By LUXE City Guides; images by Harold de Puymorin
Western district stock has soared in recent years, with the MTR’s Island Line extended from Sheung Wan to Sai Ying Pun, HKU and Kennedy Town in late-2014. Easier accessibility has brought gentrification and an influx of expat residents, cool restaurants and bars, new property developments, rising rents and a shorter version of the Mid-Levels Escalator up Sai Ying Pun’s steep Centre Street.
The district’s past was less than salubrious, however. While Central became the administrative and business hub during British rule in the 19th century, Western was the dumping ground that saw an abattoir, morgue, mental asylum and brothels spring up. Excluded from the city boundaries, Chinese settlers made Western their home, and turned it into a thriving commercial area with easy access to the harbour.
Stroll through its neighbourhoods and reminders of the past are easily found even as the skyscrapers of Central encroach. Traditional dried-goods stores do a steady trade on busy Connaught Road West, which throngs with people, trams and traffic year-round. These stores, along with seafood and produce markets, are a favourite of chefs and food lovers, who find inspiration and flavours of Hong Kong in their many and varied offerings.
The further west you go, the quieter it gets, with a mix of residential buildings and greenery spilling down to the sea at Kennedy Town and Sai Wan, where old-timers still take a dip in the harbour by day, while millennials head there in the evening to snap sunset photos for social media posts.
So near yet a world away from Central, Western shows that you don’t have to stray far to see the evolution of a city, to enjoy the old and the new, the traditional and the hip, and to experience Hong Kong like a real local.
Dive into Sai Ying Pun Market for a sensory feast of fresh seafood and vegetables.
Pick up Chinese sauces and ingredients from local grocery stores on High Street.
Visit Lo Pan temple, the only one in Hong Kong dedicated to the patron saint of builders and carpenters.
Dine at one of the new breed of restaurants in Western district, from fish and seafood to tacos and Italian street food.
Take a sunset stroll along the waterfront at Kennedy Town.
Down some steep stairs off Victoria Road in Kennedy Town is a green shack originally built some 50 years ago for swimmers to change into bathing costumes. It is said to be Hong Kong’s last swimming shed, one that’s still used by a few hardy souls before taking a dip in the sea, though nowadays, it is one of the city’s worst-kept-secret spots for sunsets. When conditions are right, young locals and visitors make a beeline for its jetty, which juts out over the sea, to capture that perfect Instagram moment.
Victoria Road, Mount Davis, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
Tak Kee has been around for decades, and is a Kennedy Town institution, a Kennedy Town institution for a deliciously authentic family dining experience that is popular with the Chiu Chow community. Brightly lit and noisy, diners flock here for the food, not the decor. The extensive menu includes specials pasted up on the restaurant walls, so it helps to have someone who can read Chinese; you won’t go wrong with braised meats, especially the goose. Crisp oyster pancake and fried duck with taro puree are also safe bets, though plenty of offal is available for adventurous eaters.
3 Belcher’s Street, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
+852 2819 5568
Founded in 1953, the University of Hong Kong’s museum is a little-known treasure trove of Chinese calligraphy and paintings, wood carvings, pottery, ceramics and bronzes. Claiming to be the oldest continually operated museum in Hong Kong, its collection of objects date back to the Neolithic period and spans the great Chinese dynasties. Ceramics are a highlight — green celadon, blue and white porcelain and myriad other glazes. The museum is open to the public and admission is free, and guided tours can also be arranged. End your visit with a cuppa at the Tea Gallery.
Few places embody the hip side of Sai Ying Pun like Ping Pong Gintoneria. A scarlet-red door conceals a serious basement watering hole, in what used to be a ping-pong parlour. Interiors are a study in modern-industrial chic, with concrete floors and pillars, high ceilings, neon signs and edgy contemporary art. Wine and beer are available, and drinkers can graze from the tapas menu, but you’re really here for the gin, and Ping Pong has an extensive selection boutique and speciality bottles you won’t find elsewhere.
