China’s global capital of commerce is alive with creative energy thanks to a flourishing contemporary arts scene and new crop of concept spaces.
By Cynthia Rosenfeld
June 05, 2017
[To view an interactive map version of the Hong Kong guide click here.]
I arrived in Hong Kong in 1994 with visions of living in a vast colonial flat like William Holden’s character in the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, ideally with a rooftop deck similar to his open-air artist’s studio. I announced these intentions at my first Hong Kong dinner party, along with my desire to find this retro residence in a not-yet-gentrified neighborhood. I will never forget the silence that fell over that group of longtime residents, nor the roar of laughter that followed it.
New, not retro, was the buzzword in those waning days of British colonial rule. The apartments I saw were still plastic-wrapped, freshly carved out of shimmering high-rises in decidedly established enclaves. All topped out around 500 square feet, somehow divided into two or three bedrooms, often without windows and too small to fit an adult-size bed. Left with little space to spread out, the island had no choice but to grow upward. Size, it seemed, didn’t matter. Residential real estate that year ranked just after Tokyo’s as the most expensive in the world. More than two decades later, little has changed. Hong Kong has claimed the top spot on that highly competitive list for the last six years, and currently leads the commercial real estate price index too.
Statistics aside, the city’s urban landscape has undergone a stunning metamorphosis since my discouraging debut. Only a trio of towers stood out from the otherwise unmemorable cluster dominating the skyline when I arrived: Norman Foster’s fundamental rethink of the office building for HSBC, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s futuristic, seabird-inspired Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist ode to climbing koala bears, now known as the Lippo Centre. They’ve since been joined by a roster of new landmarks, from I. M. Pei’s severely angular Bank of China building to more recent arrivals such as César Pelli’s One and Two International Financial Centre fronting Victoria Harbour, Frank Gehry’s Opus, Daniel Libeskind’s Creative Media Centre for the City University of Hong Kong, and the undulating Jockey Club Innovation Tower by the late Zaha Hadid.
Closer to the ground, it is more possible than ever to live like my cinematic muse. Established in 2001 to encourage the regeneration of older neighborhoods, the Urban Renewal Authority quickly began demolishing low-rise tong lau tenement buildings in historic areas such as Wan Chai, the very real district inhabited by Suzie and her scandalous cohort in the film, to make way for modern office towers. Incensed, regional conservation experts, local community leaders, and longtime tenants staged hunger strikes, and in response, the URA began a handful of small-scale preservation experiments. One of those, the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, a complex of shop-houses dating from 1888 came back to life in 2008 as The Pawn, a game-changing gastropub now under the culinary aegis of celebrity chef Tom Aikens. The reinvention is the work of Hong Kong businessman Alan Lo, who has played a leading role in several of this city’s most ambitious cultural initiatives—including through the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design, a nonprofit that works to attract world-class talent to the city.
Hong Kong has always been powered by commerce, and post-handover, nothing’s changed. Quarry Bay, previously home to sugar refineries, shipyards, and a Coca-Cola plant, has been transformed by developments such as Taikoo Shing and Taikoo Place, new bastions of trendy spots such as Mr. & Mrs. Fox, and a photogenic outpost of the East hotel, for instance. Near Tsim Sha Tsui, Foster + Partners has master-planned the 99-acre West Kowloon Cultural District on reclaimed land, which will include the much anticipated Herzog & de Meuron-designed M+ museum, scheduled to open in 2019.
Were Suzie alive today, however, she’d likely be far away from her Wan Chai digs. Those ever-soaring real estate prices, along with an expanding mass transit system, have recently spurred Hong Kong artists, architects, and gallery owners to fan out from the narrow comfort zone known, not surprisingly, as Central.
Keep your eyes on Kowloon. It’s where Hong Kong connects to mainland China, and the site of whole new kind of colonization. The well-publicized, fraught relationship between the city-state’s citizens and continent-dwelling government has yet to reach a determinative conclusion, but Kowloon’s increasingly cosmopolitan culture just might indicate changes to come.
Rather than flee after Beijing assumed political control in 1997, Hong Kong’s business elite invested in homegrown cultural institutions, including the nonprofit Asia Art Archive, established to document contemporary art in the region. Wedged in among the proliferation of antique stores that line Hollywood Road in Central, the AAA invites the public to talks with controversial figures like Ai Weiwei and Burmese artist-activist Htein Lin, and its collection of over 71,000 titles is considered the region’s foremost modern art resource. A short walk east leads to the Liang Yi Museum, a Ming and Qing dynasty time warp inside a 1970s tenement. There, local financier Peter Fung displays his 300-plus pieces of antique Chinese furniture, most of which are hand-wrought from the rare yellowish rosewoods known as huanghuali and zitan. In perfect context with this luxury goods-obsessed city, there’s also a collection of vintage bejeweled compacts and powder boxes made by European luxury houses such as Cartier, Boucheron, and Van Cleef & Arpels. The trailblazing Para Site came onto the scene in 1996 during the culturally precarious days leading up to the handover. Some lamented its recent move to a vast warehouse in once remote Quarry Bay, a 25-minute subway ride from Central, but the added square footage has allowed the nonprofit to bring in high-profile curators and organize an annual conference focused on the intersection of local and international culture.
