Hong Kong's chic centre

HONG KONG: Typical high-rise residential and commercial buildings.
HONG KONG: Typical high-rise residential and commercial buildings.

An eccentric and historic neighbourhood is reinventing itself as Hong Kong's home of cool.


It's just after 11 on a glorious Saturday morning, and the pavements of one little corner of central Hong Kong are bustling with pedestrians.

WESTERN INFLUENCE: Residents take part in Spanish dancer Carolina Vera’s flamenco workshop in Sheung Wan.
WESTERN INFLUENCE: Residents take part in Spanish dancer Carolina Vera’s flamenco workshop in Sheung Wan.

The foot traffic is an eclectic mix, with tourists searching for deals in the many antique stores and boutique galleries.

Expatriates read papers and enjoy eggs benedict at chic sidewalk cafes.

In the district's little Hollywood Rd Park, elderly Chinese women perform fan dances to scratchy music, while their husbands crowd around stone chess tables.

This is Sheung Wan, a dynamic, colourful, eccentric neighbourhood a stone's throw from the glass-encased towers of Hong Kong's central business district. Despite its close proximity to the banks of Central and the affluent residences of the Mid-Levels, Sheung Wan has retained a very local persona. There are flower and vegetable markets that open before sunrise, noodle stands with streetside seating and majong parlours that burn the midnight oil.

There are coffin workshops, open-air butchers and a fantastic antiques market, its stalls and stores stained with age.

However, it is also a suburb undergoing change. As rents in the bustle of Central continue to rise, the city's hip persona is venturing west, into Sheung Wan's shop fronts and alleyways, creating a diversity that's both kaleidoscopic and enthralling.

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.

Despite its small stature, Sheung Wan is in fact one of the city's most historic precincts. It was a key component of British settlement known as Victoria City, which encompassed much of northwest Hong Kong Island. In fact, the site for the original 1842 occupation is now Sheung Wan's Possession St, although heavy reclamation means it no longer has a waterfront vista.

Hollywood Rd, one of Hong Kong's oldest throughways, runs through Sheung Wan like a vital artery and travels past Aberdeen St, the official border, down to the ancient Man Mo Temple.

Steps away, Gough St is one of many lanes where new bars and restaurants cash in on the subtle address change.

Henning Voss has lived in Hong Kong for the past four years, and is founder of NecesCity, an online men's lifestyle guide located in the heart of the emerging neighbourhood.

"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," he says. "During the last few years, Sheung Wan has become a much hipper and trendier place. Now it even attracts crowds that normally would not make their way past the Man Mo Temple.

"Hip restaurants like Wagyu Kaiseki Den and 208 Duecento Otto, art galleries, posh apartments and quirky shops have transformed the area."

Although intrepid foreigners like Voss have lived in Sheung Wan for years, it was the city's arts community which brought the best of the city's art scene west, according to Kevin Kwong, arts editor at The South China Morning Post newspaper.

"Sheung Wan has always had a connection with the arts scene, 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," Kwong says.

"Another active theatre company, Theatre du Pif, has also set up shop there."

The Cat Street Gallery, one of the first contemporary art galleries to make the move to Sheung Wan, and the adjacent The Space venue in a former meatpacking building have both helped bolster the neighbourhood's arty credentials. They were followed by the likes of Sin Sin and ParaSITE as well as design stories such as Innermost.

"When I moved the Cat Street Gallery to the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Rd 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," owner Mandy d'Abo says.

"It's still a one-way street, but during the last 2 years our neighbours have changed immeasurably. Soho has crept westwards and is now walking down Hollywood Rd.

"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 interested in art and design."

Several chic new restaurants have also opened in Sheung Wan in the past year, taking advantage of cheaper rents and bigger spaces, including Magnolia, a Cajun-themed private kitchen that's always packed; the elegant Press Room bistro, just up from the Man Mo Temple; Cafe Maison, a chic cafe-slash-lifestyle store in Gough St; and 208 Duecento Otto, a chic Italian restaurant that smacks of the Big Apple.

A hop, skip and jump from 208 is Heirloom, a conservatory-looking eatery, serving Balinese-Mexican fusion cuisine.

It's easy to see the contrast that makes Sheung Wan such a popular destination.

Across the street from Heirloom, at Hollywood Rd Park, the old Chinese men continue their matches of jeuhng keih (Chinese chess), and their wives move from fans to the gliding movements of tai chi. Balancing that contrast is the tricky part.

"I think it will be tough to keep the balance," Voss says.

"Rents are on the rise and new apartment developments will add to this craze. 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."

Try any of these Dining: Wagyu Kaiseki Den, 263 Hollywood Rd, ph 00852 2851 2820, wagyukaisekiden.com.hk; 208 Duecento Otto, 208 Hollywood Rd, ph 00852 2549 0208, 208.com.hk; Cafe Maison, G/F, 12 Gough St, ph 852 2581 3663; Magnolia, Shop 5, G/F, 17 Po Yan St, ph 00852 2530 9880, magnolia.hk; Heirloom: 226 Hollywood Rd, ph 00852 2547 8008, heirloomhk.com.

Theatre: Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, 4/F Sheung Wan Municipal Services Building, 345 Queen's Rd West, ph 00852 3103 5930, hkrep.com; Theatre du Pif, Room 902, Hua Fu Building, 111 Queens Rd West, ph 2904 2030, thtdupif.com; Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, 7/F Sheung Wan Municipal Services Building, 345 Queen's Rd West, ph 00852 3185 1600, hkco.org.

Dance: Hong Kong Dance Company, 4/F Sheung Wan Municipal Services Building, 345 Queen's Rd West, ph 00852 3103 1888, hkdance.com.

Art: The Cat Street Gallery, 222 Hollywood Rd, ph 00852 2291 0006, thecatstreetgallery.com; The Space, 210 Hollywood Rd, ph 00852 2361 1210, thespace.hk.

Nick Walton, a New Zealand journalist and former travel editor for the South China Morning Post, has been in Hong Kong for five years.

The Press