Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Walking Tour: Wan Chai - The EATING SMOKE Tour

Welcome back to Wednesday Walking Tours! This week we have a special tour of the neighborhood that is the backdrop for Chris Thrall's new book: Eating Smoke. This memoir tells the story of Thrall's experiences in Hong Kong in the 90's when he worked as a doorman for several Wan Chai nightclubs. He ended up hitting rock bottom: hooked on crystal meth and working for the triads. I'll post a full review tomorrow, but let me just tell you that you must read this book if you're interested in Hong Kong. Check out the Nathan Road tour to see the building where Chris went to buy drugs and the Mongkok tour to see where Chris lived for the first part of his time in HK. This tour will take you through the many sides of infamous Wan Chai.

Start out at Methodist House (a church topped by an apartment block) which fills the corner between Johnston and Hennessy Roads.

Walk right down Johnston Road and into Wan Chai.

You'll see plenty of high-rises, both new and old along this street. Chris Thrall describes how he lived in an older apartment block in Wan Chai. He was always happy to mix in with the locals.

This area is a bit grimier than some parts of Hong Kong Island.

You'll pass small streets branching off from Johnston Road, some of them filled with little vendors and market stalls.

If you look up to your right when you pass these streets you might catch a glimpse of the mountains in the center of the island.

You will see all sorts of shops, from flowers to clothes to dried seafood.

A tram line runs along Johnston Road too. The tram only costs $2.30 HKD and you can take it almost all the way to the end of HK Island. Do you see the white building to your right?

It has a nicely renovated arcade out front.

Cross the street so you can get a better look. This is The Pawn, a well-known British restaurant/pub.

Keep walking along Johnston Road in the direction of the MTR.

You'll see Southorn Playground on your left. This is where I discovered a book fair while I was taking pictures for this tour. I didn't see any copies of Eating Smoke here.

Take one last look at the eclectic businesses on Johnston Road...

...then turn left down the concrete corridor between Southorn Playground and the MTR station.

You'll emerge into the sunlight with Southorn on your left...

...and the MTR station on your right.

When you reach Hennessy Road turn right...

...and keep walking.

You'll see a covered walkway up ahead that goes all the way to Immigration Tower.

On your right you'll pass the Wan Chai Computer Centre, a dense collection of electronics businesses that is always lively and crowded. I couldn't help but notice the guy smoking on the step.

Look to your left again as you walk underneath the walkway. Immigration Tower is the square silver building. Central Plaza is the tall one with a spike on top.

Take a look at the signs to help get your bearings, then turn right.

Walk along the cobblestone passage between the MTR and a row of shops.

Don't forget to look up at the skyscrapers every once in a while.

Cross the little road called Thompson and walk along O'Brien, an even shorter street.

You'll pass a little tea shop and other small businesses.

You've made a small square and returned to Johnston Road.

Cross the street and head into the market.

I know that Eating Smoke's hook is all about the triads in clubland, but there are other sides to Wan Chai. One of the things Chris Thrall does really well in his memoir is describe ordinary Hong Kong life. He loved the flavor and energy of the city during his time here.

Walk through the markets to get a sense of that energy...

...and that flavor.

I love the colors of the markets.

If you need some refreshments stop for a typical HK egg tart...

...or some dim sum.

You can buy crabs out of buckets...

...or roasted poultry off of sticks.

When you get to the end of this street, turn left. Here the market is devoted to dry goods and clothes.

Make your way through the busy stalls.

You've reached the end of the smaller stalls...

...but there are still more local shops along the road.

I don't know the name of this street, but you should tend to your left as you walk. Picture what it would have been like 15 years ago as Chris Thrall was getting used to all the strange sights and smells of the city.

You'll find a few more food shops.

...and more dried food.

When you reach this corner, take the right fork.

You'll pass incense shops...


...and real estate agents. Look at the apartments above them to get a sense of ordinary life in Wan Chai.

You've made it back to Johnston Road again. Turn right.

There are some unique old buildings in this part of town.

You'll see people selling goods on the streets.

And lots of people shopping as you walk down the road.

You can take a detour to Wan Chai Park here.

Take a break along with the elderly people enjoying the sunshine.

