Four days – it’s been four days since I last updated this project.  An eternity elsewhere in the world; a blink of the eye here in Hong Kong.  (Maybe that’s what they mean by “time difference?”)

At any rate, I’m sincerely sorry for the delay.  Academics, lethargy, and other responsibilities (not sure if “lethargy” counts as a responsibility) had hindered any attempt to travel, let alone write.

Until yesterday, that is.  So let’s jump in, hop on the East Rail Line, and head to Tai Po.  But let’s take our time, because Tai Po, as we’ll discover (or maybe you’ve consulted a map already?), is huge.

And once again, we’re heading for the markets.

Saturday morning

Tai Po (大埔) is defined by Wikipedia as “an area in the New Territories.”  That’s arguably the best possible definition for this place, because it spans a generous collection of rural and urban towns and settlements.  (The district ranks third among all other Hong Kong districts in lowest population density.)  But these mixed areas have a traditional common factor: they were all (and many still are) market towns.

That is the main reason why, out of all the places I could’ve visited on a Saturday morning, I chose Tai Po.  The second reason, however, is that I’d actually been here before over a month ago – it was one of the designated spots on our “cultural day tour” for HKUST exchange students.  And frankly, a 45-minute glance (even less time than it takes to blink your eye here) was never going to be enough to understand this place.

But enough context for now – I hop off the MTR at Tai Po Market (大埔虛) station, follow the signs to the market (of the same name, I’m guessing) and begin walking.  After a good five minutes though, I pause.

Where is the market?

I can’t see anything resembling a street market.  There’s a small village on one side of the road and the commuter rail (MTR) on the other.  Farther away there stands a massive modern complex – is it a mall? an office building? an airport? Large crowds of people are walking to and fro; that’s a good sign, to start.  I follow them.

The crowds do not converge at any point in time, but soon it becomes clear that the big building is the main attraction in this part of Tai Po.  It becomes even clearer once I read the sign:

“Tai Po Market and Cooked Food Centre.”

The Tai Po Market and Cooked Food Centre. These, in a nutshell, are your options.

I definitely did not come here the first time around.  But my god – it’s huge!  A rainbow of banners and signs advertise all kinds of food for sale: the usual meat, fish, poultry, and produce, but also the familiar dried goods, medicines, and general consumer products.  Another indoor market; another potential adventure.

I’m guessing at this point, however, that one can only write so much about the merits of market exploration before the metaphors and imagery and similes fold into one verbose mess.  Even the pictures begin to look alike in their own way.  It’s understandable.  Suffice it to say, though, that on a Saturday morning, Tai Po Market is a wonderful place to visit if you’re looking for signs of weekend life in Hong Kong outside the usual city centers of Kowloon and the Island.

I haven’t kept track of time, but I start to feel hungry.  So I make my way up to the second floor – not the top floor in this building as it turns out; there are four (!) more floors of offices above everything else – where the cooked food centre lies.  Again, the same causes for excitement: busy tables, clattering porcelain, rising steam, conversational hubbub, and cheap, delicious food.  An even better sign on this day though?  No one is screaming out for you to eat at his/her place; just find a seat if you can, figure out what you want, and wait.

It doesn’t take me long before I figure out what seems to be the big hit here: a stall that offers a combination of noodle soup and fried chicken wings or fried pork chop strips for a total of 25 HKD.  At least six tables nearby are filled with hungry eaters – some families, some random combinations of strangers – slurping noodles, picking at pork chops/wings, and gulping down the soup and its goodies.  No nonsense, no hesitation.

I walk up to the counter and tell the server – an aged but friendly and excitable man – that I’d like wonton noodle soup (菜肉雲吞麵) and pork chops.  He takes the order, but urges me to find a seat (“Someone could steal an empty one!”).  I take his advice and set myself down next to two families: one father-son, one mother-daughter.  Neither, I find out soon enough, are related.

Soon the food arrives, and I dig in.  It’s cheap, delicious, and nostalgic.  It’s everything I want it to be.

