Towering ambitions

26 Nov 2008 by Sara Turner

With developers keen to give Hong Kong a run for its money, Kowloon’s fortunes are changing. Kenneth Cheong and Lau Liang Tong report.

Activity of Herculean proportions has been steadily rumbling in the “land of the nine dragons” – Kau Lung – better known as the Kowloon Peninsula. Come 2010, a world-class mega-hub will be unveiled, a development expected to revitalise Hong Kong’s fortunes, which have been eclipsed in recent years by the economic miracle of mainland China.

A consortium of commercial developers, spearheaded by the MTR Corporation, is already more than halfway through the foundations of this ambitious HK$29 billion (£2.2 billion) waterfront project in West Kowloon. Dubbed “Union Square”, the 1.1 million sqm complex – about double the size of London’s Canary Wharf – will be home to futuristic commercial infrastructure, high-end residences, luxury hotels and the biggest mall ever built in Asia.

“Union Square represents a union of Hong Kong developers, international designers and architects around the world, who are working together to create one of the world’s most spectacular landmarks in Hong Kong,” says Thomas Ho, property director of MTR Corporation. “It is going to be the focal point for people who are working, living and shopping at this place.”

Kowloon has traditionally suffered by comparison with its dashing sibling across the harbour, Hong Kong Island. Indeed, it was hardly a question of competition – Kowloon was just a rag-tag peninsula littered with low-lying “tumbledown” architecture, an odd feature for a space-hungry metropolis. It was also notorious as a base for some of the city’s most hardened criminals.

This hackneyed profile has changed in recent years due to a number of government initiatives that included land reclamation works and extensive infrastructure projects. Union Square is one of the most significant results of these efforts and its location above the Kowloon MTR station, with access to three major railways, is a key incentive for travellers who shuttle regularly between Hong Kong and China.

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 be 490 metres tall, exceeding the current behemoth, Two IFC, by a whopping 70 metres. Forty double-deck elevators and 18 high-speed ones are being installed to serve the influx of daily commuters to this massive structure.

Even in the early stages, interest in the ICC was already keen, reaching fever pitch when international names like ABN Amro, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley 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 our employees in the same complex.”

This sentiment is shared by Deutsche Bank Asia-Pacific’s CEO, Colin Grassie, who describes ICC as 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 which promise priceless panoramas of Victoria Harbour. Hotel tenants include Starwood Group’s W property (see next month’s issue for a full review), 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 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 sqm mall will be more than capable of being “the place that Hong Kongers 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 upmarket dining area in the Water Zone or get some healthy exercise on 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.

But there is more to Kowloon than ultra-modern apartments and office buildings. A short ten minutes down Jordan Road, life still explodes in the riotous bustle associated with the Yau Tsim Mong district, which includes the Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok areas.

Of these three cultural precincts, Mongkok has undergone the most noticeable transformation, with the end still not yet in sight. Host to a variety of quaintly named bazaars and streets, from the famous Ladies’ Market to the aquarium haven of Goldfish Street, this district is being eyed eagerly by developers, who see it as ripe for demolition. Clearing away the old, traditional streets and buildings would present a prime opportunity to create a new hub on the model of the nearby 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. She says: “The old buildings near the 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.”

Careful planning will be essential if such a development is to be successful. Langham Place, for example, was the result of a 15-year land-acquisition project that started in 1989 and was completed only in November 2004. Nevertheless, the venture, which cost more than HK$10 billion (£827 million), has proved sufficiently profitable to encourage other developers to follow suit.

The complex consists of a 15-storey shopping mall with more than 300 shops, a 60-storey office tower and the cutting-edge, 665-room, five-star hotel. It has quickly become an integral part of the Mongkok landscape – the twin towers of the hotel and office block are visible from miles away, and the Langham Place Shopping Mall is a huge draw for locals and tourists.

Meanwhile, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) – the team behind the development of Langham Place – is now masterminding another iconic project, Sports Retail City. This development will occupy some 2,500 sqm of land bordered by three roads: Fa Yuen Street, Nelson Street and Sai Yee Street (known locally as “Sneaker Street”, due to the number of sports shops in the area).

Costing approximately HK$3.14 billion (£260 million), this large-scale redevelopment is expected to affect 500 residents currently living in about 14 buildings, many of whom have expressed their opposition to the project.

However, Stephen Lam, URA’s district development director, insists: “The construction of the Sports Retail City will not only achieve the purpose of preserving local character, but it will also produce a synergistic effect with the nearby Macpherson Playground and the planned Macpherson Indoor Stadium to form a sports activity zone.”

Also setting it apart from the usual run of modern developments will be Sports Retail City’s “Hong Kong Sports Hall of Fame”. This will celebrate the achievements of local athletes, and will be the first exhibition of its kind in Hong Kong.

With so many development projects in the pipeline, and more being announced every month, the pace of change in Kowloon can seem bewildering. But one thing’s for sure – the peninsula has once and for all shaken off its negative image and is finally stepping out of the shadows of Hong Kong.

Where to stay in Yau Tsim Mong


Eaton Hotel

380 Nathan Road, Kowloon; tel +852 2782 1818; eatonhotels.com.

This 20-year-old property has just received a US$18 million refurbishment. Its 465 guestrooms, now painted in pleasing earth tones, feature the ergonomic “Eaton Easy Chair” and stereos with iPod docking. Also new are a 3,000 sqm conference centre holding up to 550 people and a more informal E Club lounge with computers, broadband access and LCD TVs. Of the six dining outlets, Yagura is popular for sushi rolls and robatayaki selections, while Yat Tung Heen offers award-winning Cantonese cuisine.

