Lonely Planet Writer

A traditional Chinese medicine shop has become Hong Kong's most unique cafe

Near to the buzzing commercial districts of Mongkok and Prince Edward, there is a slice of old Hong Kong still living and breathing in Kowloon City – complete with flat whites and all-day breakfast spreads served surrounded by decades-old Chinese medicine cabinets.

Tai Wo Tang. Image by Karen Chiang

Remembered for its notorious Kowloon Walled City days and known nowadays as little Thailand, this local community is packed with low-rises remaining from the Kai Tak Airport days when strict building height restrictions applied. Apart from family-run Thai restaurants, grocery stores and massage parlours, there is also Tai Wo Tang – a new cafe opened in late 2018 that has become an Instagram hot-spot for a good reason.

The cafe no longer dispenses medicine but its fixtures and fittings are intact. Image by Karen Chiang

Previously a Chinese medicine shop founded in 1932, Tai Wo Tang is housed in a pre-war Chinese building with verandas built in the 1920s. The ground-level shop was a family-run business, catering to ailments through traditional Chinese medicine, and earning itself a star-studded patient list ranging from local politicians to celebrities. After two generations of doctors, Tai Wo Tang lived on for five more years, run by a family relative selling ingredients for Chinese medicine. After 80 years, it finally closed in 2017.

It’s a hit with Instagrammers. Image by Karen Chiang

That is until 2018, when it was announced that the original shop would be preserved and refurbished as a modern cafe, retaining most of its iconic decor. Look out for the wooden Chinese medicine cabinet, that is close to a century old, lining the wall from floor to ceiling; the old folding metal gate; seasoned wooden benches, and of course, the original wooden banner bearing the Chinese characters for Tai Wo Tang painted in gold.

This is a piece of Hong Kong history. Image by Karen Chiang

Though you can no longer get a dose of Chinese medicine for your cold there, Tai Wo Tang continues to be a bearer of old Hong Kong heritage and history. The only difference is, instead of the distinctly pungent herbal smell, you’ll find yourself in a space with the aromatic smell of freshly-ground coffee beans.

By Karen Chiang