTMA Centre: six floors of tailoring, prototype and retro toys, boutiques, manga comics and anime DVDs.
• In’s Point, 530-538 Nathan Rd; CTMA Centre, 1N Sai Yeung Choi Street South
Other multistorey markets … | The markets of Mong Kok
The Mongkok Computer Centre (8 Nelson Street) for technowizardy old and new; The Sino Centre (582 Nathan Road) for Asian pop culture and secondhand CDs; Trendy Zone (580A Nathan Road) – think TopShop/Primark, but cheaper.
Sneaker Street | The markets of Mong Kok
A 200-yard stretch at the southern end of Fa Yuen Street is rammed with every sneaker, plimsoll, running shoe design ever made: Nike Air Max, Converse Wedges, Supra Skytops, Vans or those silver-brogued trainers you’ve been dreaming of are here, leaving JD Sports on the starting block. New products arrive the instant they’re launched, anything considered five minutes ago is shunted to the back. Older styles are heavily discounted (50% is common) in outlets like SMS Crew (“Super Mad Sneakers”) and Dahood. There are no fakes, partly because the manufacturers themselves are now jostling for shop space.
• Sneaker Street, at the southern end of Fa Yuen Street, between Argyle Street and Dundas Street
Fa Yuen Street Market | The markets of Mong Kok
The northern end of the street has stalls and shops piled high with pants and bras, trousers and tops, bags, accessories and myriad leopard-skin mobile phone covers. Shoes in small stores, such as Red Bee, start at HK$29 (about £3). Silvered leather is clearly a thing right now.
It’s all mixed up with kitchen gadgets, exotic vegetables, a small bakery for fresh mooncakes, and one stall loudly demonstrating the rich variety of karaoke microphones available today. The corner at Mongkok Road houses a covered wet market, where mongers eschew ice in favour of compartmentalised counters holding enough shallow water for fish to wriggle energetically until purchased.
• Fa Yuen Street Market, between Prince Edward Road West and Mongkok Road
The Ladies Market | The markets of Mong Kok
Once the flagship thoroughfare, brassily boasting fashions knock-offs, handbags and watches. There are still clothes – Chinese old-lady-style silk dresses and wide-leg culottes – but the fakes are hidden from view in response to the law. No shortage of verbal offers (“Copywatch! Copywatch!”) but only the occasional stallholder is foolhardy enough to display any glittering contraband. One stall had counterfeit canvas artworks of Yue Minjun, China’s best-known contemporary painter, whose grinning self-portraits realise millions at auction: after a few seconds haggling, the asking price of HK$300 (about £30) tumbled to HK$120 (£12). Mens’ “Ralph Lauren” polo shirts are four for HK$100 (£10).
There’s jade (a separate jade market is well known for selling fakes), mobile phone accessories, collectibles and leather goods. It’s not all tat, by any means. If you really do want to bring back souvenir mahjong sets, or decorative chopsticks, they’re cheaper here than the tourist shops in Central. In the evening it gets very busy – and be prepared for robust argument over prices.
• Ladies Market, Tung Choi Street, between Dundas Street and Argyle Street
Goldfish Market | The markets of Mong Kok
There’s no other market street like this anywhere, certainly not in the west. Several blocks of tiny shops display dozens of water-filled plastic pouches in their doorways, holding all manner of brightly coloured fish, on sale for pennies. They’re interspersed with pet shops, with small dogs in the windows. Others showcase miniature turtles and tortoises, large insects and small kittens. Sacks of pet food, boxes and cages spill out higgledy-piggledy onto the pavement. Inside, miniature menageries sell rodents, insects, more puppies, rabbits and yet more kittens. In the Harbour Koi Centre (no 174), a tank of giant koi carp were priced at HK$2,000 (£200) each. Gifts for the dedicated aquarist include underwater Chinese pagodas, bonsai trees, wrecked junks and replicas of SpongeBob SquarePants.
• Goldfish market, northern end of Tung Choi Street, between Mongkok Road and Prince Edward Road West
Shanghai Street | The markets of Mong Kok
The southern end is where to go for kitchen equipment: woks and chopsticks, steamer baskets and bowls, porcelain ladles and all manner of other gadgets. Man Kee at No 342 has beautifully crafted chopping boards. You may also be interested in catering equipment, knives and machetes (or possibly not).
Further north, (numbers 600 to 626) is a row of 10 scruffy looking “shophouses”, which date from the 1920s and are Grade I listed, a reminder to modern Hongkongers in high-rise towers of a recent past, when tenants would mostly live and work in tiny rented apartments above narrow shops.
At 481, a store window is filled with what appears to be a large display of bright yellow Cheesy Wotsits but is, in fact, fish maw, dried swim bladders which are the buoyancy controllers of large fish. Rich in collagen and gelatin, maw is feted in China as a healthy ingredient for soups and stews, and is reputed to be the secret of shining, healthy skin. Shelves groan with large jars of other fresh and dried health supplements; abalone, ginseng, goji berries, sea cucumbers, mandarin peel and clipped-off bull tails, which are apparently a gentleman’s aid …
English is not spoken and although prices start at a few pounds for each item, they climb steeply, according to age and quality, peaking at several hundred pounds a kilo. (Across the bay at Sheung Wan there’s a dedicated market, “Dried Seafood Street”, and, elsewhere, a profitable illegal trade in maw from endangered species.)
Flower Market Road | The markets of Mong Kok
This is half a mile of cheap blooms and plants with large numbers of orchids and bonsai trees – the clue’s in the name. The pavements are crammed with greenery, the air heavily scented. It’s a welcome oasis in the midst of Mong Kok’s overcrowded thoroughfares. At the centre is Brighten, a three-storey, air-conditioned supermarket of dried-flower sprays for every occasion, Christmas decorations (from August), mid-autumn festival bouquets, giant paper rabbits and silk flowers aplenty.
The adjacent shops on Prince Edward Road West are equally interesting. Zen in 5 Seasons produces its own healthy elixirs (schisandra and momordica fruits, self-heal spike tea; honeysuckle, Chinese wolfberry and chrysanthemum tea). Next door, Natural Cha Cha has unusually sublime indoor/outdoor ceramics and objets, and Farm Direct is a healthy chain of shops specialising in pesticide-free, hydroponically grown fruit and veg, sold either unadulterated or fashioned into lettuce noodles or kale spaghetti. Next door is Maria’s, a home bakery with a fine line in delicious, not quite so healthy, soft and fluffy mini cheesecakes plus Fong’s egg cake (on sale every day from 3pm).
Bird Market | The markets of Mong Kok
At the eastern end of the flower market can be heard the twittering of small birds – hundreds of them. The commercial side does nothing to alleviate concerns about caging birds: lots of small birds temporarily housed in very small, yellow, plastic cages are not a pretty sight. There’s bird food for sale, including bags of live locusts, which one stallholder has to extract from a large cage by hand, an act which owes more to the bushtucker trials of I’m a Celebrity … than avian or insect husbandry.
Adjacent to this is the garden (bird-garden.hk), where elderly men bring their tiny winged companions in delicate cages, to sit and listen in contemplation. Away from the crowds and the traffic roar, in the shade of the trees, the garden offers respite, a rare moment to consider the most pleasurable tweets in Hong Kong – without a smartphone in sight.
• Yuen Po Street Bird Garden and Market, Yuen Po Street