I’ve never lived in the middle of nowhere. But I suspect those who do get the same looks as I do when I mention that I live in Sham Shui Po. “Where?” with a look of confusion quickly followed by disinterest. It seems that the only expats that have ever heard of our neighborhood are women that like crafts. You can buy wholesale fabric and beads and large quantities of other craft supplies in Sham Shui Po; like a giant Michael’s full of pushy Chinese people and fish balls on sticks.
The major redeeming quality of Sham Shui Po is rent prices. Living in a newly constructed building (albeit with shoddy construction) is much more reasonable than on Hong Kong island were the majority of the foreigners live. When people at home ask me where I live I tell them to picture what it’s like two metro stops from the most densely populated place on earth (130 people/square meter). I’m sure there’s some part of an outer borough that I could compare it to if I knew New York well enough, but I don’t.
If anyone has anything to say about Sham Shui Po, which isn’t often, it’s that it must be great to live in a place with so much character. I’ve always been wary of the word character since it’s what my parents told me I would get from shoveling snow. But I’ll admit that never before have I lived somewhere with a night flea market or a street morgue for old fridges. If you need a used appliance (rice cooker, electric drill, microwave of questionable origin) the Sham Shui Po street market is the place to be.
I read an article once in one of those free magazines at coffee shops about how Hong Kong is quickly loosing it’s street culture – that of open markets and small vendors bargaining the day (or night) away. The article said that malls have taken over, and indeed this argument is evidenced everywhere. Sometimes you even need to go through underground malls just to cross the street. Commerce is moving indoors at a fast clip – air conditioning, Louis Vuitton, and high-end face creams marching into a sterile future. Sham Shui Po could well be one of the last strongholds of street life in Hong Kong. Could it be that the streets of Shum Shui Po, while overwhelming to live in, are keeping a fading culture alive?
From a cursory reading of local newspapers it’s obvious that change is on the way for such neighborhoods in Hong Kong. I am not an expert, but it seems that every time I pick up the “City” section of the paper (not as often as I should) there is a piece about the housing crises, with squatting and the illegal division of flats in Sham Shui Po often cited as issues. I get a sense that once the low-income folks are relocated further out into the New Territories the older more decrepit buildings of Sham Shui Po will be replaced with modern housing like ours, and shiny shopping malls with soon follow. Maybe in 10 years it will just be another Tsim Sha Tsui. We’ll have to wait and see. But for now, Sham Shui Po still has plenty of character.