This is a continuation to the previous post: 5 Things I Miss Most About Old Hong Kong (Part 1). Remember to check that out as well.
3. Haw Par Mansion: Tiger Balm Gardens a.k.a. The Villa of Tigers and Jaguars
In 1993, a video game called Super Street Fighter II was released. That year, the popular fighting series introduced a new character, based on Bruce Lee, called Fei Long. Inspired by my childhood hero, Fei Long quickly became my favorite character. My older brother pointed out something that blew my mind, that Fei Long’s arena was an actual place in Hong Kong and one that I’ve been to: “Tiger Balm Gardens” (The Villa of Tigers and Jaguars)
I was too young to remember, but the garden did sound familiar. I mean, who can forget a cool name like that? It turns out that the garden was an amusement park built by the two eccentric brothers who founded the Tiger Balm company. In 1935, brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par used ointment money to build the Haw Par Mansion alongside an 8 acre garden in Tai Hang. Two years later, the brother opened up the garden to the public and it became one of the first amusement parks in Hong Kong.
What made this garden so special? Why did a popular Japanese video game in the 90s decide it was fitting to use this to represent Hong Kong? Remember how I described the Aw brothers earlier? Eccentric, but eccentric is a bit of an understatement. The garden is a sculpture exhibit depicting Chinese mythology in a style best described as Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno.
Colorful sculptures of mythical animals like dragons and phoenixes are curated alongside the Monkey King from famous novel “Journey to the West.” It’s difficult to capture in words how truly bizarre some of these exhibits were – animals getting married, people committing suicide, hypersexualized statues, etc. Perhaps the most memorable exhibit is a sculptural depiction of the Chinese’s Ten Courts of Hell. Each exhibit grotesquely shows the punishment for a particular sin – adultery/decapitation, drug use/impalement, robbery/death by fire, etc. My younger self vividly remembers an artwork showing people being run-over by demons on a pick-up truck while begging for mercy. Those were the stuff of nightmares.
However, Tiger Balm Garden was wonderful in an offbeat kind of way, drawing in millions of locals and tourist over the years. Unsurprisingly, with it’s gratuitous depiction of death and gore, there has also been incessant rumors about the garden being haunted. Those haunted stories disappeared alongside the park. Without much commotion, in 2004, the garden was purchased by real estate developers and subsequently demolished. Its statues and artwork have been salvaged by the Antiquities and Monuments Office. It’s one of those things that nobody in Hong Kong thinks they’ll miss, until it was gone.
4. Non-Air Conditioned Buses
Public buses are a big part of life in Hong Kong. In most places, they serve only a practical purpose: transporting the public from A to B. In Hong Kong, however, buses enjoy a level of reverence seen nowhere else. For example, you can find scale models of actual buses down to their commute routes in most local toy stores. Certain models can cost well over HK$1,000. Also, on weekends, you can find bus-enthusiasts sneakily using their professional cameras to snap pictures of buses on the street. On their day off, these paparazzis are likely found posting those pictures and debating about buses on hkbusforum.org. In conclusion, buses in Hong Kong are a big deal.
In 2012, Hong Kong bus companies made a decision that forever changed their industry: they discontinued the non-air conditioned buses. Non-AC buses existed since the inception of the industry in the 20s. So it was a big deal when Kowloon Motor Bus Co. (KMB) hung the banner “Farewell KMB Non Air-Conditioned Bus” on the side of their older vehicles. On May 8th, 2012, the fleet of 399 non-AC buses were ceremoniously retired. Aside from two buses that were kept for commemorative reasons, the entire fleet was sold with the condition that it won’t again be used in Hong Kong.
Air conditioned buses were only recently introduced in the late 80s. They caught on like wildfire, especially during the heat of the summer. This meant that no longer would you have to sweat through your clothes in 36° temperature while riding on the bus.
However, Non-AC buses had its perks as well. Firstly, they were cheaper to run and therefore cheaper to ride. Low income households were most affected by this change. Secondly, being able to open the window and let the cool breeze flow through you was quite a lovely experience. The breeze was even able to neutralize the heat on warm days. Most depressingly of all, gone was another relic of Hong Kong’s past. One that has served so well the tiny island as it transformed into a world-class city; through World Wars, handover of political control, and even SARs. Yes, it has been replaced by a service that is arguably superior in every way; however, I just can’t help but think how neat it would be to sit on the top deck of a bus and being able to crack open a window.
5. Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park a.k.a Lai Yuen
Locals in Hong Kong hold Lai Yuen in a very affectionate place in their hearts. As a toddler, I enjoyed the amusement park so much that I demanded my father take us there every weekend. I don’t remember the details but I was having a blast in the photos of us on the vintage ferris wheel. I do remember being terrified of the Dinosaur statue in front of the Dinosaur House. I would clamp my eyes shut every time we walk by, never mustering the courage to get close. As an adult, I figured that I would look back at that dinosaur and realize how silly it looked and have a chuckle at my younger self. Nope, I Googled a picture of the over-sized monster and it still terrifies me today.
Lai Yuen was built by a businessman named Cheung Kwan On in 1949. Over the years, the park added many different attraction and rides, including a zoo on its premise. Until he died of pneumonia in 1989, an ex-circus Asian elephant named “Tino” was a fan-favorite. Despite its growing operation, the entrance fee to Lai Yuen has always stayed very affordable, never exceeding the cost of a fast food meal.
The amusement park was built by Hong Kongers for Hong Kongers. The carnival games had a local spin to it, for example a game that tested your ability to identify Mahjong pieces by feel. However, due to competition from Ocean Park, the park fell on tough times in the 90s and the government rezoned its land for public housing. The last two days, 80,000 Hong Kongers flooded into the park to experience it one last time.
There is constant effort by the owners to revive the park on Lantau island, but no real progress has been made. Over the summer of 2015, a new temporary version of Lai Yuen opened in Central, Hong Kong. The park successfully reinvigorated the public’s nostalgia and became the talk of the season. They brought back Lai Yuen’s retro style attractions, including the old-school mahjong game. With free admission, the summer park was, in many ways, a huge success.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share with us in the comments below what you missed most about Old Hong Kong.
We’re also working on: 5 things we’re glad Hong Kong kept and 5 things in Hong Kong that are sadly disappearing. Stay tuned!
Sam the Local connects people for customized Outings to explore Hong Kong. Our Locals build an itinerary based on your interests and then take you to see the things based on the itinerary. Pick a Local to book for your Outing, and please reach out if you have any questions.