At 78 storeys and 374m the Central Plaza is Hong Kong's tallest building, and until the completion of the 112-storey Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 1996,was also Asia's tallest building. For a time it was the world's fifth-highest building, and still holds the record for a building made from reinforced concrete. Special plasticisers had to be added to the concrete to prevent it from solidifying as it was pumped up over 300m.Completed in 1892, it provides a potent symbol of the manner in which the glitz of Central's downtown is spreading east into the old red-light district of Wan Chai.Be sure to see Central Plaza in conjunction with another outstanding Wan Chai building, the nearby Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
During office hours you can ride the Plaza's lifts to the Sky Lobby observation deck on the 46th floor to admire some spectacular views over the city. At ground level the building's public spaces are equally impressive, the vast 30m high lobby a palatial vision of marble, paintings and real-life palm trees. At night the Plaza's illuminated exterior and triangular glass pyramid and summit mast - which have seen it dubbed the 'Big Syringe' - make the building an unmissable feature of the city skyline.
Unlike the Bank of China Tower, however, whose angles and points reputedly produce bad feng shui, the contractors thoughtfully rounded the edges of the Central Plaza's angles to temper any malevolent forces.
Sheng Wan District
Sheung Wan, the area to the west of Central, is not the most westerly of Hong Kong Island's city districts - Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town lie further west - but is about as far as most visitors venture during their stay. An area of traditional streets and trades, it begins almost immediately beyond the Central Market, though like other areas on the fringes of Centrai - notably Admirtitley and Wan Chai - its old buildings are increasingly having to make way for modern skyscrapers.
Certain traditional enclaves survive, however, most of which you can visit during the course of a morning's walk. One of the key areas centres on Bonham Strand and Ko Shing Street, heart of the city's wholesale trade in traditional medicines. Another focuses on Hollywood Road, centre of the art and antiques district and home to the Man Mo Temple, the most impressive of the city's temples. Close by lies Tai Ping Shan Street, where three smaller but equally interesting temples survive.
Wan Chai is Hong Kong's best-known district after Central,its fame partly the result of Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong, a book that chronicled the life and loves of a Wan Chai prostitute (a film was also made). The area was the first of five wan, residential quarters set aside by the British for the Chinese; Central, or Victoria as it was then known, was reserved largely for Europeans. British military barracks were later installed, and where soldiers came, prostitutes soon followed.
Wan Chai's reputation as a red-light district prevailed for years, achieving its greatest notoriety during the Korean and Vietnam wars, when its bars, brothels and clubs were favoured points of 'rest and relaxation' for off-duty servicemen. Today the streets still have the slightly seedy look of the 1950s and 1960s, full of dark alleys and crumbling tenements, not to mention a preponderance of bars, clubs, British 'pubs' and hostess 'establishments'. Sailors on shore leave, locals and curious tourists still prowl the night-time streets, though the area's sex, salaciousness and earthy vigour are now either memories or have been sanitised for public consumption.
Bonham Strand is one of Hong Kong Island's major streets, beginning in Central at the end of Queen's Road and pushing west into Sheung Wan, where it divides into Bonham Strand East and Bonham Strand West. Well worth exploring, it retains its appeal despite the loss of many of its traditional sights to redevelopment.
Stores here and on surrounding streets have long specialised in the sale of medicinal herbs and ingredients of more dubious efficacy. Many retain their open-fronted facades, along with shelves, drawers and glass cabinets overflowing with a cornucopia of Chinese cure-alls. These include bark, insects, crushed pearls, reindeer horn anddried sea horses, not to mention highly venomous snakes(dead and alive), which are put to both medical and gastronomic use. Snake soup is a warming winter favourite - the snake trade peaks between October and February - while snake's gall-bladder is believed to alleviate rheumatism.The cure involves swallowing the raw gall-bladder, recently extracted from a live snake, with only a comforting glass of wine to help it down. The deadlier the snake, apparently,the more efficacious the cure.
Less alarming but equally as potent is ginseng, 'king of the medicinal herbs', the root of a plant that grows insome 30 varieties across Southeast Asia and parts of North America. North Korea's red ginseng is particularly prized, as is the white of North America, though the most precious variety is a type gathered wild in northeast China. Ginseng is always expensive, but by the time this particular variety has been processed it retails at several hundred thousands of Hong Kong dollars an ounce.
Smarter ginseng wholesalers congregate on Bonham Strand West, along with modern bank and other business buildings. Bonham Strand East, particularly at its easternend, is given over to caf?§|s and shops selling more exotic -and off-putting - food and ingredients. Linger at some and you should see snakes being chosen, dispatched and prepared for consumption. Ko Shing Street is similar, and boasts many wholesalers - expect to see ingredients in baskets and bulging sacks being unloaded. Also be sure to look into the nearby Sheung Wan Market and check out the street barbers in Sutherland Street.
Des Voeux Road
Des Voeux Road is Hong Kong Island's principal street after Queen's Road. Built on reclaimed land in the 1880s, it takes its name from Sir William Des Voeux, governor of the former British colony between 1887 and 1891 . For much of the 19th century it formed the heart of the business district - the island's first City Hall was opened here by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869. A short time later the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank built their headquarters here, quickly followed by the Bank of Canton and other leading businesses.
The street still contains many company headquarters,as well as numerous prestigious shops and offices. Walk west on the street - or take the tram which runs the whole of its length - and you pass, among others, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building, the Old Bank of China and the Landmark shopping complex. Further west you encounter more traditional shops specialising in preserved foods, as well as the Central and Western markets.
Several side streets between the markets have long been known for different speciality shops, though creeping redevelopment is wiping out many of the old stores.
