Hong Kong's Towering Ambitions

31 Aug 2008 by business traveller
Exciting projects of world-class proportions are taking shape in a nondescript waterfront area of Hongkong. Kenneth Cheong and Lau Liang Tong examine the impact of this renaissance on the fortunes and image of the city. Activity of herculean proportions has been steadily rumbling in the “land of the nine dragons” – Kau Lung, better known as Kowloon. Come 2010, a world-class megahub will be unveiled, a development expected to revitalise Hongkong’s fortunes and image somewhat eclipsed in recent years by the Mainland miracle. A consortium of commercial developers, spearheaded by the MTR Corporation, is already more than halfway with the foundations of this ambitious HK$29 billion (US$3.7 billion) waterfront project in West Kowloon. Dubbed as “Union Square”, the 1.1 million-square-metre complex – about double the size of London’s Canary Wharf – will be home to a futuristic commercial infrastructure, high-end residences, luxury hotels and the biggest shopping mall ever built in Asia. “Union Square represents a union of Hongkong developers and international designers and architects around the world who are working together to create one of the world’s most spectacular landmarks in Hongkong.” says Thomas Ho, property director, MTR Corporation. “It is going to be the focal point for people who are working, living and shopping at this place.” Kowloon suffered much scrutiny in the past when compared with its dashing sibling across the harbour, Hongkong Island. There was hardly any competition as it was a rag-tag peninsula littered with low-lying “tumbledown” architecture, an odd feature for a space-hungry metropolis. It was also notorious for housing some of the city’s most hardened criminals, who made Kowloon the base for their questionable dealings. This hackneyed profile has since changed due to a number of government initiatives that included land reclamation works and an extensive infrastructure build up. Union Square is undoubtedly one of the glowing results of these efforts. Its location above the Kowloon MTR station, with access to three major railways being a key incentive for travellers who shuttle regularly between Hongkong and China, is unbeatable. Regional developers have always been eager to better their rivals’ records with their latest trophy projects, and the International Commerce Centre (ICC) is no exception. Upon completion, this 118-storey column will stand at 490m, exceeding the current behemoth, the IFC 2, by a whopping 70m. For that, 40 double-deck elevators and 18 high-speed ones by the Schindler Group are being installed to serve the influx of daily commuters up and down this massive superstructure, something certainly the cleaning lady will be overjoyed to learn. Even in the early stages, interest in the ICC Interest was already keen, reaching fever proportions when international names like ABN AMRO, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley among others announced they would relocate as soon as they were permitted to, and despite the fact that construction work would continue furiously around them. “Relocating to the ICC is a good strategic move for us,” says Hans Schuettler, Asia CEO of Morgan Stanley. “ICC will provide us with the necessary flexibility for expansion and growth, a brand-new working environment with improved amenities, and first-class client facilities. Most importantly, it allows us to create a ‘One Firm’ experience by keeping all of our employees in the same complex.” This sentiment is shared by Deutsche Bank Asia-Pacific’s CEO, Colin Grassie, who thought that ICC delivered a “world-class space solution”. With the completed Arch, Cullinan, HarbourView Place, Sorrento and Waterfront residential and serviced apartment developments surrounding ICC, the inventory will consist of well over 2,000 units that promise priceless panoramas of the Victoria Harbour. Hotel tenants include Starwood’s W Hotel, which slipped unobtrusively into town on the opening night of the Olympics last month, and the Ritz-Carlton slated for a 2010 debut. The leisure component of Union Square is represented by Elements, Asia’s biggest (at press time) retail, dining and entertainment mall, themed according to the five traditional elements of nature. MTR Corporation’s chief retail development manager Betty Leong is confident that the sprawling 93,000-square-metre mall will be more than capable of being “(the) place that Hongkongers visit most frequently after their homes and offices”. Certainly, there is a lot to keep them occupied. They can browse in high-end, double-storey boutiques in the Metal Zone, enjoy gourmet meals at the posh dining area in the Water Zone or try defying gravity in the ice rink at the Fire Zone. Lovers of nature and the outdoors can find their own piece of heaven in the beautifully landscaped rooftop gardens. Swanky developments aside, Kowloon still has much to offer. A short 10 minutes down Jordan Road, life still explodes in the riotous bustle so associated with the Yau Tsim Mong district (Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok). Of these three cultural precincts, Mongkok has undergone the most noticeable transformation, with the end still not yet in sight. This host to a variety of quaintly named bazaars and streets, from the famous Ladies’ Market to the aquarium haven of Goldfish Street, is dotted with so many antiquated buildings that should they be demolished, presents a prime opportunity to create a new hub in the same way the previous exercise did for Langham Place, which consists of the high-tech Langham Place Hotel and the adjoining commercial complex. Progress, however, can be difficult to accept, especially for long-time residents like freelance yoga teacher, April Shum, who has called Mongkok home for the past 38 years. Now geared up the worst, she says: “The (old) buildings near Langham are rather endangered. Since the Langham was built, land around here has risen in value. “If the buildings get acquired, for sure, another mall will be built. That would be a great pity, considering the area’s colourful history.” Crucial planning will be paramount if such a development were to take place. Langham Place, for example, was a lengthy 15-year land acquisition project that started in 1989 and was completed only in November 2004. Nevertheless, the entire project, which cost over HK$10 billion (US$1.3 billion), has proven a worthy investment. Since opening, the complex, made up of a 15-storey shopping mall with over 300 shops, a 60-storey office tower and a cutting-edge 700-room five-star hotel, has evolved to become a prominent Mongkok landmark in a short span of time. The Langham Place Shopping Mall has already become such a huge draw for both locals and tourists alike, while the hotel  building has little problems of being spotted from miles away, being the tallest structure there. Meanwhile, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) – the same team behind the development of Langham Place – is now masterminding another iconic project: Sports Retail City. Identified to occupy some 2,500sqm of land bordered by three streets, Fa Yuen Street, Nelson Street and Sai Yee Street (or “Sneaker Street” due to the large concentration of sports shops in the area). Costing approximately HK$3.14 billion (US$402 million), this large-scale revamp is expected to affect 500 residents currently living in about 14 buildings, aged between 40 and 55 years old. Many of these people are known to fear and resent change. Stephen Lam, URA’s district development director, however, says: “The construction of the Sports Retail City would not only achieve the purpose of preserving local character, but it also produces a synergistic effect with the nearby Macpherson Playground and the planned Macpherson Indoor Stadium to form a sports activity zone.” Unlike your usual residential and retail building, it will have an exclusive first-of-its-kind “Hongkong Sports Hall of Fame”, which will feature an array of exhibits commemorating the achievements of outstanding athletes in Hongkong. With all these feats, Kowloon looks set indeed to be on a home run to claim the title of The Next Big Thing.  

