Lined with stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, blooming flowers and aromatic snacks, Pei Ho Street is the kind of stretch you could imagine in a James Bond movie's chase scene. You know the type: an exotic-looking locale that 007 tears through in a flash convertible, knocking down stalls, sending hawkers flying and cursing and causing widespread chaos before delivering a glib remark and racing off, probably to bed a sultry beauty.
Located five subway stops (that's 10 minutes) north of Tsim Sha Tsui, home of the plush Peninsula Hotel – in which Roger Moore rocked up with Britt Ekland in 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun – Pei Ho Street is among the most vibrant arteries of Sham Shui Po, a predominantly working-class, market-strewn neighbourhood in Kowloon, the region of Hong Kong that fans out north of Victoria Harbour.
Tourists rarely ventured to Sham Shui Po but that's started to change as word spreads about its absorbing blend of old-school flavours, Michelin-feted dim sum and trendy new openings. Hong Kong Tourism has compiled a batch of recommended walking routes – packed with tips from local residents and traders – while tour companies such as Walk In Hong Kong offer guided strolls that reveal the nooks and crannies of a district that has a long and topsy-turvy history.
People have lived here for millennia and in the 1950s, an Eastern Han dynasty tomb, thought to be more than 2000 years old was discovered in the area. In the early days of British colonial rule, Sham Shui Po was notorious for its gambling, drugs and prostitution, and during the Chinese Civil War, refugees settled in makeshift homes here, sparking a population boom that continues to this day.
I meet my guide, William Ip, by Mei Ho House, a H-shaped, heritage-listed building that's been converted into a YHA hostel and was previously one of Hong Kong's first public housing blocks that mushroomed across Sham Shui Po, some on land reclaimed from the sea. It was constructed for low-income families after a fire ripped through the district's Shek Kip Mei enclave on Christmas Eve, 1953, leaving more than 50,000 people homeless. Tucked inside the building is a fascinating exhibition, set over two floors, that describes how the area evolved from this disaster.
As well as memorabilia, there are displays of retro fashion, Hong Kong pop album covers and black-and-white photographs of children larking about in playgrounds.
We browse a series of units, from the austere, cramped apartments of the 1950s – when a family of five would typically share a dingy 10-square-metre unit – to the well-lit blocks of the 1970s, when Hong Kong's economy took off and flats, though still short on space, were neatly furnished with a fridge, TV and electric fan. The exhibition also tells the stories of people who grew up in the district's public housing, including film director John Woo. In his youth Woo had many colourful experiences on Sham Shui Po's gritty streets, experiences said to have inspired the plots of his action thrillers, which include Hong Kong-set crime dramas such as 1989's The Killer and 1992's Hard Boiled and Hollywood hits such as 1997's Face/Off starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. William tells me: "There were lots of gangsters and bad guys in this area and John Woo had to carry an iron bar for protection. One day, a group threw acid on him. He was lucky that one of his aunties poured a bucket of water on him, so his injuries weren't so bad."
Sham Shui Po seems much less threatening today. William and I potter through the district past flea markets, shop-houses, electronics arcades, advertising billboards, pharmacies, temples, roadside stalls and eateries full of smells and sizzling sounds. We shuffle beneath a handful of pre World War II-buildings, weathered six- and seven-storey 1970s housing blocks rife with fluttering laundry.
Passing haberdashery shops and clothes stores, William says the area once had a thriving textiles and garment industry, but factories relocated to mainland China to cut costs. The neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po is one of Hong Kong's poorest and one of its most elderly. The median age is 40-plus and many people we rub shoulders with are nearly twice that age. The pace of life is generally noticeably slower here than in, say, Mong kok or Central. As well as the cries of market vendors bellowing out sales pitches, as they try to offload everything from fresh fish to shower heads, vintage typewriters and mobile phone cases, one of the most familiar sounds is that of walking sticks clattering the pavements. We also see hunched-up figures pulling shopping trolleys, wrapped-up folk in wheelchairs and wizened characters smoking and chewing the fat on street corners. For a meal, they shuffle into neighbourhood stalwarts such Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, which dates back to the 1960s and does a roaring trade in tofu-based dishes. Perched on stools outside the tiled interior, we tuck into creamy pudding sweetened by red sugar. But there is a more youthful side to Sham Shui Po, as young entrepreneurs and creatives move in and new ventures open up. Such places are easy to spot, their slick, Insta-worthy facades an eye-catching contrast to the area's veteran businesses. Doughnut, on Fuk Wa Street, is one example, its windows flaunting hipster backpacks and luggage from budding Hong Kong designers.
On Tai Nan Street, which was a filming location for Transformers: Age of Extinction and Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 2, you'll find, among other things, a boutique soap workshop, a sleek bicycle store, a craft leather shop and Cafe Sausalito, where I enjoy a good flat white in an industrial-style decor. Boosting the zest of the surrounding streets are quirky murals on apartment blocks and graffiti adorning shop shutters.
At the end of our 2½-hour tour, William leaves me at arguably Sham Shui Po's most popular eatery. Crowds, mostly locals but a few Westerners, queue outside Tim Ho Wan, a dim sum purveyor on Fuk Wing Street, which, along with a few of its sister restaurants, earned a Michelin star in 2015. It's the brainchild of two former Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong chefs and has since opened branches in other cities such as Perth and Melbourne.
As I claim my reserved table, a pot of tea arrives and I tick what I fancy from the menu: a sheet of paper in both Chinese and English. Service is brisk and everything – the baked barbecue pork buns, shrimp dumplings and steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce – is delicious. The bill comes to $HK69 ($12.50). Like a morning, or afternoon, exploring Sham Shui Po, lunch here is something I'd heartily recommend on your next visit to Hong Kong.
Steve McKenna was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney and Melbourne. See cathaypacific.com
Walk In Hong Kong offers a range of guided walks.Sham Shui Po: A Story of Grassroots Hong Kong operates upon request and costs from HK$1800 for one or two people. See walkin.hk