Blink and you could easily miss the entrance to Okra Bar, a sushi restaurant tucked away in a quiet pocket of Sai Ying Pun. With only eight seats at a simple white-tiled counter, it can feel like chef-proprietor Max Levy is cooking just for you. A single omakase set menu that changes daily is offered, and usually includes five appetisers, 10 pieces of the finest seasonal sushi, two warm dishes and dessert. Aged fish is a speciality and the wine list features rare and unusual sake. Reservations are essential.
Mention dim sum and people think of delectable morsels steamed in bamboo baskets. The reality is that most of these baskets are now factory made in China, but one workshop remains on Hong Kong Island that continues to make them — as well as a heap of other bamboo utensils — by hand. Like many of the city’s artisan businesses, the workshop was in danger of closing, but renewed interest in local craftsmanship has boosted the profile of this outstanding family business. The baskets make excellent souvenirs and gifts, and custom orders can be arranged.
12 Western Street, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
+852 2548 8201
For food, relaxation, temples
Kennedy Town has always been on the fringe. Named after Arthur Edward Kennedy, the seventh governor of Hong Kong, it is one of the former British colony’s oldest communities. Originally earmarked as a resettlement area for southern Chinese escaping the Tai Ping Rebellion in the mid 1850s, the boundary stone on Sai Ning Street denoted the city’s western limit in 1903. Yet Kennedy Town’s development has been slower and more organic compared to other communities. The hilly terrain of Lung Fu Shan and Mount Davis restricted development southwards, resulting in a comfortable density that continues until this day.
Anna Ng, a group fitness instructor, is a lifelong resident of Kennedy Town and recalls when the tram tracks ran next to Victoria Harbour rather inland beside the relocated Kennedy Town Swimming Pool. “During typhoons, children were thrilled to see seawater spill above the barrier between Victoria Harbour and the tracks,” Ng recalls. “At the time, the only east-west artery near my home was Belcher’s. I was often late for school during frequent traffic jams.”
For Ng, there is no other district she would consider living. “I have a lot of happy memories here,” she states. “Every summer weekend, we would swim in the public pool; I still remember the scent of cattle as it was right beside the abattoir. I like to walk along Hee Wong Terrace, a green spot a bit up the hill. And though there are plenty of restaurants like Jaspa’s, I miss the old carts that sold deep-fried stuffed peppers, or the mom and pop shops with rice in huge bags that were delivered right to our home. I’m glad that Sheung Hei, my favourite clay-pot rice restaurant, is still around; it is one of the few remaining places that still uses charcoal.”
Due to its relaxed development, Kennedy Town is primarily a residential district. Its mixture of low and mid rise buildings attracts a mix of residents, and there are plenty of open spaces such as Belcher Bay Park and New Kennedy Town Praya where they can stroll among trees or by the water. With MTR’s Island Line Extension, the neighbourhood is welcoming more day trippers keen to discover hidden gems. Journalist Reggie Ho moved to Kennedy Town five years ago to take care of his ageing mother. He has since embraced the district as home, and feels that the Island Line Extension changed his life. “It used to take up to 45 minutes to get to Central by bus due to the congestion,” Ho remembers. “The MTR has made it very easy now.”
Ho enjoys the mix of old and new in Kennedy Town. “I love taking my dog up to Ching Lin Terrace because it’s so tranquil sitting in front of Lo Pan Temple,” he sighs. “I love the hole in the wall takeaway place around the corner where they sell four tea eggs for HK$10. I love sitting by the street having a drink at a Davis Street bar. I love the shredded chicken noodle at Yunnan place A One; I usually order a side of turnips and greens to dip in the spicy soup.”
With the MTR, contemporary office spaces are taking over some of Kennedy Town’s warehouses. The Loop’s publisher Adele Wong, a transplanted Chinese Canadian, appreciates the district’s residential qualities. “It’s the best balance between convenience and comfortable residential zone,” Wong feels. “I set up my business close to home so that I can walk to work. There are now lots of cool co-working spaces hidden in industrial buildings, like The Hive Kennedy Town where I work out of. You would never know by looking at the buildings that so much activity goes on inside.”
