Sheung Wan

Hong Kong’s creative heart is heading west. Sheung Wan is only a 10-minute walk from Central along Hollywood Road, Hong Kong’s unofficial antiques district, along a gravelly grid of steep lanes, past Chinese herbalists, coffin shops and impromptu bric-a-brac markets. The neighbourhood found new life a little more than two years ago when a crop of restaurants, galleries and nightlife spots started moving in.

“Sheung Wan used to be the sleepy vintage area,” says Alan Po, the co-owner of the Press Room Group, which opened the Press Room restaurant here in 2006; the group has since become known for its knack in district reinvention. “People thought we were crazy opening a restaurant on the far side of Hollywood Road. But we liked Sheung Wan because it still had a sense of neighbourhood and was without prohibitive rental fees. It’s like the ‘anti’ of shopping malls.”

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Po and I are having lunch at the Press Room (108 Hollywood Road; +852 25253444; thepressroom.com.hk), a tiled brasserie with French cottage chairs and a wall stacked with organic and biodynamic wines from artisanal and little-known producers in France. Every table is packed with diners grazing on French-inspired dishes: lobster benedict, steamed mussels Provencal, peppered-beef salad with watercress and parmesan, matched with a long list of wines by the glass.

Next door, the Press Group’s Classified Cafe (classifiedfoodshops.com.hk) is also full, with many lunchers spilling outside onto the footpath. It has a French cafe theme, with marble tabletops and hand-painted tile floors, and is best known for serving artisanal cheeses and hams that have been matured at the in-house affinage facility.

Sheung Wan’s foodie buzz is coming from Yardbird (33-35 Bridges Street; +852 25479273; yardbirdrestaurant.com; dinner only), a no-reservations neck-to-feet chicken restaurant run by former Zuma chef Matt Abergel. The queues are long – be prepared to wait at least an hour – but the charcoal-cooked bird is flawless and goes down a treat with the diner’s signature cocktails.

“When I first moved [to Sheung Wan] there was just traditional business,” says Grace Ching, the owner of Loveramics (37 Tung Street; +852 29158018; loveramics.com), a boutique selling exquisite handcrafted crockery by Hong Kong designers.

“Ours was the first boutique. Now there are loads of boutiques, galleries and cafes.”

Loveramics shares the steep one-way lane of Tung Street with a range of specialised boutiques. Opposite, Ellermann (36 Tung Street; +852 22910388; ellermanndesign.com) is a smart space selling freshly cut sunflowers, cushion covers, notebooks and country-style ceramics by the Amsterdam-based Pip Studio. A few doors away, Identity Art Gallery (53 Tung Street; +852 25405353; identityartgallery.com) showcases “visionary art identities”, such as those in the current exhibition by Hong Kong-born photographer Kurt Tong. Queen, the Chairman and I includes a series of photographs tracing Tong’s family’s journey through colonialism, communism and into modern China.

Two lanes further west, on both sides of the street Sin Sin Fine Art (53-54 Sai Street; +853 28585072; sinsin.com.hk) has galleries featuring artists from China’s burgeoning contemporary art scene.

On Hollywood Road, the Space (210 Hollywood Road; +852 23611210; thespace.hk) is a former meat-packing warehouse transformed into a slick, state-of-the-art multi-function space used for exhibitions, parties and pop-up shops. During my visit, the Space is exhibiting the meticulous but eerie sketches of Australian landscape artist Joshua Yeldham, who expresses his attachment to the NSW Hawkesbury River and the owls that live in that area.

East Tsim Sha Tsui

The greatest claim to fame of East Tsim Sha Tsui is being the setting for the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, a film remade in 2006 by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. It wasn’t far from the truth: Tsim Sha Tsui has long been known as the badlands of the city’s Triad gangs. It’s also the location of some of the city’s most lavish and expensive hotels, including the Peninsula, which opened in 1928, and the harbour-side InterContinental Kowloon.

Trend spotters are now tagging East Tsim Sha Tsui as one of Hong Kong’s next hip neighbourhoods. At a glance there is little to indicate trends of any kind. Comprised largely of empty 1980s office buildings, struggling shopping malls, kitsch Chinese restaurants and jade jewellers, the fading neighbourhood doesn’t appear to have moved a day past the late ’80s.