Convenience is king in the densely packed metropolis, a notion that is expressed through endeavors such as the Pedder Building, a 1923 Beaux Arts-style edifice housing several prominent galleries at Central’s busiest intersection. London’s Simon Lee holds court on the third floor alongside the bold Ben Brown Fine Arts, fixed up by local designer André Fu. Hong Kong contemporary art pioneer Johnson Chang of Hanart TZ shares the floor above with the only Asia outpost of Lehmann Maupin, while modern art maven Pearl Lam and the first far Eastern foray for Gagosian are on the sixth and seventh floors, respectively.
Foreshadowing the most anticipated project coming to Hong Kong, the linear, low-lying M+ Pavilion opened last year to host exhibitions in the run-up to the 2019 debut of M+, an ambitious visual art museum. Wrapped in mirrored steel to reflect its pastoral surroundings by the local trio of VPANG architects, JET Architecture, and designer Lisa Cheung, the cantilevered structure heralds the launch of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which will also include the wavy Xiqu Centre opera house by Bing Thom Architects, as well as concert halls, a 15,000-seat arena, galleries, restaurants, and a carbon-neutral park dreamed up by Foster + Partners. At the water’s edge, a sprawling promenade will take advantage of Kowloon’s unhindered view of a truly breathtaking skyline. It’s a panorama most locals will sheepishly admit is best during the kitschy yet surprisingly artful Symphony of Lights, in which the city’s most imposing waterfront towers are illuminated in a nightly spectacle of sound-and-light.
While sky-high real estate prices keep rooms in Hong Kong on the small side, recent extensions to the mass transit system have lured design-minded hoteliers towards previously obscure neighborhoods. One of those former outskirts is Tin Hau, home to the mesmerizing Tuve by Design Systems. Inspired by a collection of black-and-white photographs depicting an eponymous lake in Sweden, the minimalist 66-room property is comprised almost entirely of concrete, marble, and oxidized metal—except, thankfully, for the plush, low-frame beds. Other well-considered touches include Brouwerij de Molen beer in the minibar and bath amenities from American perfumer Le Labo. Contrasting the moody Tuve, French designer Christian Liaigre achieves tranquility at Sheung Wan’s loft-style Jervois with warm woods and leather. Surrounded by high-quality bars and restaurants, the 49-suite hotel eschews traditional amenities in favor of a functional pantries and glassware for hosting guests. Across the island near Aberdeen Harbour, a natural typhoon shelter is still home to a dwindling community of Tanka and Hoklo boat-dwellers, Ovolo Southside inhabits a former warehouse in the emerging arts district Wong Chuk Hang. Exposed pipes and raw brick finish the 162 paired-down rooms, some with floor-to-ceiling views of the South China Sea; the rooftop bar is blanketed in graffiti.
Despite the newcomers, Hong Kong’s grand mainstays are as popular as ever. In the Admiralty neighborhood, Thomas Heatherwick conjures a bold first impression at Upper House with his monumental “Stone Curtain,” in the entrance area. Among the more than 400 commissioned art works, the standout is Hirotoshi Sawada’s “Rise,” a wall sculpture that climbs up the atrium until it reaches a sky bridge connecting a library stocked with Assouline titles and chef Gray Kunz’s European café. There’s nothing gratuitous to distract from the smooth limed oak wood and bamboo timber in the 117 rooms designed by Andre Fu, just freestanding tubs overlooking the harbor. Nearby, Joyce Wang brought her signature metallic palette to the 2016 redesign of the 109 rooms and suites at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. They meet their match at the two-Michelin-starred Amber restaurant, designed by Adam D. Tihany, where Macassar ebony wood and an undulating chandelier of 4,320 suspended bronze rods set the stage for Dutch culinary director Richard Ekkebus’s classic French interpretations.
Restaurants & Bars
So important is food to Chinese culture that the most common Cantonese greeting is sek jo fan mei? (“have you eaten?”). As for the food itself, choices abound. To have a favorite dai pai dong, or street stall, is something of a badge of honor, even among the most innovative restaurateurs. Culturally connected businessman Alan Lo swears by the cha siu barbecue pork at the jerry-rigged Wing Cheung in Happy Valley. He’s also one of the three partners who opened the Ilse Crawford-designed restaurant and art space, Duddell’s, as much to put a modern spin on traditional Cantonese recipes like imperial bird’s nest soup as to, he says, “take museum-quality art in directions you can’t at a commercial gallery.” Another prominent native putting her mark on the dining landscape, Joyce Wang, pays homage to Ammo’s location inside an revamped British Army explosives warehouse. Shiny metal objects fill the space and behind the bar, Wang creates eye-catching radial symmetry with silver rods and spiraling staircase-like chandeliers. An all-glass wall confers unusually leafy views while patrons tuck into eastern-inflected pastas.