And again, don't forget to look up.

Exit the park by the pink sign...

...and head back toward the main roads.

You'll find yourself on Wan Chai Road, which runs parallel to Johnston Road. You'll pass 188, an old shopping center full of video games and comic books.

Cross the road.

You'll see a small basketball court beneath the high-rises.

Turn left and walk down the steps along the edge of the court.

Take a peek down the dingy alleyways in the depths of Wan Chai...

... and emerge on Johnston Road once more.

Cross the road.

And walk straight down Tannochy.

Cross Lockhart Road too, then turn left.

You're now walking back in the general direction of the MTR, parallel to Johnston.

Lockhart Road features row upon row of stores selling kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

You can even find dragon-headed taps.

You'll see Stewart road, which looks like a typical Hong Kong side streets. Turn right and walk down the road. On the far corner you can stop at Zambra Cafe for a cup of coffee.

After passing the Novotel you'll reach Jaffe Road.

Turn left. There is a covered walkway here, just like in Central.

This is where the streets start to feel less friendly.

We're approaching clubland.

Before we get there, pass the big Wan Chai Police Station.

And make your way under the Fleming Road overpass.

If you cross Gloucester Road here you could go to the Hong Kong Exhibition Center.

But we're going deeper into Wan Chai.

You'll start to see a smattering of international restaurants and little pubs.

And you've arrived at Neptune II, one of the most notorious nightclubs in Wan Chai. This one gets a mention in Eating Smoke.

Continue down Jaffe to Luard Road. You'll find Joe Bananas, another club featured in the book.

I looked up and down Luard Road, trying to find The Big Apple, which was Chris Thrall's favorite place to dance the night away. I didn't see the famous neon apple above any doorways on this road. I double-checked the address later, and I believe this club has been replaced by a shiny, clean Subway restaurant. Can any Hong Kong folks out there offer more information on the fate of the Big Apple?

At least Joe Bananas is still there.

Cross Jaffe and continue up Luard Road. I looked for Rick's Cafe, where Chris was a doorman, but I believe it has moved to Tsim Sha Tsui. Instead, you'll find Bar Amazonia...

...mes Amis...

...and a few places for a late-night snack.

I wonder how different Luard road is from the Eating Smoke days?

Turn back onto Lockhart Road. There are certainly still plenty of shady clubs.

Mixed in with some decent restaurants.

Coyote is my favorite place to go for Mexican food, when I want to be reminded of home (Arizona).

I took these pictures around noon on a Sunday, but The Old China Hand was already busy with the expat crowd.

It looks like this club was busy too.

This is why some members of the expat crowd flock to Wan Chai...

...but I was surprised to see so many people there so early.

I suppose there could have been rugby on.

Neptune III was pretty quiet though.

At this point in the tour feel free to lose yourself among the bars or return to the MTR.

Thanks for joining me on this tour of Wan Chai. It was a bit longer than my normal walking tours, but I hope you got to see the many different sides of this notorious part of town. I'll be posting my review of Eating Smoke by Chris Thrall tomorrow, so I hope you'll be back! 


  1. Shannon, this is amazing! I love it and feel like I was there with you. I'm pretty sure the Big Apple is gone. I can't wait to read your review of Eating Smoke.

  2. Thank you Susan! Does it look like this area has changed much since you were last here?

  3. It looks pretty much the same except for some new storefronts and high rise buildings. Southorn Playground was definitely there and a popular meeting spot. But I don't remember Wanchai Park. I also wasn't a big club goer, although when I did go, it was to the big hotels in Wanchai like the Grand Hyatt and New World Harbour View (if that's still there). I remember Joe Banana's from the outside, but it looks quite posh now. I'll never forget Immigration Tower!

  4. Shanon, this is fantastic!! I love your walking tours, they will help me to remember Hong Kong when we move back to the USA. I too have just invested in a Canon IXUS as my Sony coolpix was used to death.
    goouthongkong - Anjeeta

  5. Would love it if someone could post an old picture of the Big Apple. I met my wife there in Jan 94. Also used to hang out a lot in the Beer castle after work.

  6. Thanks very much Shannon! Do you happen to have any idea what happened with Club Memo..? Cheers


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