Happy Valley - An Extreme Makeover

I have always had a soft spot for lower Happy Valley, where I lived with my family for a good part of my youth. It is an area in Hong Kong that I would often revisit from time to time, as I still have relatives and friends living there.

In the days when I called lower Happy Valley home, the place was a relatively tranquil and secluded residential area, with many tenement buildings on Sing Woo Road, Tsui Man Street, Village Road, King Kwong Road, Yuk Sau Street and Yik Yum Street. There used to be a vibrant open air wet market at the junction of Sing Woo Road, Yuk Sau Street and King Kwong Street, which included a famous cooked-food stall that sold steamed rice rolls, deepfried dough and congee in the morning, and stir-fried beef and rice noodles and other hot dinner dishes in the evening. The food was so good that wealthy people from upper Happy Valley used to drive their Benzes there for the takeouts. The wet market also served these people and made some hawkers so rich that they could afford to buy newly built flats on King Kwong Street for self-use within a few years from start-up.

There were a few dim-sum restaurants and Hong Kong-style cafes (茶餐廳) scattered on Sing Woo Road, King Kwong Street and Yik Yum Street. The Woo Hing cafe on lower Sing Woo Road was particularly well-known for its egg tarts with a fluffy pastry made with lard, but the cafe no longer exists. Right opposite this café used to be the King Sang dim-sum restaurant which ceased operation long before Woo Hing. An old-time barber-shop run by several Shanghainese stylists on King Kwong Street used to be a favorite haunt for the late Kwok Tak Seng, founder of the Sun Hung Kai Properties group, and, like its famous customer, was also laid to rest.

The 60s and 70s were a time when the less well-to-do, the well-to-do and the very rich could live comfortably alongside each other without too much gripe. Conspicuous spending was not a norm then, nor was consumerism a fad. Pursuit of profit was not as reckless and to the exclusion of all things else as in the last decade.

As Hong Kong grew by leaps and bounds in the 80s, many old buildings in lower Happy Valley were rapidly replaced by newer high-rises through urban renewal. The wet market and the cooked food stall likewise did not escape the bulldozer and were transformed into a 3-storey structure which housed a lacklustre indoor market and a few banal eateries. As time went by, more and more high-end retail shops and restaurants moved here to take advantage of the purchasing power of rich residents in both upper and lower Happy Valley and the Tai Hang Road area.

But nothing vexed me more than today’s version of this once neighborly place, as I came back from abroad a little while ago for a short stay here. It had been six or seven years since my previous visit. The area was now overwhelmingly commercialized, as though it had totally capitulated to materialism. The chasm between rich and poor had widened so much that there was now a silent grudge in the air. Some minibus drivers who served the area seemed to have a habit of letting out steam by slamming on the brakes at will for no apparent reason other than to give a hard time to passengers.

Road works were going on along the mid-section of Sing Woo Road that worsened the already jammed traffic on the road.

“They’re adding a new extension to the veterinarian hospital, which needs extra electricity, and that’s why they are digging up the power lines to add extra capacity,” said a senile newspaper hawker matter-of-factly, seemingly helpless and numbed by the noise and dirt from the work site.

“There are now a total of 13 bank branches on lower Sing Woo Road and King Kwong Street alone,” said a long-time resident and hair salon owner. “It’s probably because of the bullish stock and property markets and the banks are here to solicit business from the deep pocket residents,” he explained.

“I’m glad that I bought this property (the salon) thirty years ago, because otherwise my business wouldn’t have been able to last to this day,” he continued, referring to the unrestrained rent increases that landlords were now demanding, just like around 1997.

His was one of the rare surviving small businesses. Many small shops of the old days had been replaced, in many cases for several times, by newer ones who could (or thought they could) afford the ever skyrocketing rents, each case representing a failed business due to excessive rent increases. Newer shop tenants are mostly pricey and chic western-style boutique restaurants, bank branches, property agencies, gourmet food and wine shops, chic hair and nail salons and brand-name coffee shops, who are capable of passing on their high renting cost onto consumers and thus help to push up the general price level of goods and services in the process. People bearing the brunt of this inflationary spiral are the silent older residents in the area, many of whom are in or near retirement and living on low income.

But of course Happy Valley does not lack well-to-do residents either, from both the upper and lower quadrants. If nothing else, the lines of Lexus, BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches parked alongside Sing Woo Road and the side streets and lanes, from which the owners have alighted to buy groceries, newspapers, flowers and what-nots or go about their errands, are proof enough. Buses and minibuses often have to swerve around the parked cars and jaywalking pedestrians on the constantly congested road. Adding to the upper Happy Valley bourgeoisie, which now includes nouveau-riche Putonghua-speaking mainlanders, is a genre of newcomers to lower Happy Valley, who are mostly dog-loving expatriates or young professionals (mostly in the high-flying finance sector) renting flats in this quadrant. No wonder the sharp-nosed banks are swarming here to tap this big reservoir of rich potential clientele. There is without doubt no lack of eager stock and property speculators among them.

I was just happy to find that two old-time Hong Kong-style cafés were still there on Yik Yum Street and had my lunch there two days in a row. I was also pleased to find a newly opened Dymocks bookstore at the lower part of Sing Woo Road, a much needed sanctuary in this hard-nosed community that seemed to be losing its soul to profiteering and gentrification. It surprised me when I entered the bookshop one morning to find that my book “Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong” was sitting quietly on the bookshelves, quite an irony amidst the “real estate still reigns” phenomenon now prevalent in this neighborhood.