By LUXE City Guides; images by Nicolas Petit
Hip Meets Heritage
Think Wan Chai is just The World of Suzie Wong, karaoke bars and neon lights? Well, think again. This pulsating district has its share of good-time joints and exotic nightlife, but the real news is its thrilling evolution into one of the city’s coolest, most dynamic areas, with a heady mix of old and new, and East meets West, and where hip bars and happening restaurants mix with old tenement buildings and hidden temples among the district’s towering skyscrapers.
Like much of Hong Kong, Wan Chai was once a small fishing village populated by Chinese settlers. Its strategic harbour-side location and proximity to the colonial powers-that-be in Central during the 19th and 20th centuries, however, saw it develop from a spillover for workers and labourers to a wealthy commercial and cultural hub.
While Lee Tung Street, once lined with wedding stationery shops, has given way to an upscale mall, pockets of heritage still exist. It’s not just in the façade of the Bauhaus-era Wan Chai market, but in the maze of Wan Chai Road and Bowrington Road, where old-fashioned wet markets hum daily. It’s in tenement houses on Stone Nullah Lane and temples and shrines hidden in back lanes.
To get on trend, check out the chic boutiques and eats around Star Street and Ship Street in Wan Chai, cult designer stores on Leighton Road in Causeway Bay, and cool cafes and restaurants in the hip neighbourhood of Tai Hang.
Best explored on foot, Wan Chai District offers a wealth of heritage hideaways and modern hot spots — be they nightlife, dining, shopping or cultural — that make it an essential stop for any visitor.
Download the Wan Chai Heritage Trail map and take a tour of historic sites in Wan Chai.
Check out cool independent boutiques and happening restaurants around the Star Street precinct.
Head up to Bowen Road, built over old aqueducts, for panoramic views of the city.
Visit the F11 Foto Museum, housed in a heritage Art Deco building, with the world’s largest Leica camera collection.
See the colourful neon lights around Jaffe, Lockhart and Hennessy Roads before pre-dinner drinks at The Optimist.
No need to go to Central, you can take the Star Ferry from Wan Chai for a cruise around Victoria Harbour.
There’s a good reason Hong Kong institution Sang Kee has been around for 30+ years — the traditional Cantonese food is delicious, with seafood a speciality. Order the famous fish congee, with limited availability, or the salt baked chicken, sweet and sour pork, prawns in soy sauce or perfectly cooked Chinese greens. They’ve been buying from the same seafood supplier for decades, and many dishes are still painstakingly made the old-fashioned way. Don’t expect fancy stemware and fawning service, however — this restaurant is best enjoyed with friends and family who like it casual, loud and affordable.
Less is more at Samsen, a rustic-chic bolthole of a Thai restaurant run by Aussie chef Adam Cliff, with a small but hugely tempting street food-inspired menu. Ask if the off-menu khao soi, a classic northern-Thai curried-chicken noodle dish, is available and if it is, order it. Other standouts include the pad Thai and pad see ew, made using the silkiest of rice noodles, and the signature wagyu beef boat noodles, by far the most popular item. No reservations are taken and there is always a queue, so it’s best to rock up early.
Kapok is one of the preeminent purveyors of cool in Hong Kong. What started out as a small shop founded by French owner in Tin Hau is now a mini empire of Gallic flair, with stores in Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and even Singapore. Its flagships, however, constitute two boutiques in Wan Chai, one selling on-trend clothing, bags, jewellery and other accessories, another all sorts of beautiful things like fragrances, candles, lamps and stationery sourced from Europe and elsewhere around the world. If you can’t get to it, many of their products are also available to buy online.
Part of the joy of Lala Curio is finding it, hidden away in a secret laneway, Sau Wa Fong. You will know it when you see it, a fuchsia façade signalling for you to enter. The riot of colour continues inside in whimsical pieces of furniture, wallpaper, cloisonné tiles, lighting, tableware, cushions and a heap of other adorable objects, most with an Asian twist. It’s a Hong Kong brand that injects fun and the occasional bit of kitsch into its modern designs, while at the same time seeking to preserve the artisan spirit of times past.
