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If you visit Kowloon City mid April, bring a raincoat – unless you want to get wet. April is the month of Songkran, the Thai new year, when people gather to playfully splash each other with water. Every year, thousands of people follow a parade as it winds its way through the streets of Kowloon City’s Little Thailand, before culminating in a waterlogged local playground.
Songkran or not, Little Thailand is always an adventure. Located along the eastern blocks of Nga Tsin Wai Road and its cross streets, this unique enclave has been around for decades, and its origins are surprising: a little bit Thai and a little bit Chinese.
That’s certainly the case on South Wall Road, where shops contain both Thai Buddhist and Chinese-style altars. “Both serve the same purpose, so why stick to just one?” says the clerk at LM Thai Supplier (73 South Wall Road), which sells gold Buddhas, miniature statues of Ganesh and other religious icons. Instead of the usual oranges you find elsewhere in Hong Kong, the offerings placed in front of the altars here are more colourful: bright orange bottles of Fanta and rainbow-hued Thai sweets.
Little Thailand’s origins are intertwined with those of the local Chiu Chow community, which is rooted in the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong. In the early 20th century, many Chiu Chow people migrated to Thailand, where they married into local Thai families, blending their food, cultures and traditions. You can taste this fusion for yourself at Thai Sik Mei Ji (27 Nam Kok Road), a restaurant on Nam Kok that blends Thai-style spices with Chiu Chow dishes like oyster omelettes and deep-fried century eggs.
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In the 1970s, many of these Thai-Chinese families came to Hong Kong to join the city’s booming economy, and they were drawn to Kowloon City because of the large Chiu Chow population in the nearby walled city. In the 1990s, this burgeoning community was joined by even more Thai people whose businesses had been displaced by redevelopment in Central.
Start your journey through Little Thailand with a trip to the cooked food centre inside the Kowloon City Market (102 Nga Tsin Wai Road). That’s where you’ll find Amporn Thai Food, a reliable source for grilled pork jowls, spicy laab salad and classic Thai curries. “Hong Kong people prefer their food less spicy, but if you ask, we will make it as spicy as it should be,” advises the owner, Mrs. Wong, who moved to Hong Kong 30 years ago after she married a local man.
For dessert, walk a couple of blocks to South Wall Road, where a number of shops stack colourful treats known as khanom wan on styrofoam trays. Some are made from layers of coconut cream and jelly, while others are based around sticky rice. Pandan is a common ingredient; beguiling and fragrant, its flavour is almost impossible to describe. You can find it in pandan chiffon cake, which has exactly nine layers – nine being a lucky number in both Thai and Chinese cultures.
Just down the street, Ruamjai Thai Grocery (21 South Wall Road) imports fresh orchids, jasmine and carnations every week to turn into colourful garlands for people to hang on their altars at home. They bring in many more things as well: globe-shaped green aubergines, bird’s eye chillies, common Thai herbs like basil and dill, and fruits like the puckeringly sour mafai, or Burmese grape. “We sell fruits that even Chinese people don’t like to eat,” boasts one vendor.
Many of the street’s grocery stores sell curry paste for you to take home and cook with. You can even get plastic bags full of ready-made curry you can simply heat up and serve with rice. It’s a bit of Little Thailand you can take home with you.Words by Christopher DeWolf @dewolfleloup and images by Nicolas Petit @thehongkongers.
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