HONG KONG, July 19 – Are you a “cat” or are you a “rat”?
Amid the tightly-packed antique shops of Upper Lascar Row in Sheung Wan, this question used to reverberate more deeply.
When this neighbourhood first became a bazaar for vintage and second-hand items in the 1920s, it was also infamous for the trade of stolen goods.
The local Cantonese, fond as they are of euphemisms, called these illegal items “rat goods” and the folks who purchased them “cats”, which in time gave the area its memorable name: Cat Street.
Today, Cat Street and its surrounding area, including Hollywood Road and Tung Street, are a haven for antique collectors in Hong Kong.
Whether you’re a hardcore treasure hunter or an avid window shopper, there’s something for you.
The street itself, a hodgepodge of tiles and concrete, is surely part of the lure.
Old shophouses and apartment buildings teeter on either side of a not-too-steep slope. Easy enough to walk but enough of a workout that you’re encouraged not to hurry but to take your time to take it all in.
There’s a sleepy atmosphere of a flea market, where no one is in a rush, least of all the owners of the stalls and shops.
Begin with the open-air stalls, covered with awnings in fading primary colours. These are your best shots for unusual curios and practising your bargaining game.
The stall owners look bored enough half of the time and welcome a good back-and-forth over the price of an old vinyl record (that may not be playable any more, so buyer beware!) or a framed propaganda poster from the days of the Cultural Revolution (authentic, insists the seller; most are indeed from China albeit cheap reprints).
Look hard and you may discover some gems. An antique snuff bottle may turn up or an eclectic collection of teacups, with only one of the rims lightly chipped, barely noticeable.
Some pieces of Chinese calligraphy are masterpieces to the trained aficionado. A treasure, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and one man’s junk is another’s jade bangle.
The history of the entire neighbourhood can be unravelled in these shops and what lies within, and even on the streets and their names.
Back when Hong Kong was a British colony, the local police force was strengthened by imports from another part of the empire – India.
These Indians in the British military were known as “lascars” and their community settled down around the police headquarters, hence the street’s official name of Upper Lascar Row.
There are shops that offer fine silk and there are shops that sell ceramic pottery, brass ware, jade jewellery or a messy mix of everything.
Don’t forget: look hard and you may discover some gems, particularly among the disorderly shelves where others may have missed what your eagle eye may spot.
There are shops that deal exclusively in rare pieces of plateware, furniture and accoutrements from distant Chinese eras such as the Qing and Ming Dynasties.
There are Buddha statues made from bronze and little figurines of Bruce Lee made from plastic.
Not everything is a prize find, you’ll soon realise, but that’s not the point. The fun is in browsing and maybe a lucky discovery.
For some it’s the haggling; others are more voyeuristic and appreciate a good show of “Who’s Better at Bargaining?”
Nearby along Hollywood Road, art galleries abound but these have a decidedly more contemporary flavour; it’s a different crowd from Cat Street where things have a dusty veneer of the years piled upon them. Decades and centuries even.
Be forewarned, however, that this might well be just a façade: some handicraft and “antique” goods are fake.
Some are passable copies though so if the price isn’t too high, there’s no harm in buying some as inexpensive home décor or a fun souvenir of your trip.
Need a bit of a break from all that antique hunting? Drop by Halfway Coffee, a tiny neighbourhood café nestled in between the rows of old shops.
Instagrammers come here for shots of coffee in the café’s signature vintage porcelain cups. Regulars return for robust cappuccinos made with double espresso shots and oat milk.
Lastly, before you leave, don’t forget to explore the small alleys that aren’t as obvious at first. They may not announce their presence loudly, but they are safe to wander around and may turn up greater hauls for the persistent treasure hunter.
Just like life, sometimes you find what you’re looking for just when you least expect it.
To get to Upper Lascar Row, take the MTR to Sheung Wan station and take Exit A2 or to Central Station and take Exit D2. Most shops open around 11am and close by 6pm. Many, surprisingly, are closed on Sundays and public holidays so drop by on a weekday to be safe.
26 Upper Lascar Row, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 9511 7197
Open daily 8am–7pm
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