The hipster of Hong Kong
PHOTOGRAPHY: RAF SANCHEZ
It’s a little past eight at the Hungry Ghost Festival, but the guests of honour are yet to arrive. Their front- row seats have been reserved, but remain empty. The spirits in question might be invisible, of course. Or they might be having an other-worldly supper elswhere.
On stage, actors made up as Chinese gods dance around with swords, and the living members of the audience watch the show while diners eat at tiny plastic tables, and toast each other with thimbles of beer.
In the new Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park, flitting notes of Cantonese Opera ride the thermals to the tower blocks above, while families stroll the water’s edge. As with most Cantonese festivals, colourful chaos reigns. Lines of monks wearing running shoes and turmeric- coloured sashes chant in a melancholic, monotonous tone, their mantras battling against the announcement of the winners of a lucky dip.
This is Sheung Wan, an eccentric neighbourhood just outside Hong Kong’s central business district. Despite its proximity to Central and the Mid- Levels, where many of the city’s wealthy expatriates live, it’s still a very local locale. There are fresh flower and vegetable markets, noodle stands with street-side seating, and majong parlours. There are coffin workshops, open-air butchers, and an antiques market, its stalls stained with age.
But it’s also a suburb undergoing change. As rents in the bustle of Central continue to rise, the city’s hipness is venturing west to Sheung Wan’s shop fronts and alleyways. New restaurants, cafes and clubs, art galleries and yoga studios jostle for space with Chinese tea shops, meat warehouses and traditional medicine clinics. Heritage is in vogue in Hong Kong, and this tiny district is turning into the city’s chic capital.
Henning Voss has lived in Hong Kong for the past four years, and is founder of NecesCity, an online men’s lifestyle guide. Its office is on Queens Road West, in the heart of Sheung Wan.
“As a typical gweilo (foreign) bachelor, I spent my first two years in Hong Kong living in Soho, until I bought a place in Sheung Wan,” says Voss. “During the last few years, Sheung Wan has become a much hipper and trendier place. Cool restaurants like Wagyu Kaiseki Den, art galleries, posh apartments and quirky shops have really transformed the area.”
Although intrepid foreigners have lived in Sheung Wan for years, it was the arts community that first started looking west, and now the neighbourhood boasts the best slices of the city’s art scene, according to Kevin Kwong, arts editor at the South China Morning Post.
“Sheung Wan has always had a connection with the arts, not least because it has a performing arts venue, the Sheung Wan Civic Centre, but also because the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and Hong Kong Dance Company are also based there,” says Kwong.
The Cat Street Gallery is one of the city’s most acclaimed art spots, and the opening of its new space on Lok Ku Road looks set to bolster the neighbourhood’s arty credentials.
“When I moved The Cat Street Gallery to the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Road in 2008, a lot of my friends thought I was mad – it was a one-way street and our neighbours were generally just coffin shops,” says owner Mandy d’Abo. “It’s still a one- way street, but over the last two and a half years, our neighbours have changed immeasurably. Soho has crept westward and now walking down Hollywood Road, as well as the traditional antique shops, you pass endless little galleries, studios and cafes. The area has transformed itself into a must-see for anyone visiting Hong Kong who is at all interested in art and design.”
Mandy recommends stopping in at the Sin Sin and ParaSITE galleries, or shopping for designer lighting at Innermost. “We hope the opening of The Space in November will really cement the neighbourhood’s art credentials. It’s located in a former meat-packing factory and will be the largest art space in the area, allowing us to host a whole new calibre of international artists.”
Sheung Wan’s foodies have plenty to cheer too. With cheaper rents and bigger spaces than in the centre, a flurry of fancy restaurants have opened, including 208 Duecento Otto, a chic Italian housed in another former meat- packing factory. “I’ve been in Hong Kong for only a few months, but even in that time I can see that Sheung Wan is changing every day as new, funky projects are started,” says the chef, Vinny Lauria.
On early mornings in the Hollywood Road Park, a tranquil space surrounded by traditional Chinese walls and punctuated by ponds filled with lucky carp, old Chinese men play Jeuhng Keih (Chinese Chess), while women glide through the steps of tai chi. The park is surrounded by commercial towers and serviced apartments, with busy cafes at their base filled with breakfasting expats. Across the street, Hong Kong’s first Lomography shop has opened.
“The old-world charm of Sheung Wan still exists, but we’re seeing it evolve,” says Andrew Lewis, creator of Sheung Wan’s newest club, Republik. “With The Cat Street Gallery, The Press Room Group and other designer shops popping up, Sheung Wan is emerging as a creative hub, attracting like- minded people who are looking for something new and sophisticated. When M1NT (the predecessor to Republik) first started here, people thought we were too far removed from the crowds. But now it seems that the crowd is moving in our direction.”
The question for many is how long this balance can be maintained, as property developers hurry to convert this historical slice of the city into tomorrow’s swanky condos.
“I think it will be tough to keep the balance; rents are on the rise and some new apartment developments will add to this craze,” says Henning Voss. “However, Hong Kongers living in Sheung Wan are a pretty conservative crowd, so I hope we will keep the dry goods shopfronts, antique boutiques, and traditional Chinese medicine shops. It’s part of Hong Kong’s identity.”
If you’re feeling peckish, you might want to try one of Sheung Wan’s private kitchens – if you can find them. Hidden away in commercial buildings and apartment blocks, private kitchens resulted from chefs looking to express their culinary style without paying the high rents of large restaurants. Expect eclectic decor, tiny dining rooms and set menus of some of the most innovative cuisine available in the city. Top spots include the Shanghainese dishes of Gong Guan (12/F Fung Woo Building, 279 Des Voeux Road Central, Sheung Wan, +852 2577 9789, www.gong-guan.com) and the Creole dinner party atmosphere of Magnolia (Shop 5, G/F, 17 Po Yan St, Sheung Wan, +852 2530 9880, magnolia.hk), but be sure to book in advance.
Hong Kong fact file
KLM operates a direct daily flight from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to Hong Kong International Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
The Central Park Hotel (263 Hollywood Rd, +852 2850 8899, www.centralparkhotel.com.hk) is in the heart of Sheung Wan. The Courtyard by Marriott (167 Connaught Rd West, +852 3717 8888, www.marriott.com) is an easy walk from Hollywood Road.
WHAT TO SEE Be sure to check out the antique markets on Upper Lascar Row. The shops open at about 10am and offer everything from pricey real-deals and Communist paraphernalia, to some pretty classy fakes.
WHERE TO EAT
Gough Street (near the Man Mo Temple) is an emerging foodie’s haven. Be sure to go local at Kau Kee, one of the city’s most famous noodle shops, or if you’re looking to go lavish, try Gough 40.
WHERE TO DRINK
Republik (just up from the Temple) boasts the city’s beautiful folk, while Classified Cafe downstairs (108 Hollywood Rd, +852 2525 3444) has a brilliant wine list. Mingle Bar (Eden Hotel, 148 Wellington St, +852 2851 0303) is also worth a visit.