I’m not one to shy away from a Hong Kong guidebook–always comparing what’s in them with what I remember from living there 20-25 years ago–but when I learned about Jason Wordie’s Streets: Exploring Kowloon (Hong Kong University Press, 2007), I grabbed it extra quickly.
The book isn’t a traditional guidebook because it details more history than places to eat or sleep, but that was fine with me. The history won’t change, but restaurants and hotels will. It’s organized by area and then by street. I spent a lot of time in non-touristy Kowloon when I was a student (at the Argyle Street Detention Centre; ie, the Vietnamese refugee camp in Kowloon Tong) and when I worked after graduate school (in Homantin). Both areas are featured in Streets: Exploring Kowloon, which made the book extra exciting for me.
I learned that a Portuguese developer built up the area in Homantin that I walked through every day going to work, at lunch time, and leaving at the end of the work day. Some of the streets are named for people, which I was aware of, but now I know how that all came about.
For 25 years I’ve been searching for information about the land on which the Argyle Street Detention Centre stood and hadn’t found much. I knew it was a British army camp (more specifically, a POW camp during WWII) before the Japanese took over Hong Kong for several years in the 40s and the territory later turned it into a Vietnamese refugee camp in the 70s. I learned in this book about the officers’ quarters and the exact location of the camp. Last year I returned to this area, but found no markers whatsoever that indicated a POW camp or refugee camp had once stood there.
For a long time I’ve been obsessed with the Kowloon Walled City, which was taken down when I lived in Hong Kong. I wish I had seen it up close, but I did spend much time walking in the general vicinity when I went to and from Kai Tak Airport and the bus stop or a friend’s flat. Wordie includes both the Walled City area and Kai Tak in his book. I stayed in that area last fall over a quick layover and wish I had had his book then. But it was reassuring to know that I covered many of the major spots in Kowloon City within the span of 12 or so hours. There’s always next time!
Streets: Exploring Kowloon is a crucial book for anyone who is interested in Hong Kong history, specifically as it relates to Kowloon. Black and white photos accompany most entries in the book, which are helpful for locating them if one uses this book as a guide. I know I was looking for the Sung Wong Toi monument in Kowloon City last year and could have saved some time had I known about this book then. I found the ancient stone slab just fine, but shudder to think that I could have missed it if I hadn’t known what to look for before setting out on that walk.
Of all the areas in Hong Kong, Kowloon is still the most untouched, so it’s easy to walk past something historic without knowing it. I read this book cover to cover. It reads like a well-researched narrative.