“There’s a strong emphasis on new,” Conor Beach effused as I forked and relished a morsel of his tuna tartare creation in my mouth. Around us, the stylishly set hall, trimmed with bamboo latticework and Javanese motif, heaved mutedly with the ingress of restaurant staff. Outside along Beach Road, locals and expats gathered at the many fashionable pubs for after-office socials. For Conor, Executive Chef of Tri, one of Hong Kong’s topmost fine-dine restaurants serving contemporary Balinese cuisine and located at The Pulse beachside complex in upmarket Repulse Bay, it was only the start of the workday.
“They’re always looking for the new hot restaurant, the new hot menu. So there’s a constant push to always be adapting, always be changing just to maintain newness.” Conor may as well be describing, other than just the city’s gastronomic temperament, Hong Kong’s fundamental driving ethos.
Hong Kong is a city in relentless flux, constantly renewing and revitalizing itself. From falling under British rule to its transfer to China as a special administrative region, Hong Kong has burgeoned indomitably to become a global commercial hub and international megalopolis. And threaded throughout this modern sheen are imprints of the city’s ancient Chinese traditions and British colonial heritage.
A Knack for Creative Renewal
My companion, Don, was looking for the front signage of our hotel, but there was nothing on the building façade to indicate even a name. Only when we looked down on the setted pavement by the entrance did we see, nondescriptly etched on an inconspicuous brass plaque, the word Tuve. Vivian Wong, our guide from the Hong Kong Tourism Board which organized our stay and excursions in Hong Kong, mentioned that the place was formerly a residential building, demolished and rebuilt only three years ago into a chic boutique hotel exuding a minimalist, avant-garde élan.
In similar fashion, the once residential boroughs that are now collectively referred to as PoHo in the Sheung Wan district have gone through a rejuvenation of sort in recent years when style-savvy entrepreneurs refurbished the old tong laus, decades-old low-rise tenement buildings, into bohemian cafés, lifestyle boutiques, and design studios. It is where the likes of coffee shop Teakha and vintage store In Between, small businesses attracted to the area by more affordable rent, thrive on the patronage of present-day millennials.
Hong Kong, it seems, has a sharp and assiduous flair for envisioning and repurposing the old into what’s new. With land space being a prime commodity in this city ranked as the world’s fourth most densely populated territory, Hong Kong has apparently developed land reutilization into a creative talent.
In the Southern District, the once grimy industrial buildings of the Wong Chuk Hang neighborhood, which have fallen into disuse since corporations started moving their manufacturing plants to mainland China in favor of cheaper operational costs, now have become havens for artists, designers, and restaurateurs. Such was the case for Spring Workshop, an art gallery serving as a platform and laboratory for artistic exchange. It was in a converted warehouse where they set up shop and now run their cross-disciplinary programs of curatorial residencies, exhibitions, and talks.
Same thing goes for the Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a once state-run tenement project along Hollywood Road in Central District. The old buildings, once crowded and made worn by beneficiary policemen and their families, now have been mended into a design hub housing ateliers and studios for Hong Kong’s creative talents.
It is difficult to think of Hong Kong as being anything but a busy, modern world center bristling with towers of concrete, steel and glass. It is a city in perpetual transition, charging ever forward with a fast and heavy pulse. Yet beyond and even amidst its bustling conurbations lie pocket enclaves of near bucolic charm, where gentrification nudges in softer progress and modern-day life strides in a more subdued and languid rhythm.
A quick ferry ride from Central District, Lamma Island has borne the influx of visitors which brought in new commerce, spurting the growth and evolution of what were once traditional fishing villages into a multicultural island community. Enjoying a pace of life far different from that of mainstream Hong Kong, many come here as day-trippers; some, however, stay for good.
“I could say that in the last ten years, the culture is different. It’s changing in Hong Kong,” Ken Kwan, owner of Bookworm Café on Lamma Island, opined. As operator of a vegetarian restaurant, Ken described how his market has changed from comprising mostly Western tourists to including more and more Hong Kong locals, his observation standing as a reflection on the expanding views and mindset of Hong Kong people. Other novelty stores on Lamma Island, such as Just Green, which sells all organic grocery goods, and Art Lab, a souvenir shop brimming with ethnic handicrafts collected from different countries, would likewise assent to how Hong Kong is progressively embracing broader life perspectives.
The beachside village of Shek O in Southern District similarly paints a picture of how contemporary life plays along the fringes of urban Hong Kong. The stunning rocky headlands, with their paved trails for easy hiking, and the clean, well-tended public beaches make for some cozy outdoor recreation, a pleasantry that I wasn’t expecting to find in Hong Kong. The lure of the place was the very same thing that made Jean Paul Gauci, owner of the Mediterranean restaurant Cococabana, decide to set up his restaurant, an undertaking that he found easy to accomplish due to the openness of the local market to try out novel fares and experiences.
Giving Heritage a Makeover
Vivian poured hot water into a service bowl and then proceeded to wash our cups using her chopsticks. Throughout the ritual, she elucidated to me and to Don the nuances of Chinese tea custom and chopsticks etiquette. Breakfasts during our stay in Hong Kong switched variably from buttered pineapple bun, to dim sum, to toast with ham and eggs, but they were always seasoned with a fascinating discussion about tradition in modern times. Hong Kong, as I have come to see, reverberates with the juxtaposition of its ancient ancestry, colonial patrimony, and modern-day verve.
At the Bao Bei cocktail lounge situated along one of Hong Kong’s earliest colonial thoroughfares, Wyndham Street, the traditional Chinese bao (meat bun), plated as an easternized hamburger, made for a fanciful baoger.
“Essentially here, everything that we do, in terms of the cocktails and food, is very East-meets-West,” Geoffrey Wu, manager of Bao Bei, explained. I ruminated on how his statement encapsulated perhaps not just their food but likewise Hong Kong’s very social fiber, as I helped myself to a piece of banana Nutella crepe fashioned as a wonton dumpling.
Hopping aboard a 1920s-style open-top tram at Wan Chai district, I further came to appreciate the city’s careful regard for its heritage and how it has managed to gainfully incorporate vestiges of its past into the present. Hong Kong’s electric tram system have not only been a common form of commuter transport for over 110 years, but it has also become a major tourist attraction and one of the most environmentally friendly ways of traversing the city.
The Peak Tram, Vivian remarked, is even older. Built in the 1880s to primarily transport British colonial officials and military personnel to their exclusive homes up Victoria Peak, the funicular tram system is now deluged by throngs of tourists eager to soak up a lofty view of the city.
“Before, only the British can stay up at Victoria Peak,” mentioned Vivian. “But now, anyone rich can build their home there. The higher up you are at the peak, the wealthier you are.”
At the top, Vivian, Don and I waded our way through a flood of people. Vivian led us to a quiet spot where we had a more unimpeded vista of the city fully lit up against a black evening sky. Vivian told me how the sight has been described by many as being one of the most beautiful in Hong Kong, how the city and the harbor shimmered like luminous pearls amidst a dark ocean. I could only agree. Down below, Hong Kong pulsated with a symphony of lights, its roots planted firmly in its history, its vision trained firmly towards its future.