Take 10 historic four-storey tong lau, give them a fresh lick of vibrant green paint and you have one of Wan Chai’s most distinctive heritage landmarks, the literally named Green House. Like the arguably better-known Blue House, these former tenement buildings, which front Mallory Street and Burrows Street, sport French doors and distinctive balconies with iron railings.
7 Mallory Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
For culture, history, architecture, shopping, food, hip vibe, nightlife
Vanessa and Erin both call Wan Chai home — Vanessa from the day she was born, and Erin since moving from the US to Hong Kong in 2015. They each share a half-day itinerary, featuring a few of their favourite things to do in the area. Vanessa opts for hiking and history, while Erin goes gaga for shopping, eating and nightlife. Between them they reveal two sides of this cosmopolitan, nonstop neighbourhood that’s an intoxicating mix of old and new, tradition and modernity.
Vanessa — Heritage
I have lived in Wan Chai since I was a child and although it’s constantly changing, I love its energy and convenience — it has a proper city feel, but with access to The Peak’s trails and the harbour. One of my fondest memories as a child was playing hide and seek after school in the old tenement building right next to the Blue House. The people living there used to share everything — the kitchen, bathroom and even the telephone. My friend has moved, but I’m happy the building is still there.
If it’s snack time, I’ll head to Car Noodle’s Family on Anton Street. It’s a basic hole-in-the-wall eatery, with no dining tables, but it has air con and it’s my favourite in the area. The delicious Hong Kong-style noodles come with various toppings and homemade chilli or satay sauces.
The historic Blue House, on Stone Nullah Lane, has been spruced up with a lick of bright blue paint. Built in the 1920s, this four-storey balconied building is a colourful reminder of Hong Kong’s fast-disappearing tenements. If visiting later, catch a guided tour by the House of Stories (2pm and 4pm daily), part of the community-based St James Settlement, which promotes the area’s historic attractions, including Blue House’s siblings Yellow House and Orange House and the colonial-era Old Wan Chai Post Office. At the end of Stone Nullah Lane, on On Lung Street, is the beautiful Pak Tai Temple — the biggest temple on Hong Kong Island. The Urban Renewal Authority has produced a handy Wan Chai Heritage Trail leaflet and map that highlights key buildings and streets, and can be downloaded from their website.
After a morning of exercising my body and mind, I like to take the Star Ferry from Wan Chai Pier over to Tsim Sha Tsui and back; I used to go with my grandpa when I was little, and still love the gentle chug across the harbour — it forces you to slow down. It’s also lovely as the sun sets and all the buildings switch on their lights — Hong Kong’s skyline at night is just wonderful.
Erin — Shopping & Nightlife
The first time I visited Hong Kong I got lost in Wan Chai. I was overwhelmed by the rush of the neighbourhood, all the colours, scents and sounds. A few months later, I moved to Hong Kong, and found myself drawn to Wan Chai by the unique character of the area, the mix between old and new and the big city buzz.
Wan Chai is a bustling neighbourhood with plenty of hidden treasures — I love Star, Moon, and Sun Streets for indie shopping, restaurants and bars. It’s mostly pedestrianised, so easy to navigate on foot, and the older, low-rise buildings make a lovely contrast to Hong Kong’s glittery skyscrapers. Since most of the stores don’t open until late morning, there’s no point in hitting the retail trail until lunchtime, at the earliest.
First stop is lunch at Pici, a cute two-floor shophouse serving a small menu of handmade pasta, cold cuts and creamy burrata. You can’t reserve a table, so avoid peak meal times. Sated, I zip around the warren of lanes in the area, dipping in and out of shops along the way. A few favourites include cult perfumer Le Labo, which allows you to customise your scents, and Odd One Out, a small gallery showing vibrant artworks and wood cuts, with a cafe if you need a quick espresso shot. If you’re looking for gorgeous gifts for the little ones, then Petit Bazaar is the place for the cutest and chicest toys, and OVO is worth a browse for contemporary furniture and objects with an Asian twist.