WHERE TO STAY IN YAU TSIM MONG (Yau Ma Tei-Tsim Sha Tsui-Mongkok)


Reaching the two-decade mark, this property has been thoroughly overhauled from top to bottom, following a near-complete US$18 million refurbishment. Its 465 guestrooms, now repainted in shades of pleasing earth tones, feature beds with cotton-cum-sateen-woven bedding, the ergonomic “Eaton Easy Chair” and a cutting-edge stereo system that connects to iPods. Meetings wise, delegates can look forward to the new 3,000-square-metre banquet and conference centre accommodating up to 550 people or a more informal E Club lounge setting that is impressively equipped with computers, broadband internet access and even LCD TVs paired with wireless headsets. Of its six dining outlets, Yagura is extremely popular for sushi rolls and robatayaki-styled selections as is Yat Tung Heen whose Cantonese cuisine has racked up awards. CONTACT: 380 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2782 1818, www.eatonhotels.com


A contrast to the timeless European elegance of its sibling, The Langham in Tsim Sha Tsui, this newer 665-room property exudes a clean and modern image, enhanced further by cutting-edge technology. Rooms offer touch-screen IP phones, 42-inch plasma TVs, hi-fi speakers and broadband access, along with oversized beds and marble bathrooms that have anti-fog glass mirrors and separate bathtubs and showers. Leisure facilities include a rooftop swimming pool, 24-hour gym and Chuan Spa, while Ming Court and Tokoro offer Cantonese and Japanese food respectively. (Serious foodies have 50 other choices in the nearby Langham Place Mall with more available around Mongkok. Just enquire at the concierge for popular outlets.) CONTACT: 555 Shanghai Street, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 3552 3388, www.langhamplacehotels.com


Arguably one of the better-recognised landmarks in the Jordan district, this 40-year-old hotel may have been around for some time, but it still maintains a distinctive tranquil ambience business travellers long for. A recent renovation has seen the addition of four stylish Nathan Floors with rooms offering 42-inch LCD TVs and luxurious bathrooms among other amenities, bringing the total number of guestrooms and suites to 189. The Penthouse, lorded over by Chef Fok known for his seafood and other specialties, is recommended, while the alfresco Bali and Nathan Lounge are the places to unwind. CONTACT: 378 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2388 5141, www.nathanhotel.com


Located along the heavily commercial Nathan Road, an area brimming with dining and entertainment options, this Novotel has adapted the French chain’s new “natural living” design concept. Its 389 spacious guestrooms boast oversized beds, flexible workspaces with special lighting features, LCD TVs carrying satellite channels and broadband internet access. iMac and iPod corners are also available in the lobby and business centre. Meal times at The Square are made lively with chefs cheerfully dispensing cooking tips, so be sure to pick up some. CONTACT: 348 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 3965 8833, www.novotelnathanhk.com


Just steps away from Mongkok East MTR station, reaching various parts of the city is the last thing guests staying at this 693-room property need ever fret about. While broadband internet access is available in all guestrooms, those staying on the refurbished Executive Floors have the key to the private lounge and its three Wi-Fi enabled meeting rooms. Meetings are served by the Grand Ballroom which can seat up to 500 people and offers spectacular views of Kowloon Tong and Lion Rock Mountain. F&B options include La Scala for international buffets, Royal Plaza Chinese Restaurant with its Cantonese-Shanghainese line-up, La Fontana bar featuring nightly live music and Gourmet Corner for light bites. Vitalia Spa, located at Definition Health Club, offers indulgent body and beauty treatments. CONTACT: 193 Prince Edward Road West, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2928 8822, www.royalplaza.com.hk  


