Hipster Hong Kong
The travel hot spots highlighting Hong Kong’s new cool.
It was while rifling through 1960s miniature black-and-white photos of Hong Kong families in an “ironic”, kitsch vintage store in the Sham Shui Po district of downtown Kowloon – having just enjoyed a coffee in a “maker space” gallery and bookshop – that I realised I was in hipster heaven, and that Hong Kong seems set to have its unlikely international hipster moment.
Slideshow images: Fa Yuen Street Market, interior detail at Old Man, Ho Lee Fook, Sevva has Victoria Harbour views.
This ramshackle neighbourhood, tucked behind Hong Kong’s famed flower markets on the western side of the Kowloon peninsula – and a long way from the glitzy confidence and wealth we usually associate with Hong Kong – possesses the perfect elements for transformation from down-at-heel garment district to hipster enclave: gritty streets with run-down buildings painted a chaos of primary colours, signs hanging (and swinging in a high wind) precariously across bustling market streets, rickety, washing-festooned tenements that no property developer has ever eyed off, and a tribe of young artists and digital media nomads who can’t dream of affording rent over in Hong Kong’s Central. Bingo!
Hong Kong, once bemused and even a little embarrassed by its uneasy mix of old and new architecture, is starting to appreciate the value of its heritage. Old buildings, once torn down without much thought, are now being sensitively redeveloped.
We hear about this change in mindset from influential Hong Kong designer Douglas Young, who shows us around “his” Kowloon, in its early stages of gentrification. As the city tries to define its “culture”, Young, who owns the hip design store G.O.D. (Goods of Desire), has written that “Hong Kong culture does not exist at all; at best it’s a hotchpotch of British colonial influences over indigenous Chinese traditions, a mishmash of ugliness and chaos”.
This is where the hipster movement has some real influence, lovingly blending cues from the past with a collaborative and creative present.
But as Manfred Mann once sang, but Mama, that’s where the fun is. It’s that fascinating mix that is inspiring Hong Kong locals to reimagine their city and to appreciate the vibrancy inherent in that clash of cultures.
This is my first trip to Hong Kong, strange given its status as favoured stop-over en route to Europe. I was always so keen to get to my final destination that I never considered spending time here. That was a mistake.
In this lightning three-nighter, my overriding impression is one of a city in evolution, on a journey to being honest about itself, what it is and how it got here.
This is where the much maligned hipster movement has some real influence, lovingly blending cues from the past with a collaborative and creative present. Kowloon is an architectural and cultural mash-up, which is where its great energy and off-centre beauty comes from, and influencers such as Douglas Young are driving the change.
His book My HK: Personal Reflections on the Everyday Sights and Sounds of Hong Kong, is a love letter to the city’s iron letterboxes, street markets, all sorts of signs, flyers, bottles in herbal medicine shops, even the designs of manhole covers.
Old Man bar channels Ernest Hemingway.
On the wall at Ho Lee Fook.
Twenty-five floors up at Sevva.
Douglas writes of the mindset that led to Kowloon’s crazy-paving aesthetic. “In the not so distant past, illegal extensions were very popular. These preciously afforded tenants with a little extra living space. Until the 1990s, the authorities have been lax in enforcing strict control to stop its proliferation.” As a result, he writes, the facades of multi-storeyed buildings “were essentially vertical patchworks of metal and colourful laundry”.
Hey, said the hipsters – that sounds like something we could work with. So in they came.
It’s not just Kowloon that has been touched by this. Across the harbour, in Hong Kong’s reawakened CBD, known simply as Central, the excellently named Ho Lee Fook (say it slowly: it means “good fortune for your mouth”), is a funky Chinese kitchen inspired by late-night hangouts in 1960s New York. Great food and back-lit artworks featuring scenes from the city’s oldest operating wet market underscore its hip credentials.
We visited a speakeasy called Old Man in Central, a cool bar named in honour of Ernest Hemingway.
So what’s happened to the Hong Kong we thought we knew – the jaw-dropping views from the rooftop bars, the evening laser show seen from a junk on Victoria Harbour, the vast yum cha palaces, the Blade Runner skyline, the frisson of traditional Hong Kong rubbing up against a community of foreigners here to make a fortune, and party hard while they’re at it?
Yep, that’s all here and ready to dazzle you. Even the city’s hottest new hotel, where I stayed, has a strong hipster provenance. The Murray in Cotton Tree Drive, Central, was once a government office tower. Thanks to the Hong Kong government’s initiative to conserve the heritage of the city’s central business area, The Murray was elegantly and sensitively transformed into a hotel, on the condition that the original external walls and features of the building were preserved.
The result is a stunning melange of luxury and – philosophically anyway – hipster cred, underscoring Hong Kong’s new appreciation of its lovely old buildings and its history. Oh, and a lone tree at one entrance that stayed as part of the deal.
In our search for more of Hong Kong’s hip havens, we visited a speakeasy called Old Man in Central, a cool bar named in honour of Ernest Hemingway. It’s so small you have to go outside to change your mind, but coming from Melbourne, a city of diminutive laneway bars, Old Man’s sheer tininess qualifies it for hipster status – if the vibey young crowd in designer tees and non-prescription glasses didn’t get it there already.
Clive James once wrote that doing the cliched things while visiting a new city is, of course, a good idea. He was referring to taking a cruise on the Seine in Paris in a glass-roofed boat, but in Hong Kong that list would include yum cha, high-rise cocktails and junks.
I did them all this time, and they were great. But next time you come to Hong Kong, don’t forget to take a look at another, less glamorous side of the city, over on Sham Shui Po. The proliferation of luxe hotels hasn’t happened there yet, but you’ll get a great macchiato.
Hong Kong’s hipster top five
G.O.D. (Goods of Desire)
48 Hollywood Road, Central
Hipster fashion, accessories and homewares, from bathmats to boxers.
198 Tai Nan Street, Kowloon, in the Sham Shui Po district
Achingly cool bookstore and cafe (previously known as Common Room).
1-5 Elgin Street, Central
Hipster food heaven in the heart of the action on Hong Kong Island.
Lower ground floor, 37 Aberdeen Street, Central
Hemingway-inspired speakeasy serving cool cocktails named for the great man’s novels.
25th floor, Prince’s Building, 10 Chater Road, Central
Rooftop bar and one of the city’s best venues for a cocktail, with amazing views of Victoria Harbour and the nightly Symphony of Lights laser show.