Hong Kong’s Western frontier

28 Feb 2015 by Clement Huang
It’s a bit past noon in Hong Kong and the scene at Sun Hing is typically chaotic. Customers jostle for a seat and flag down waitresses carrying steaming bamboo towers of quail egg dumplings, black sugar cake and beef balls. Construction workers share tables with students and somehow, despite the bustle, a couple of men have managed to unfurl newspapers and retreat into the daily news. Fifteen hours later, the scene is very different as packs of twentysomethings look to cap the night’s reveries with post-booze dim sum. For years, Sun Hing was a symbol of working-class Kennedy Town, a no-nonsense place for yum cha that was known for its exceptionally good custard buns. Now it has become a late-night destination for young people, mirroring the neighbourhood’s transformation into a trendy lifestyle destination. Expect the change to accelerate. More than 30 years after the MTR’s Island Line first opened, a new extension has finally reached three historic neighbourhoods on the island’s western edge. With journey times to Central cut by more than half, a wave of new residents and businesses have moved into Sai Ying Pun, Shek Tong Tsui and Kennedy Town, each of which now boasts a gleaming new subway station. The MTR has been a long time coming. Government-led urban renewal projects have already been built in anticipation of the new stations, which helped spark gentrification a few years ago. In Sai Ying Pun, a hillside grid of apartment towers and walk-up tenements, the opening of the Island Crest luxury apartment complex and the Centre Street escalator opened the doors to an influx of upscale new enterprises. Ground zero of the transformation is High Street, a narrow side street that has turned into a kind of restaurant row. One of the earliest arrivals was Metropolitain, a bistro with decor inspired by the Paris metro. Chef Frank Lebiez oversees a menu of down-to-earth French classics like duck confit and salmon tartare. On any given night, about a third of the customers can be heard speaking la langue de Molière, reflecting Sai Ying Pun’s growing community of French expats. “It’s like a village,” says Lebiez. Sai Ying Pun’s rents are still affordable compared to established dining districts like Soho, which has encouraged innovation you might not see elsewhere. On Third Street, next to the majestic banyan trees of King George V Memorial Park, twin brothers Josh and Caleb Ng have opened Stack, a cocktails and pancake bar. Sweet pancakes are served during the day, while the nighttime menu consists of savoury buckwheat pancakes with toppings like quail’s egg and guacamole, all of it accompanied by house-bottled cocktails made with local liquor like Ng Ka Pei. On the other side of the neighbourhood, Fuk Sau Lane has become a haven for local, organic food served by Locofama and Grassroots Pantry, which face each other across the quiet, dead-end street. Grassroots Pantry recently expanded next door with Prune, a vegetarian breakfast spot that also hosts cooking workshops. “We moved out here three years ago because rent was affordable,” says owner/chef Peggy Chan. “We spend more on quality of food, training, and staff over rent.” Cheap rent was also a boon for Spanish expat Juan Martínez Gregorio, who last year opened Ping Pong 129 Ginotería in a cavernous basement that once housed a table tennis club. Under the glow of a custom-made neon sign, Ping Pong’s bartenders serve more than 60 kinds of Spanish gin made with unusual botanicals like rosemary, thyme and Arbequina olives. A few blocks west of Ping Pong is the new HKU Station, which serves the University of Hong Kong located up the hill, and the neighbourhood of Shek Tong Tsui below. With two station exits leading directly into the campus, the 104-year-old institution has never been more accessible. Its historic Main Building and Sun Yat-sen memorial garden are both worth checking out, as is the Run Run Shaw Heritage House, a recently restored structure built in 1926, whose odd mixture of roof dragons and rustic fieldstone walls make it look like an English cottage that got lost in China. Downhill is Shek Tong Tsui. The last time it had much notoriety was during its time as a red light district in the 1930s; since then, it has been an unassuming residential enclave best known for its neighbourhood market, which boasts a cooked food centre popular for its Sichuan and Chiu Chow restaurants. Yet even here, things are changing. Last year saw the opening of Time and Space, an events venue and watch boutique, and the arrival of the city’s best alternative nightclub, XXX Gallery. One stop further west and you’ll reach the Island Line’s