Deep into Temple Street

As we've mentioned in our tourist guide for Kowloon, Temple Street has a lot more to offer to the close observer than just market stalls selling cheesy souvenirs and designer knock-offs. This article gives you quite a bit of background on this old and interesting area.

Stephen Frost, one of our readers, has some fascinating information and tips:

I agree with you that Temple Street is also worth a visit. I worked in an office on the corner of Nathan Road and Public Square Street for several years; i.e., we overlooked the Tin Hau Temple (where Temple and Public Square Streets meet). The temple was renovated about a year ago and so it’s now quite a sight. Workmen gave it a new roof and the whole area was cleaned up, including the park where triads run illegal gambling games. Having lunch on the second floor of the Mido Cafe (on the other corner of Temple and Public Square Street) is an ideal location to watch them in action. A friend and I used to wander over to the park after lunch sometimes to watch the gambling, but I never had a clue what was happening except that guys in shiny suits held lots of money and old unemployed guys in singlets and baggy shorts didn’t. One gambling game involved an intricately patterned cloth - about the size of a picnic blanket - on the ground around which everyone squatted. People gambled on something but whatever was going on was a complete mystery to me.

The Mido Cafe is one of the last old style Hong Kong cafes in the area. It’s certainly not flash, but it’s very spacious for Hong Kong and in winter and spring they open the upstairs windows and you can feel for a short while that you’ve retreated into a part of the SAR that’s almost disappeared. One word of advice if you visit: watch your head going up the stairs if you’re over about 5’ 3"! Don’t sit down at the bottom. The elderly staff (I’m sure no one under 65 works there) will point up the stairs anyway, so just do as they say. They have an English menu. Serving sizes on meals like the pork chop and rice are enormous. Take a seat at the window and watch a Hong Kong rather at odds with Central slip by.

A New Zealander spent a few months several years ago photographing the old place but was only given permission to do so after he agreed not to show any faces in his photos because a fairly high number of regulars didn’t want them shown in public (and not because they’re bashful about their good deeds...)

The temple, so I’m told, is home to a tiger spirit (and there are tiger shrines inside). When it was reopened after renovations people set up stalls and sold pieces of raw meat with red dye (sauce?) on it for people to offer up as gifts. Apparently the tiger eats your bad luck. I thought that was a good thing until somebody told me that it also dispenses it as well, so you have a 50/50 chance of leaving with somebody else’s bad luck! I was also put off buying a piece a meat when I realised that the triads seemed to have taken over even that aspect of temple life, with young tattooed women and -- again -- guys in shiny black suits overseeing proceedings.

And, as you mention, the area abounds in street walkers. Many of them are from the mainland, and during the day they service the mainly older guys who gamble and hang around the park. If you sit in the Mido you’ll see them haggling over prices on the corner. The numbers on the street around lunch time definitely increased over the years I worked there, and by the time I moved up to Kowloon Tong last year I was being propositioned if I walked along there to go and have lunch (a reflection of the economic downturn and increased competition, I’m sure). At night it gets even more feral with the porno VCD and mag guys setting up and propositioning anyone who looks like they’ve got $20 in their back pocket. It was here that I discovered the Hong Kong interest in things Japanese when I was offered a porn magazine called Wasabi. Obscure porn -- so I’m told, ahem -- can be found upstairs. Go there if you dare, but don’t blame me when you’re caught up in the ensuing raid.

MrB adds some more useful tips on getting the most out of a visit to Temple Street:

If you’re just visiting, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the interesting stuff mentioned above starts just where it looks as though the Temple Street market has finished. If you’ve started from the Tsim Sha Tsui end of Temple Street, you’ll come to a T-junction, and that’s the end of the section selling T-shirts, ties, etc. Don’t head for home, instead cross over the road, turn right, and follow the road as it curves to the left. Look up at the flyover just above you, and note how it passes right through the middle of a government building!

First you’ll see the fortune tellers that MrT mentions, that focus on reading palms and faces. Next you’ll probably hear before you see some of the Chinese Opera groups that gather here. I’m still waiting to gain an appreciation of Chinese Opera singing, so have no idea if they are any good or not. (I think it will probably be a very long wait).

The road turns left, and there are more fortune tellers. Several here rely on some outside help, using small birds to pick a card as the start of their fortune-telling. The road passes along a short distance before turning right - now you are following the edge of the park that Stephen describes. I remember asking a friend what the groups of old men in the park, crowded around a speaker, were listening too. He said there was a story teller telling them raunchy stories. It would be interesting to know if the speaker is catering for the people that don’t have a VCD player, or is a kind of warm-up act for the hookers further along the street !

The next road is Public Square Street, with the Tin Hau temple. The Tin Hau temples were usually built on the seafront where fishermen could see them from their boats. You’d need very good eyesight to see the temple from the sea now -- giving you an idea of just how much reclamation has taken place.

Temple Street continues a little way further. When you get to the end, turn right and you’re at the Yau Ma Tei MTR Station, ready to head for home.


And finally, one more note from Mr Tall:

When I’ve been down Temple Street (or at Wong Tai Sin or other temples, too), I’ve always been particularly interested in the fortune tellers -- if you stop and watch for a few minutes, you realize how serious their business really is. Of course they’ll do faux ‘readings’ for tourists and westerners, but if you watch them deal with local Chinese, the whole mood changes. Chinese culture is known for being irreligious, but many people here take what they’ve been told by fortune tellers in earnest -- even highly educated, ostensibly agnostic/atheistic types.