Amidst the bustling business of Hong Kong, there’s a pocket of the city that’s a window onto another word.
On South Wall Road, Kowloon city, Cantonese is mixed with Thai. The chanting of monks can be heard through the din of traffic, and the smell of lemongrass, coriander and incense cuts through the air.
In Little Thailand, Thai traditions have melded with Cantonese culture, and have found a home in the melting pot of Hong Kong.
Marta Colombo and Jayson Albano took a trip to the vibrant area, and brought us this report.
A tall monk is clad in saffron robes. A warm smile lights up his face. Waiting devotees come to greet him. Phra Phimon Lapkanya is Thai monk. He tells me he travels for one hour from his monastery to Little Thailand, in the heart of Kowloon City, Hong Kong.
Lapkanya came to Hong Kong almost twenty-five years ago, to spread the teachings of Buddha. There were few monks in the city then, and he says it wasn’t easy, especially with no knowledge of the language.
Cantonese isn’t an easy langauge, but Lapkanya had to adapt quickly.
“Now I can speak the language, I learned it by myself,” he told me in Cantonese. “Since learning it, I’ve tried to translate Buddha’s teachings so they can be easily understood.”
Here in Kowloon City he collect alms and preaches. Over the years, a crowd of locals, Thais, and Indians have built up an interest in Buddhism. They wait for him here.
South Wall Road, Kowloon City, is known as Little Thailand. Signs are bilingual, or just Thai. You’ll never find such a concentration of Thai stores and goods anywhere else in Hong Kong. Owners and customers gather on the street to chat – usually in Thai.
It’s a tiny and fascinating micro-universe in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong.
There are 11 thousand four hundred and ninety three Thai people living in Hong Kong, according to the latest government census. That’s just 0.2 % of the total population.
Most of them came to Hong Kong when the territory’s economy took off in the late 1970s, seeking better job opportunities.
Now, the majority of Thais in Hong Kong work as domestic helpers or as manual labourers, earning minimum wage.
A few were able to set up businesses, like restaurants, massage parlous, and shops selling imported Thai products like oils, magazines, cosmetics, flowers and fresh ingredients.
Khai Mitra-Don is the cook and owner of Lemon Thai Restaurant on Southwall Road. He only uses produce flown in from Thailand to perfectly recreate the flavours of his home cuisine.
He tells me, he’s found what he was looking for here. “We came to Hong Kong to make money. My life is better now,” he says.
But Mitra has also fallen victim to the harsh realities of Hong Kong, where locals are often called workaholics. Although he’s making more money, he says he doesn’t have time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
In Thailand, Thais take classes before moving to Hong Kong, and they learn about Hong Kong’s lifestyle, the language, and how to write basic Chinese words. The rest they learn by living in the city.
Another chef, Wong Wing, tells us that he changed his name when he arrived, to try and blend in.
Wing Wong seems to have adapted pretty well to life in Hong Kong. But when we ask him if he misses Thailand, he tells us he’s homesick, along with everyone else.
At the very end of South Wall Road there’s a store selling Buddha statues and other trinkets.
The owner, Bat Kung is dressed in black. Outside her shop sits a large portrait of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away last October.
She explains that when a king passes away, Thai people mourn for one year, wearing black as a sign of devotion… although she says many locals find that hard to understand.
“There are people who look at what’s happening and think that it’s funny. Why is it that one person dies, and everyone in the country is so sad? And then they laugh at us.”
She continued, “It’s because they don’t know that our king is someone who is actually really important. It’s not just because he’s the king. It’s because he’s done so many things that made Thailand the country that it is today. A lot of things have changed for the better.”
Bat Kung has been in Hong Kong for almost 30 years ago, she has married a local man, and has a daughter, who’s moved back to Thailand. Bat Kung goes back to visit often.
Like most people here, she’s of two places now.