Sustainable Future, Hong Kong Tales
Did you know? Sau Ping shares her Wan Chai tales

Cham Pai, literally 'rows of cedars', at where Queensway meets Queen's Road East

Did you know that there's a section in Wan Chai that's locally known as Dai Fat Hau, literally 'entrance at the Big Buddha'? Dai Fat Hau is the point where Queensway forks into Queen's Road East. However, the area was previously known by a different name. Today some elderly folk living in the area still insist on calling it Cham Pai, or 'rows of cedars'. There are two commonly accepted explanations for this special name.

The first version of the story goes like this. In the old days, the Cham Pai area was full of tong laus, or Chinese tenement buildings that are characterised by their big columns and balconies that project over the whole width of the pavement to form a covered arcade. In this sheltered space, prostitutes would gather, trying to solicit business. These ladies are said to be generally very tall, just like bamboo, and as this botanical analogy developed, the area soon started to be referred to as Cham Pai, or 'rows of cedars'.

The second theory behind the etymology of Cham Pai is more believable and better supported. Much of today's Wan Chai is reclaimed from the harbour, and the area where Queen's Road East begins was right by the seafront once upon a time and many timber companies were found there. In those days boats were usually made of wood but before timber could be used to build a vessel, logs would have to be planted upright into the sea and left to 'soak' for several years to make them really tough and durable before they could 'qualify' as boat-building materials. The lattice of erect logs hugging the shoreline resembled rows of cedars, and it's out of this striking image that the term Cham Pai arose.


Why does 'fried noodles' matter in local football?

In local football parlance, losing teams are reduced to a plate of 'fried noodles', a curious term that probably originated in Wan Chai. Dubbed the 'Wembley of Hong Kong', Wan Chai's Southorn Playground has staged many small-sided football tournaments over the years, and it is a cradle that's produced many famous local footballers in the process, for instance, the legend Yiu Cheuk-yin, aka 'the Pearl of Hong Kong', from the 1960s.

In the old days, teams that walked away from Southorn Playground victorious would celebrate over a feast in the nearby Double Happiness Restaurant on Johnston Road – the multi-storey Chinese restaurant was a local institution that's now defunct – while losing sides would have to console themselves with nothing more than a simple meal of fried noodles at Ho Lun Restaurant (何倫餐廳) just round the corner. It didn't take long before the phrase 'fried noodles' became synonymous with defeats and the jargon has even since found its way into local basketball-speak.


Fung Wong Terrace – the last place in Hong Kong to tell the time by gongs

Up until the 1970s, Wan Chai's Fung Wong Terrace, which is just off Queen's Road East and standing behind today's Wu Chung House, was famous for a traditional practice – men were hired to strike a gong at periodic intervals during the night to announce the hours. In the old days, Fung Wong Terrace was the site of a lively bazaar. There were small-scale traders operating out of pitch stalls, professional letter-writers and constant huddles of men generally passing time over a game of chess or two.

Abutting the bazaar was a small, steep slope. Many wooden shacks had been built on it to house the poor. A lot of these squatters were hawkers and they had to rise at about four every morning to get ready for work. Obviously, at this ungodly hour the streets were still deserted and the bazaar was yet to open.

Yet it's precisely at this space between light and darkness that a hawker reported seeing a crowd in the bazaar one morning on his way out to work but when he turned back to confirm what had crossed his eyes, there wasn't a single soul to be seen. Soon after many others from the neighbourhood reported similar mysterious encounters. They believed that the hillside was haunted, so they pooled together money to hire a person to hit a gong at periodic intervals during the night, which was the traditional Chinese way of telling the time before the advent of clocks and watches.

This professional would begin his shift at the fourth interval every night, ie. between 1am and 3am. His job was to alert the elusive shadows in the area that the fourth interval had arrived and the local residents would soon be getting up to start their day and thus they should leave to avoid causing more dismay. And with this story, Fung Wong Terrace went down in the annals of local history as the last place in Hong Kong to use gongs to tell the time.

Issue: #021 - 22 September 2014
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