I pay the man – he grins and thanks me enthusiastically when I return my bowl and plate to him – and head outside, onto the ‘courtyard.’  There’s a striking view of Tai Po here: the East Rail Line nearly right below the food centre, first past towering apartments and soon enough past low-lying houses and villages.  The mountains of Hong Kong lie farther away (but in which direction?) in the distance.  On the hillside of one of the closer ones stands what looks like a temple (not in the picture below).  I think about trying to get there later.

Back out into the (pedestrian) street, onto Tai Kwong Lane (大光里), where – past the ongoing construction just outside the market complex – the lunch crowds are shuffling in all directions.  Just as in Sheung Shui (上水), the goods ‘spill over’ into the surrounding streets.  Vendors stand under colorfully lit awnings and offer fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and dried goods.  Behind them are even more stalls, most of which are regular restaurants and shops.

Soon enough, the street merges with three other ‘lanes’ at Tai Po Square.  It’s essentially a small public courtyard (square in shape, too) where the four market streets converge.  Children play and run around everywhere; women gossip as they share a meal at the tables; elderly men stand and trade banter with each other (or simply read the paper).  It’s a lovely scene, and one that’s almost reminiscent of Columbus Park in Manhattan’s Chinatown for me.

I can’t remember if I’ve walked on every side of the square, but after enough ambling I find a main road and continue to wander.  The sidewalks are getting a bit quieter, and eventually I turn off into one and walk.  A nearby sign points to the Railway Museum (香港鐵路博物館), but I decide to pass on it today.  As much as I love the MTR and Hong Kong’s rail history, I’d rather spend the day outside.

This side of Tai Po becomes increasingly familiar, though – I can’t recognize the street names (because I didn’t pay attention to them the first time I was here), but the general scene and environs are recognizable.  And then, another turn of the corner…

…brings me to the Fu Shin Street Market (富善街市), the same one that I visited back in late January.  It’s even busier today than it was back then.

In a way, I feel less excited to see this area again than I did earlier in the day, and ironically enough I end up spending less than 45 minutes here.  Not because the scene is necessarily familiar (in some ways it actually isn’t, though I suppose that’s a mark of how I’ve come to observe things differently), but rather because the market isn’t just isn’t that…exciting.  The crowd is busy enough and several other tour groups are walking with them, and yet I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.  The burden of expectation can really change one’s perceptions, I guess.

The entrance to the Man Mo Temple.

But it’s not all negative.  On the same street stands a Man Mo Temple (文武廟), erected to honor the god of literature (Man Cheong, 文昌; or Man Tai, 文帝) and the god of war (Mo Tai, 武帝; or Kwan Tai, 關帝).  As it turns out, there are three such temples in Hong Kong, but this one in Tai Po was the first to be dedicated as a historical monument, back in the mid-80s.

It is solemnly quiet inside the temple, even though the bustling market lies just outside.  Only several visitors have come to pay their respects.  I do the same before leaving.

Not long after leaving Fu Shin Street, I come across a river – the Lam Tsuen River (林村河), which also gives its name to the ‘wishing trees’ I visited on the same tour back in late January.  (What a day for revisiting old memories – although going back to see the trees is not on my list of priorities.)  Several elegant footbridges traverse the river, and there are walking/jogging paths on either side.  I cross one of these bridges and start to walk along the length of the river.

I do not have a map of the area, but I become aware that I’ve crossed over into Tai Wo (太和), a sub-district of Tai Po that is distinctly residential.  This makes sense, as apartment buildings tower into the sky just across from the low-lying market buildings and stalls of the central district on the other side of the river.  The divide is remarkably distinct to start and continues as I walk upstream (the river flows in the opposite direction, to somewhere else): the ‘market’ side of the river, even when it eventually transitions into smaller villages, is older and possibly less affluent, but beautiful all the same.

Somewhere along the river, I spot the hillside temple I spied earlier from the food centre on the other side of the river.  And soon enough, a signpost offers paths in all directions.

So where should I go next?

To be continued…