Let me tell you about one of Hong Kong’s very special area, Sham Shui Po. It is situated in Kowloon, the part of the landmass that sits just across HK Island. Kowloon is one of the most densely populated areas in the world (if not THE most), with 43,000 habitants per square kilometer (4 times the density of New York).
Sham Shui Po is known to be the poorest area in Hong Kong. It has the highest number of drug consumption, crime and prostitution. This sounds terrifying, but let me remind you that we are speaking of Hong Kong here, one of the safest cities in the world, so there is probably no more crime in Sham Shui Po than there is in the safest district of Paris where I lived before.
There are many reason’s why I decided to live there. I wanted to live in a place where I could practice my Cantonese and people would not talk to me in English. Since pretty much no one can speak English in Sham Shui Po, I am quite safe from this point of view. I had lived for a year in Wan Chai on HK Island and I wanted to discover Kowloon more extensively. I wanted an area that was very Asian, and anyone that has been to Sham Shui Po knows you cannot find more Asian than this place within HK. I wanted a good apartment with a nice view, and did not have the budget to get such a place on HK Island, and finally was looking for a place well distributed by public transport with a direct bus to my University.
During the day, Sham Shui Po is famous for having many street shops selling electronic products at the best prices you can find in Hong Kong. These shops also include clothes shops, home appliances, kitchen tools, well, pretty much anything you can think of.
But the real magic happens when these shops close around 8pm. Then, a crowd of unofficial / illegal street sellers arrive with all sorts of objects that people did not want anymore. And when I say all sorts of objects, I mean DVD’s, fridges, books, phones, bikes, clothes, rice cookers, art, glasses… These are sold at incredibly cheap prices, and many poor workers come from all across Hong Kong for this.
Although Gambling in Hong Kong is normally restricted and only the Jockey Club offers legal gambling, there exists several places where you can gamble, especially Mahjong places. I am still not sure if those places are illegal and tolerated or legal (btw, if any of you guys know, tell me). In Sham Shui Po there is a store called “Game room”, where you can plan on all sorts of Japanese made gambling machines, one of them actually having fake horses running around a miniature racecourse.
Poverty strikes me regularly in this neighborhood, but what I find the most heartbreaking is very old people looking for used cans in the the trash to sell them 10 cents of a Hong Kong dollar each. In fact, those old people live on the government allowance of 1100 HK$ per month (recently doubled to 2200HK$) which is hardly enough to survive. So I always save my cans and look for someone to give them to. And each time I give them, this person thanks me with a big open smile that warms my heart.