Australian bar designer Ashley Sutton builds upon the first impressions he made with Ophelia, his fantastical ode to peacock plumage, at J. Boroski. The reservations-only lounge in Central is named for the resident celebrity “mixsultant,” whose tailor-made drinks are based on the one-on-one interviews he conducts from behind the teakwood bar. Farther west on Hollywood Road in Sai Ying Pun, hometown interior designer Sean Dix crafted Okra inside a sliver-thin 1852 building, sandwiched between Buddhist incense shops and traditional Chinese medicine herbalists. The polished concrete space is fashioned with the largest work to date by controversial Japanese porn-anime artist Toshio Saeki. Behind the low-slung kappo, or Japanese kitchen-bar, Max Levy, alum of top New York sushi counters Jewel Bako and Sushi Yasuda, works alongside chef de cuisine Daniel Garner, turning out charcoal-grilled small plates to a soundtrack of Misfits albums.
Bryan Nagao has been Hong Kong’s most celebrated chef since he first started at the Philippe Starck-designed Felix, still going strong atop the Peninsula hotel, more than two decades ago. Nagao has since moved on to Town, an insider’s address if the concept still exists. The salvaged timber paneling and private dining room doubling as an herb garden deliver a subtle backdrop that lets Nagao’s dishes star: suckling pig marinated in taro and tea leaves, and one of his most memorable desserts, a baseball-size chocolate orb that gushes with praline cream, molten chocolate, and mandarin-orange sorbet. One enduring rule to heed in this frenetic city: Things aren’t always as they appear. At first glance, Central’s Kasa looks to be an elevated play on a humble cha chan tang joint, but a staircase to the second floor reveals interdisciplinary firm Lim + Lu’s colorful scheme of watermelon and mint chairs and a neon sign reading “healthy eating” in Chinese, a nod to menu offerings like sweet potato noodles with mushrooms and onsen egg.
For some perspective on the fashion culture, it’s worth noting that there are nine Louis Vuitton outposts around city and the only globally known, Hong Kong-born clothing designer, Vivienne Tam, moved to New York to launch her career. That said, the government is doing its best to coax the manufacturing turned trading hub into a regional center of creative industry, recently committing $64 million to incubate local fashion designers and to promote emerging labels overseas.
Hong Kong original Sin Sin Man opened her Sheung Wan boutique in 1998, well before the neighborhood achieved its current hipness. Look out for diaphanous silk frocks hanging like sculptures alongside nature-inspired jewelry, which has been exhibited at Saatchi Gallery in London. Next door, Sin Sin Fine Art displays contemporary works culled from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, and across the lane an annex hosts talks and avant-garde installations.
Another outlier to the luxury goods market, Youmna is instantly recognizable among the city’s fashion elite. At her white-on-white atelier overlooking the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the Lebanon-born, Paris-reared designer sells her Corset cuff bracelets and Sautoir necklaces by appointment only.
Best friends Hilary Tsui Ho-Ying and Dorothy Hui similarly opted to keep the inventory of their three Liger stores staunchly independent. A global eye and edgy selection made them household names, yet the duo also actively support local talent—designers Jourden and Johanna Ho, among them—on the cusp. To shop more of Hong Kong’s emerging craftsmen, try PMQ. Still a work in progress, the colonial quarters for married police built in 1951 returned as a collection of shops above chef Jason Atherton’s popular Aberdeen Street Social. Drop into 794729 Metalwork for octopus tentacles and broccoli crowns sculpted as silver jewelry, and Blksheep Empire for their not-so sensible women’s flats. A concept shop, music room, coffeehouse, and Indonesian restaurant, Potato Head has nearly as many spaces as its eponymous toy has pop-in parts. The Sai Ying Pun complex’s clean-lined look is the work of architect Sou Fujimoto, who fused urban industrialism with Indonesian textiles and copious greenery.
Meanwhile, South Korean import Gentle Monster is making waves with its cutting-edge eyewear. The Causeway Bay flagship riffs on the theme of old-school rail travel with retro luggage trunks and colorful velvet furniture as varied as the frames in stock, many of which are collaborations with brands like Hood By Air and Opening Ceremony. One standout among the homogenized chains is Joyce, a fixture since 1971 that recently moved into a massive storefront in Central. Italian designer Paola Navone’s signature whimsy is infused into the inventive displays carrying Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten, among other labels.