HONG KONG—The story of Frankie Lam sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll anthem: the guy who once ran with one of Hong Kong’s criminal Triad gangs and went straight with the help of a rocking guitar.
Lam, who seemed far too happy-go-lucky to me to be a onetime gangster, runs a “singing parlour” in Hong Kong’s gritty Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood.
The karaoke lounges are big with boomers. Some regulars are popular enough to have their photos posted outside, paying a modest table fee and $100 HK (about $16 Cdn) to sing Chinese and Western hits with the house keyboard player and a drum machine.
Although everybody (including tourists) are welcome to drop in at the singing parlours that front the busy Temple Street night market in Kowloon, I probably would have hesitated to go in on my own. I also had no idea what they were, equating “singing parlours” with Cantonese opera.
Local guide Olivia Tang set me straight. The singing parlour turned out to be a highlight on the Good Evening Kowloon tour led by Walk in Hong Kong.
I love walking tours, especially those with a food focus. It’s the best way to get to know a city in a hurry, especially if you have a knowledgeable guide like Tang, who also knew how to tell a good story.
Tang, also the business development director for Walk in Hong Kong, kicked off our deep dive into Yau Ma Tei with a local snack: steaming hot and sweet egg puff waffles.
She filled us in on the local history as we ate and walked. Gritty Yau Ma Tei sits on reclaimed land and residents are proud of their resiliency, she said.
The neighbourhood mahjong parlour is also a local landmark, identifiable by a massive vertical neon sign topped with a good-luck rooster. It’s one of diminishing number of brightly coloured beauties that once hung over sidewalks and dominated Hong Kong’s streets, now increasingly being replaced by LED.
At the century-old fruit market, shoppers were picking up the latest trendy delicacy, sweet white strawberries from Japan. Tang showed us photos from the market’s earliest days and explained that it would switch to a wholesaler for restaurants and stores around midnight.
The vendors had a private language and number codes to prevent nosy neighbours from undercutting prices. A special abacus with a closed back was used for silent bidding, another way to keep offers private.
The market also had an interesting past as a heart of drug-running operations in the 1970s, using a system of hidden notes and covert drops.
Around us, Temple Street’s night market was getting busier, with blocks of vendors selling everything from electronics and underwear, to toys, household goods and jewellery.
Feeling hungry with the delicious smells coming from vendors in the market, we ate at jammed Yim Yeung Tin. Runners wheeled trolleys piled with clay pots of rice, meats and seafood from cooking fires a block away to hungry diners.
Back in the singing parlour, a table of mah-jong players noisily mixed tiles at a rear table, furiously puffing cigarettes below a “no smoking” sign.
We took a table near the front, joining a lone man Tang said was a regular, to watch the enthusiastic singers. A pair did Cantonese love song duet, the echo machine turned to 11. She was cool; the guy was so overwrought, he seemed on the verge of nervous collapse.
The guy sitting at our table had fallen asleep.
Lam strapped on his guitar and launched into a workmanlike version of Paul Anka’s “Diana,” a nice injection of some Cancon into our evening.
We walked to the Tin Hau Temple, which gives the street its name, past fortune tellers and makeshift karaoke tents. Tang pulled out a movie still from The World of Susie Wong that showed a view of the same place where we were standing. The 1960 movie starring William Holden as an artist and Nancy Kwan as the hooker with a heart of gold he falls for was my introduction to Hong Kong. I’d watched it on TV as a teen and was captivated by the exotic, chaotic place I saw on the small screen and never dreamed I’d visit one day.
Tang led us to the top deck of a parking garage for the tour’s finale, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the lit-up market below, a glowing strip in the heart of a fascinating city.