new terminus, Kennedy Town, which is quite possibly the most hyped neighbourhood in Hong Kong at the moment. Major urbanisation took hold in the mid-2000s with the completion of several large luxury apartment towers. This attracted a strip of Western and Japanese bars and restaurants to Davis Street, and that strip is now bleeding into every other corner of the district. Chino is the most high profile of the new arrivals, helmed by Erik Idos, former executive chef at the Michelin-starred Hong Kong branch of Nobu. Los Angeles-born Idos melded his nostalgia for the taco trucks of his youth with his Japanese training to produce hybrid dishes like chipotle dashi tortilla soup. Located in a small corner space in a stylishly renovated 1960s-era building, Chino has been getting rave reviews since it opened late last year. Idos is modest, despite the praise: “We’re not bringing anything new, just good food in a neighbourhood restaurant,” he says. That neighbourhood feel is what attracted many other newcomers, including Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang, founders of popular yakitori joint Yardbird, who opened a deli and liquor store called Sunday’s Grocery last year. The shop serves homemade sandwiches and wine on tap and it boasts a large selection of mezcal, fine tequila and Japanese whisky. “The area is great, it has this blend of old and new, there’s the ocean right there and there’s this weird late night culture – you go there at two in the morning and there’s people on the street doing all sorts of things,” says Abergel. “It’s a real neighbourhood.” Whether it’s an old-school dim sum parlour like Sun Hing, or a recent venture like standing espresso bar The Cofftea Shop, Kennedy Town’s casual, local feel is still apparent. On the quiet pedestrian-only terraces above Rock Hill Street, worshippers still gather to pay homage to Lo Pan, the god of construction workers, in a 130-year-old temple. But change is coming quickly. “It’s been so busy since the MTR opened,” says Cofftea Shop’s owner, Herbert Lau. Erik Idos thinks the area might be unrecognisable in a year. “There will be millions of restaurants,” he says, adding that he hopes they follow the same low-key, high-quality model as Chino. “Hopefully I started a revolution.” SAI YING PUN STATION Stack, Pancakes and cocktails in an intimate, neon-lit dining room 1 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 2549 9787 stackconcepts.com   Metropolitan, Homey French bistro dishes in a convivial atmosphere 46 High Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 6271 6102 french-creations.com   Above Second, Hong Kong’s leading gallery for contemporary street art. 9 First Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 6330 7759 above-second.com   Craft Brew & Co., Local and imported craft beer on tap Shop 5, 26-38 High Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 2885 0821 craftbrew.com.hk   Grassroots Pantry, Organic wine, craft beer and vegetarian dishes 12 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun +852 2873 3353 grassrootspantry.com   Ping Pong 129 Ginotería, Spanish gin in a basement setting 129 Second Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 9158 1584 pingpong129.com   Beans & Dough, Coffee and freshly-made Italian-style pizza 2A Second Street, Sai Ying Pun +852 2540 2833   HKU STATION Hong Kong University Press, Wide-ranging selection of local books inside a rustic cottage Run Run Shaw Heritage House, University of Hong Kong +852 3917 7801 hkupress.org   XXX Gallery, Alternative DJs, film screenings and live bands every weekend B/F, 353-363 Des Voeux Road West xxxgallery.hk   Time and Space, Pop-up events and a by-appointment watch boutique Shop 5, 6-20 Po Tuck Street +852 2858 0225  timeandspace.hk   KENNEDY TOWN STATION Chino, Japanese-Mexican fusion cuisine and cocktails in a cosy, stylish setting 1B-1C New Praya, Kennedy Town, +852 2606 0588 chinohk.com   Kinsale, Contemporary Irish cuisine in an airy waterfront spaceShop 2, 2-5 New Praya, Kennedy Town +852 2796 6004 kinsale.com.hk   Fish and Chick, Fish and chips and moist roast chicken overlooking the harbour Shop 6, 25 New Praya, Kennedy Town +852 2974 0088   Oonami, One of Kennedy Town’s early pioneers: sashimi, udon, gyoza and more Japanese classics 39A Cadogan Street, Kennedy Town +852 2817 6626   Sunday’s Grocery, Japanese-inspired sandwiches, homemade condiments, wine, beer and spirits 66-68 Catchick Street, Kennedy Town +852 2628 6001 sundaysgrocery.com   Tivo, Bright and spacious, with a park view, full bar and hearty East-meets-West dishes 33 New Praya, Kennedy Town +852 2543 1238 tivo.com.hk
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