From Star Street, it’s a 15-minute walk to what I call ‘old Wan Chai’. To me, this consists of Hennessey, Lockhart and Jaffe Roads, which are large tram- and car-crammed thoroughfares, lined with greige tower blocks, bright neon signage, and a stream of pedestrians — quintessential Hong Kong. If it’s wine o’clock, I head to The Optimist on Hennessey, which I love for its unpretentious vibe, retro styling and excellent Happy Hour.
If I have guests staying I take them to Wooloomooloo, a laidback rooftop bar with a quirky drinks menu and amazing views — it’s a less busy alternative to some of the better-known rooftop bars in town. For food, I nip into always-popular 22 Ships for a modern take on tapas; then for a nightcap, Djibouti, hidden down an alleyway, has a gleaming purple bar with vintage decor.
For photography, culture, history, architecture
As one of the most diverse districts in Hong Kong, Wan Chai is also one of the most photogenic, filled with opportunities to capture that perfect shot for social media almost everywhere you look. Heaving markets, hidden laneways, quaint temples, modern skyscrapers and leafy trails, Wan Chai covers the gamut of this great city in one district. To get you started on your photographic adventure, we asked five talented local photographers to share a few of their favourite places to snap in the district, from hip and happening to historic and heritage.
Calvin Sit (@calvinsit.photography)
Just three blocks from the Happy Valley tram terminus is the F11 Foto Museum, in a beautifully restored orange art deco building. From the moment I turn the front door handle, which resembles an oversized camera film lever, I’m captivated. F11 houses the largest Leica camera collection in the world, from the earliest models that date back to the 1920s to newer limited editions. It also hosts photographic exhibitions and has a great collection of titles from the Magnum Book Collection. Entry to this non-profit museum is free and by appointment so book ahead for a guided tour.
Vivien Liu (@vdubl)
Step into this mid-1800s temple dedicated to the ancient deity Pak Tai, the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven, and experience the stark contrast between Hong Kong’s modern landscape and its historic architecture. Hidden on Lung On Street, behind Stone Nullah Lane, you will journey to the past and discover a feast for the eyes, especially on sunny afternoons when light infiltrates this temple through courtyards and clerestories. It’s made even more dramatic when the rays penetrate through the smoke of burning incense.
Monika Kulon (@bykulonmonika)
Sau Wah Fong
I love exploring Hong Kong’s streets. That’s how I stumbled on this tucked-away corner of Wan Chai. Sau Wah Fong is a charming little lane with a collection of cute cafes, chic boutiques and clothing stores alongside traditional businesses, including an old-fashioned barbershop. My favourite place is Jouer, a French-style artisan cafe and atelier. The first thing that catches my attention is the lovely patio with flowers, then my eyes travel inside to the cupboard full of beautiful vintage tableware and lifestyle items, which are for sale. I’m also drawn to the displays of homemade mini macarons and the divine cakes. It is a perfect place to escape from busy Hong Kong and relax with a cup of tea or coffee and your favourite book.
Nic Gaunt (@nic.gaunt)
Neon tubes first arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s and have become synonymous with the city’s fabric and identity. It has become a topic of debate over the last few years about whether they should be removed from the streets, because some people see them as light pollution, while others see them as an important part of Hong Kong’s heritage. We are in the latter camp and think that we should celebrate something that gives life and character to the canvas of this vibrant city. The neon reflects the colourful tapestry and playful side of a metropolis which comes to life after dark. A walk down Jaffe Road and the surrounding streets when night falls gives an opportunity to tune into the excitement and beauty of this unique city. Long may neon continue to adorn our streets and sidewalks.
William Furniss (@williamfurniss)
Bowen Road is an emerald green tunnel of trees and tarmac floating along the hillsides above Wan Chai and Happy Valley. Built in the 1800s on top of the aqueduct that brings water from Tai Tam Reservoir, this road is mostly pedestrianised and a haven for walkers and runners. I love Bowen Road for its unique perspective on Hong Kong. I am immersed in forest and at the same time am level with the tops of skyscrapers. As a photographer, this makes for great opportunities both night and day. Hong Kong’s easy access to nature right up against super dense city neighbourhoods is one of its most special features and one epitomised by Bowen Road.
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