Then in April this year came the Hotel Icon, a 262-room tower on Science Museum Road (rooms from $HK1760 ($220); +852 34001000; hotel-icon.com). Designed by local architects Rocco Yim and William Lim, with the assistance of Sir Terence Conran in the restaurant spaces and a suite by fashion guru Vivienne Tan, this former government dormitory has been reinvented as the city’s latest darling digs.

Most rooms in Hotel Icon, which is only metres from the harbour and the tallest building in its neighbourhood, have sweeping views of Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui from floor-to-ceiling windows, with plenty of special touches (espresso machine, rain shower, gigantic screen and free non-alcoholic minibar). Owned and partly run by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the hotel doubles as a hospitality school, with a new curriculum that aims to train 500 students a year for Asian hotels.

“There are 200 hotels opening a year in China alone,” says the hotel’s general manager (and lecturer), Richard Hatter. “But there is almost no education system that trains staff to manage them.”

The hotel’s training role doesn’t mean the service is lacking, however. There are almost three paid and experienced staff to every two guests and the service is unfailingly chirpy and sincere. While in East Tsim Sha Tsui, make the most of the local diners and try some authentic Chinese fare.

Tai Hing Roast Restaurant (75-79 New Mandarin Plaza, 14 Science Museum Road; +852 2722 0701; little English spoken) is across the street from Hotel Icon and serves roast pig with crunchy crackling – so wickedly delicious it could almost be a crime.

Tai Hang

A tiny enclave of low-rise apartment buildings wedged between Causeway Bay and Jardine’s Lookout, Tai Hang is best known for its 19th-century temple, Lin Fa. Built during the Qing Dynasty, the temple is used to worship Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, believed to have power over the weather and a protector of fishermen at sea. Although the reclamation of land along the harbour has since pushed Tai Hang several hundred metres inland, Lin Fa Temple is still used to stage an annual dance, when a fire dragon 67 metres long winds its way through the narrow streets.

How this quiet neighbourhood of 1960s and ’70s low-rise apartments has managed to stay beyond the developers’ radar is almost a revelation. Less than 10 minutes’ walk from deafeningly busy Causeway Bay, Tai Hang has the air of a village lost in time.

Car-repair shops spill onto the street, dai pai dong (cooked food stalls) serve bowls of fresh noodles to hi-so ladies holding manicured chihuahuas, while elderly shopkeepers watch the tide of customers from squat wooden stools.

Young artisans are finding that this old Hong Kong charm in proximity to the city scrum is the perfect place to launch first businesses.

“The rents are killing small and young businesses in the central areas,” says Cathy Chon, the owner of Catch On, a branding company based in Tai Hang and my tour guide for the afternoon. “Small galleries and bakeries can only survive in the small neighbourhoods.”

Chon and I have just had lunch at a new 44-seat outlet of Classified (1-9 Lin Fa Kung Street West; +852 28573454; classifiedfoodshops.com.hk), which opened late last year. Wandering around Tai Hang, we discover a new shoebox-size takeaway coffee shop named Unar Coffee Company (4 Second Lane; +852 28385231; unarcoffee.com).

The sky-high rents in the commercial districts prompted twentysomething barista friends Raymond Kwong and Wai Kwan to open in Tai Hang. “This is one of the last neighbourhoods in Hong Kong with a real community feel,” Kwong says. A few doors away is a patisserie the size of a pigeonhole. The owner of Le Gout (Shop C, 8 Sun Chun Street; +852 28056622; le-gout.cc) studied at the Lenotre Culinary and Pastry School in Paris before returning to Hong Kong to bake custom-made cookies and cakes; the shop is open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

A stone’s throw away is L’apres-midi (2 King Street; l-apres-midi.com), an online gallery with a tiny space, which opened a couple of months ago selling affordable art by Hong Kong artists.

Two blocks closer to the bustle of Causeway Bay, a family-run franchise of Barcelona’s colourful rock-candy factory, Papabubble (34 Tung Lo Wan Road; +852 23674807; papabubble.com.hk), also opened recently. We watch two confectioners kneading colours into the hot sugar, then rolling them into sugary logs embossed with love hearts and the Chinese character for double happiness.

This article appeared in the November 19, 2011 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.