A newcomer to Hong Kong, Anton Kilayko is communications director with a five-star hotel. He found that Kennedy Town fit the bill of a real neighbourhood where he can escape work, yet be there in minutes if needed. “The commercial activity alludes to a village lifestyle,” Kilayko says. “It is a very pet-friendly neighbourhood; although I miss my dogs in Singapore, I always get the chance to play with some of my neighbours’ friendly dogs.” Kilayko feels that dining options, such as Chino for tacos and Cofftea for java, make Kennedy Town a foodie’s haven.
At once contemporary and traditional, Kennedy Town offers a true neighbourhood for anyone who wants to call Hong Kong home, and a slice of urban life for visitors with time to savour the precinct’s pleasures.
For food, shopping, hip vibe, old-school Hong Kong
Chris Ma, Executive Chef at modern seafood restaurant Fish School in Sai Ying Pun, is blessed with a bounty of ingredients at his doorstep. The restaurant, which uses locally sourced produce where possible, is an easy walk to markets, grocery shops and dried-goods stores that characterise the area.
“I love the diversity and culture of Sai Ying Pun”, says Ma, adding: “You have a mix of international restaurants and bars alongside local noodle joints and old-fashioned vendors. Many expats don’t shop at these places, they prefer to go to a supermarket, but there are so many great things to buy in these local shops.”
To prove his point, he takes us on a tour of the neighbourhood. Barely 100 metres from Fish School is a cluster of stores, including Shanghainese Ming Kee for jellyfish, hairy crab, Shaoxing wine and the like, which can run into the thousands of dollars.
Across the road, Pui Kee Noodle Factory houses trays, cabinets and fridges filled with fresh and dried egg noodles, rice noodles and vermicelli. Then there is Yu Kwen Yick, a beloved Hong Kong brand of chilli sauce with a distinctive blue label, which has been going strong for nearly 100 years and make for a nice and spicy souvenir.
The main attraction however, is around the corner at Sai Ying Pun Market, bursting with a cornucopia of fresh seafood and produce. With so many stalls competing for business and selling similar items, Ma has learned over the years what is best when, what is farmed and wild caught, and where things come from. “It’s essential to speak Cantonese and cultivate a good relationship with vendors,” says Ma. “That way they will keep aside the best pieces for me and let me know if they have any special things that have come in.”
This is important for the restaurant, which offers daily specials alongside its regular menu. Ma visits the markets every day, not only in Sai Ying Pun, but also in Aberdeen, Mong Kok and Wan Chai in search of the best produce. He says: “I look for odd pieces of fish that are wild caught rather than farmed. The markets are a treasure hunt and I often don’t know what I will get. There is huge diversity and supply is unstable, so you have to be super flexible when ingredients come in and you need to figure out what to cook.”
A walk through the market is a sensory delight. Red plastic lightshades dangle from brightly-lit storefronts as slippery catches try to escape their fate – much of the seafood is sold live, including lobster, prawns, abalone and tanks of fish. In the bustle of the markets, securing prized items can be a competitive sport. “I’ve had to fight off grandmas and grandpas for the best piece of cuttlefish on many occasions,” Ma says with a laugh.
Downstairs, stalls are piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, including gai lan, bok choi and ice lettuce, so called because the plant looks like it’s covered in shimmering, edible crystals. According to Ma, the quality at most of the stalls is similar, and most of the produce is brought in from mainland China, though he points out a small organic shop on the premises, which sells produce from Hong Kong, Europe, America and Australia.
Strolling down Centre Street, Ma points out a hole-in-the-wall store stacked with Chinese porcelain, before ending the tour on Des Voeux Road West, where dried-goods stores selling all manner of exotic ingredients line the road. Ma laments that unfortunately, most sell sharks fin, although it is never served at Fish School, nor do his contemporaries use it. Instead, he looks for items such as dried oysters and mussels, threadfin, dates, mushrooms and the like to create dishes that are hard to find elsewhere. It’s about giving diners local flavour, and “although the restaurant is not Chinese, it speaks of Hong Kong.”
While Ma loves the energy and diversity of Sai Ying Pun, he is aware of the changes developments such as the MTR station bring. There are more expats, fancy restaurants and higher rents, but he hopes “the area will always be known for its dried goods, cheap eats and small businesses. It is important to preserve these, they are what give the area its character.”
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