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Stories behind Hong Kong street names: Yee Kuk Street and its benefactor

When people talk about Sham Shui Po today, the first thing that comes to mind for many is its thriving electronics flea market. Others know of it as the poorest district in Hong Kong. It’s a working-class neighbourhood rich in culture and history, and the best place to get an idea of how much of the city was in the 1960s.

One of the movers and shakers behind the development of Sham Shui Po a century ago was a wealthy entrepreneur named Wong Yiu-tung, who owned a wide range of businesses, from a cinema and restaurants to dockyards and a weaving factory. After reclamation in the 1910s, Wong erected a number of residential buildings in the neighbourhood, attracting people from around the area as well as investors, and quickly spun Sham Shui Po into a commercial and industrial hub.

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The area from Kweilin Street onwards to Cheung Sha Wan and Lai Chi Kok is all reclaimed land. Part of Yee Kuk Street is on reclaimed land. The street is named after a public dispensary.

The neighbourhood clinic was initially situated in the Tin Hau temple on one corner of the street, but after about 20 years of service, it could not longer meet the needs of the growing community. In the early 1930s, Wong Yiu-tung funded the construction of a two-storey medical centre to provide basic medical care for the grass-roots population.

The building used to be right next to the old Sham Shui Po ferry pier, from which there were sailings to and from Central and Macau.

In his autobiography, author William Fung recalls his mother bringing him to the walk-in clinic whenever he was sick. The only negative side of the clinic, he wrote, was that it operated on a first-come, first-served basis and with a daily quota, so patients had to wait in lines early in the morning before the clinic opened.

Following a renovation in 2002, the building became a methadone clinic. While its colour has faded, its distinctive architectural features have been preserved: a main facade with six pilasters and metal grilles depicting geometric patterns.

Another notable building on the dilapidated street is a verandah-type tong lau, one of very few left in Hong Kong. The landlord of the grade-two-listed historic building was the late picture-frame maker Suen King-sun.

For more than half a century, Suen and his wife operated Yick Ping Factory, a picture-mounting business, on the ground floor during the day and slept on the upper floor at night. Their store name, Yick Ping Glass Mirror, written in large red characters, covers the exterior walls and the pair of mock Tuscan columns. Though Suen died seven years ago and business has slowed, his wife still runs the shop.