A whirlwind trip around Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok brings back nostalgic flavours and unearths playthings from the past. Visitors are urged to visit these neighbourhoods, with the developer’s clock ticking away their existence. Soon these places will just be a memory


This 58-year-old teahouse has retained authentically Hongkong touches in its menu and décor. Lazily spinning fans hang from the ceiling and an old cash-register dominates a prominent corner of this three-storey teahouse lined with mosaic tiles. Diners return to the yesteryears, sipping yuan yang (a coffee and tea mix) and nibbling po lo yau (sweet crust bun with a thick slab of butter in between). Drinks are from HK$12 (US$1.50). CONTACT: G/F, 63 Temple Street, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2384 6402. Open daily from 0930 to 2230 and closed on public holidays.


Offering bridal services since 1938, it was always known as the one-stop shop for all wedding essentials, from elaborately designed tea sets with auspicious Chinese elements to traditional finery embroidered with the good luck symbols of dragons and phoenixes. Materials used to decorate interiors during the ceremonies are also available. The store has caught up with modern times and introduced rent-a-gown packages. CONTACT: Shop 16-16A, G/F, Ping On Building, 383 Nathan Road, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2381 4866/4508. Open daily from 1030 to 2030.


The signboard, with the name of the store engraved on a lacquered board, hangs strangely inside the shop. (Perhaps, having been around since 1938, it’s a landmark that needs no identification.) Pick up a shuttlecock (Chinese hacky sack) and test your agility or rummage through a variety of other items, from old-style school ballpoint pens to modern-day mechanical pencils. CONTACT: 125 Shanghai Street, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2384 0886. Open daily from 1100 to 2030.


Meet the “Famous Amos” of Hongkong, sans the chocolate chip best-seller. Trays of biscuits, egg tarts and sponge cakes are baked fresh every day. Feast on traditional favourites like the “cow’s ear”, made from fermented yam and shaped like that bovine’s body part, a Chinese-style scone available in three sizes and Chinese chicken biscuits with a sweet and salty pork filling. Most food items cost HK$30 (US$4) per pound. CONTACT: G/F, Shop 135, Fa Yuen Street, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2394 1727. Open daily from 0730 to 2000.


The stench of the fermented beancurd travels all the way to the opposite street, but that same factor is what pulls in the crowds. Even the famous Hongkong food critic Chua Lam is a fan of this pungent delicacy. Piping-hot stinky tofu is fried till golden brown and eaten with lots of chilli or sweet sauce. At HK$6 (75 cents), it is a cheap and fantastic appetiser, that is, if you learn to get over the dizzying aroma. CONTACT: G/F, Shop 10, 30-32A, Tung Choi Street, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2141 7468. Open daily from 1100 to 2100.


This three-storey establishment serves dim sum in the most authentic way, with elderly ladies pushing carts around the premises. Try the almost-extinct quail’s egg siew mai, a local favourite, or the gigantic chicken bun, almost that of the size of a teapot. The dining room looks like a setting out of a Wong Kar Wai film, with distressed brown vintage padded chairs and retro glass chandeliers. A dim sum breakfast for two costs about HK$50 (US$6.50) and is a rare treat for both the eye and stomach. CONTACT: 378 Shanghai Street, Kowloon, Hongkong, tel 852 2388 3884, open daily from 0500 to 1500.


Four Seasons (as translated from Cantonese) claypot rice has served customers for four decades. In fact, it is arguably the oldest, cleanest and most comfortable air-conditioned eatery in Yau Ma Tei. Old-time favourites are rice with assorted Chinese sausages and salted fish. There is a DIY element in the experience – when the claypot is served, add soy sauce and fish sauce according to your liking, close the lid and wait for the flavours to infuse. If cholesterol isn’t your archenemy, crack an egg or two for that extra zing. Also, the fried oyster cake is unforgettable. Ask Kitchen Confidential star Anthony Bourdain who visited and came away a fan. Prices start from HK$18 (US$2.50) per pot. Take exit B after alighting in Yau Ma Tei MTR station; the shop is located just behind the exit. CONTACT: 46 Arthur Street, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, Hongkong. Open daily from 1730 to 2400.


It looks at first like your ordinary tofu stall in the middle of a bustling wet market, but a closer look reveals well-concealed tables and chairs at the back of this establishment. Smooth tofu fa (or sweet beancurd dessert) is made fresh daily at HK$6 (75 cents) per bowl. Have the dessert hot or cold, sprinkled with a little ginger sugar, all the while seated on a wooden stool that could well be much older than you. CONTACT: 67 Reclamation Street, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hongkong. Open daily 0700 to 1900 daily.

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