Langham Place

555 Shanghai Street, Mongkok, Kowloon; tel +852 3552 33 88; langhamplacehotels.com.

In contrast to the timeless European elegance of its sibling, The Langham in Tsim Sha Tsui, this newer 665-room property exudes a clean, modern vibe, enhanced by cutting-edge technology. Rooms offer touch-screen IP phones, 42-inch plasma TVs, broadband access, and oversized beds, along with marble bathrooms with steam-free mirrors, and separate baths and showers. Leisure facilities include a rooftop swimming pool, a 24-hour gym and Chuan Spa, while Ming Court and Tokoro offer Cantonese and Japanese food respectively.

Nathan Hotel 

378 Nathan Road, Kowloon; tel +852 2388 5141; nathanhotel.com.

One of the best-known landmarks in the Jordan district, this hotel has been around for 40 years but remains popular with business travellers for its distinctive tranquil ambience. A recent renovation has seen the addition of four stylish Nathan floors with rooms offering 42-inch LCD TVs and luxurious bathrooms, bringing the total number of guestrooms and suites to 189. The Penthouse restaurant is presided over by chef Fok, who is known for his seafood and other specialities, while the alfresco The Bali and Nathan Lounge are excellent places to unwind.

Hotel Novotel Nathan Road

348 Nathan Road, Kowloon; tel +852 3965 8888; accorhotels.com.

Located on 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, LCD TVs and broadband internet access. Mac and iPod corners are also available in the lobby and business centre. Meal times at The Square (6am-12am) are lively affairs, with the chefs dispensing handy cooking tips.

Royal Plaza

193 Prince Edward Road West, Kowloon; tel +852 2928 8822; royalplaza.com.hk.

Just steps away from Mongkok East MTR station, this 693-room property is ideally placed for transport links. Those staying on the refurbished Executive floors can use the private lounge and three wifi-enabled meeting rooms, while other venues include the Grand Ballroom, which seats up to 500 and offers views of Kowloon Tong and Lion Rock Mountain. Dining options include La Scala for international buffets, Royal Plaza Chinese Restaurant and Gourmet Corner for light bites, while La Fontana bar has live music every night. The Vitalia spa offers body and beauty treatments.

See it now!

A whirlwind tour of the Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok districts is a unique way to get a taste of the traditional flavours of Hong Kong. And with the developers’ clock counting time on these ancient neighbourhoods, there’s never been a better moment to make the trip.

Mido Cafe

G/F, 63 Temple Street, Kowloon; tel +852 2384 6402. Open daily 9.30am-10.30pm.

This 58-year-old teahouse has retained authentic Hong Kong touches in its menu and décor. Lazily spinning fans hang from the ceiling and an old cash register dominates a corner of the three-storey, mosaic-lined building. Visitors sip traditional yuan yang (a coffee and tea mix) and nibble po lo yau (a sweet crust bun with a thick slab of butter).

Kei Chiu Biscuit Shop

G/F, Shop 135, Fa Yuen Street, Mongkok; tel +852 2394 1727. Open daily 7.30am-8pm.

Stop off at one of the most enticing options in town and examine the trays of biscuits, egg tarts and sponge cakes, all baked fresh every day. Feast on traditional favourites like the “cow’s ear”, made from fermented yam, Chinese-style scones and chicken biscuits with a sweet and salty pork filling.

Delicious Food 

G/F, Shop 10, 30-32A, Tung Choi Street; tel +852 2141 7468. Open daily 11am-9pm.

The stench of the fermented beancurd can be smelt from blocks away, but this pungent delicacy is wildly popular with locals. Piping-hot stinky tofu is fried till golden brown and eaten with lots of chilli or sweet sauce. At HK$6 (50p), it’s a fantastic appetiser – once you get over the dizzying aroma.

Tak Yue Restaurant

378 Shanghai Street, Kowloon; tel +852 2388 3884. Open daily 5am-3pm.

This three-storey establishment serves dim sum in the most authentic way, with elderly ladies pushing carts around the premises. Try the old-fashioned quail’s egg siew mai, a local favourite, or the gigantic chicken bun, almost the size of a teapot. The dining room looks like something out of a period film, with distressed brown vintage padded chairs and retro glass chandeliers. A dim sum breakfast for two costs about HK$50 (£4) and is a rare treat for both the eye and stomach.

Four Seasons Claypot Rice

46 Arthur Street, Yau Ma Tei. Open daily 5.30pm-midnight.

This 40-year-old establishment is arguably the oldest, cleanest and most comfortable air-conditioned eatery in Yau Ma Tei, and traditional favourites include rice with assorted Chinese sausages and salted fish. When the claypot is on the table, add soy sauce and fish sauce to taste (and possibly an egg or two), close the lid and wait for the flavours to infuse. Also, the fried oyster cake is unforgettable. To get there, take exit B from Yau Ma Tei MTR station; the shop is just behind the exit.

Liew Tong Hup

67 Reclamation Street, Mongkok. Open daily 7am-7pm.

It looks at first like your ordinary tofu stall in the middle of a bustling market, but a closer look reveals tables and chairs at the back. Smooth tofu fa (or sweet beancurd dessert) is made fresh daily – eat it hot or cold, sprinkled with a little ginger sugar, while seated on a wooden stool that’s probably older than you are.

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