WingKut Street still specialises in wholesale costume jewellery- with fantastic quantities of beads and bangles - and shops selling socks, scarves and other accessories. One street down, Wing Wo Street once specialised in feather dusters; Wing Sing Street was the haunt of egg sellers; and Wing Lok Street was the heart of the city's rice trade.
One street where tradition has survived the developers is the southern half of Man Wa Lane, where several stalls make and sell engraved seals or 'chops'. Such seals have been used for some 3,000 years as marks of ownership or in place of a signature on paintings and documents.Traders are used to visitors asking for seals to take home, and most are able to translate your name or message of your choice into Chinese characters, as well as adding a dragon, lion or other motif as an extra flourish. You can also choose the material in which the chop is made: porcelain, wood or soap stone are the most common, but ivory, bronze, marble and plastic are other possibilities. You can also decide between high or low relief: some people claim women should go for low relief (yin wen),men for high (yang wen).
Hollywood Road and many of its surrounding streets are known primarily for their range of antique and second-hand stores. Many of the shops are aimed at visitors, though amidst the reproductions and trash you can still come across genuine treasures - gilded Buddhas, blackwood furniture, paintings, jade and ivory objets d'art,decorative screens, blue and white Ming porcelain and all manner of miscellaneous artefacts from across Southeast Asia. The shops are fun simply to browse, though if you are buying be sure to bargain hard and only pay top prices if you know what you are doing.
Follow Hollywood Road west and you eventually pass Possession Street (an obscure right turn), which takes its name from the fact that it was here in 1841 that Captain Charles Elliot and a British force first claimed HongKong for Britain. Today the name is the event's only memorial - and may change under Chinese rule. Note how far the street is from the harbour: land reclamation has pushed the water front back from its mid 19th-century position.
Museum of Tea Ware
You could spend a happy hour in this quaint museum, as the 500-piece collection of tea ware is more interesting than it sounds. Much of the museum's appeal derives from its setting, Flag staff House, a fine old building with high ceilings and bright wooden floors, built in stately style in 1846 as the residence of the former commander-in-chief of Hong Kong's British garrison. (Hong Kong Park, which surrounds the museum, was once the Victoria Barracks and is also well worth a visit. Today the house is the city's oldest surviving colonial building.
The collection was accumulated by Dr K S Lo and left to the city in the 1970s. Beautiful teapots and all manner of other tea-making paraphernalia are the star turns, some of which may date back as far as the 5th century BC. Look out in particular for the famous Yi Xing ware from China's Jiangsu Province. Also be sure to browse in the museum shop, where you can buy a tempting range of teas and reproduction and contemporary teapots.
ST JOHN'S CATHEDRAL
This Anglican cathedral is one of only a handful of buildings recalling the 19th-century heyday of British rule. Built in 1849 in Victorian-Gothic style, it is probably the Far East's oldest Anglican church, though it was badly damaged in World War II, when it served as an officers' club during the Japanese occupation. Many of the old memorial tablets and virtually all the stained-glass windows were lost. Now restored, the cathedral survives as a peaceful retreat from the capitalist frenzy of the surrounding streets.
Note the main doors, salvaged from the timbers of HMS Tamar, a British naval supply ship that arrived in Hong Kong in 1878 and remained in the harbour for over 50 years. It was scuttled in 1941 to prevent it from falling into Japanese hands, and for a time lent its name to part of the harbour. Between 1897 and 1993 this area was the British navy's Hong Kong headquarters: now only a 28-storey building and small harbour remain of a dockyard that once stretched to the Wan Chai waterfront to the east.
Tai Ping Shan Street
Tai Ping Shan means the 'peaceful Mountain' - a reference to the Peak - and was one of the first areas of Hong Kong Island to be settled by the Chinese after the creation of the former British colony. It quickly became infamous for overcrowding, poor housing and frequent outbreaks of disease, as well as a breeding ground for some of the first of Hong Kong's notorious Triad societies.
Today its western end conceals a group of fascinating little temples, while its eastern margins are a warren of steep alleys, markets, workshops and dilapidated housing complexes. The temples are easy to miss, looking like little more than open-fronted homes: but coils of burning incense are a clue. The first is the tiny Kuan-yin shrine, dedicated to the goddess of mercy and frequented by mothers praying for fertility or the well-being of children and the resolution of domestic disputes. The image of the goddess is said to have been carved by the founder's wife, the original wooden block having reputedly been found in the sea emitting an unearthly golden light.
The Sui-tsing Paak Temple (the 'pacifying General') is dedicated to the eponymous god, one renowned for curing disease, whose statue was brought here during a plague epidemic in 1894. The temple also contains rows of Tai Sui, statues representing 60 different gods associated with the 60-year cycle of the Chinese calendar. People come here to pray to the god linked to the year of their birth.
The most fascinating temple is Paak Sing, literally the 'Temple of a Hundred Surnames', first built in 1851 as a hospice for the dying. With death in the family home considered unlucky, it was not unusual in the 19th century for the dying to be abandoned on Hong Kong's hillsides. The hospice was rebuilt in 1885 after the surrounding quarter was levelled following an epidemic. It is now dedicated to family ancestors, this type of temple generally being reserved for a single family or clan group, whose dead would be laid out awaiting burial elsewhere. Such temples would also hold ancestral 'soul tablets', small boards - similar to Christian headstones - giving the name and date of birth of the deceased. This temple is unusual in being open to all, and contains some 3,000 age-worn tablets, some with photographs of the dead.
Alongside the Paak Sing Temple lies the Tin Hau shrine, dedicated to the Queen of Heaven or goddess of the sea, an understandably popular deity given HongKong's maritime traditions: most fishing and other local boats in the harbour are adorned with her image.
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