Hipster haven shows different side of Hong Kong
Let's be frank. There are parts of Hong Kong that I wouldn't have considered roaming around in past years, let alone trying to find somewhere to stay.
Until recently, had any respectable visitor ever considered exploring an old neighbourhood called Sheung Wan, just west of Hong Kong's Central?
Sheung Wan's streetscape is a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of lanes, alleys and stairways designed to test the knees and thighs. The architecture is an eclectic mix of extremes ... from old shop-houses selling pungent dried fish and Chinese herbs, to modern high-rise offices and apartments.
Luckily much of the character of the area has been preserved, while community activity at the historic Man Mo Temple and other sites still draws crowds of incense-burning worshippers.
But it's the new rather than the old that's transformed Sheung Wan into a vibrant hipster hangout popular not only with ex-pats and the younger local crowd, but increasingly tourists looking for something different from the usual faceless shopping malls and the business hotels populated by suits.
To get a true taste of the district we embark on a walk with a small group led by Yammy of Foodie Tours (sounds like Yummy, she says).
We've been warned that as the tour starts at 2.15pm to miss the lunch hour rush, we should arrive with an empty stomach ... and we are certainly glad we did.
We walk around the narrow streets, up and down the steep steps of Ladder St and laneways with lively wet markets, enjoying Yammy's informative commentary and indulging in a moveable feast of Cantonese delights.
These range from special wonton soup noodles to roast meats like barbecue pork and duck, preserved fruits, pure cane juice, herbal teas and the best dim sum you'll ever have.
We learn that the day of the dai pai dong (street food market) is nearly over, as licenses are not being renewed much to the chagrin of local residents.
Many of these eat streets have already been moved indoors to places like the Queen Street Market, with strict hygiene conditions and air-conditioning but less atmosphere.
However, on the positive side, the entire precinct is alive with the buzz of new ventures including quirky bars, Western-style bistros, ethnic cafes and trendy fusion places where the culinary world meets in a plethora of tastes, smells and sounds.
During the tour we pass by Mexican, Italian, French, Greek, Nepalese, Mongolian, Middle Eastern, Indian and other exotic Asian eateries. Even in a week, you wouldn't be able to cram in everything that Sheung Wan has to offer in the food department.
Another worthwhile walking experience is the Heritage and History Tour covering Central and Sheung Wan from the early colonial settlement days to the present. The guides are knowledgeable long-term residents, some of whom are academics with a personal story to tell. This tour is a must for anyone interested in Hong Kong's fascinating history and culture, a true melting pot.
A major feature of the precinct is the proliferation of art galleries, street art, antique dealers and small boutiques especially along the well-known Hollywood Rd which links Central and Sheung Wan. Walking tours don't allow time for browsing, but you'll get an overview of places that you can return to in the following days. Staying in the area is a distinct advantage, with new boutique hotels like Ovolo Central capitalising on increased tourism interest in "small is beautiful” accommodation.
There's another amazing development that has taken place.
The huge colonial Central Police Station and Barracks has morphed into an art, entertainment and dining precinct called the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, where cells have been replaced by cellars and bars plus world-class food and beverage outlets, event spaces, educational facilities and even meeting rooms.
It's opposite the Ovolo Hotel and a great excuse for lingering longer in the most enticing part of "hip hip Hong Kong”.
If you go ...
Be prepared to try something different.
Experience the new scene growing in Hong Kong. Stay in the area to capitalise on the area.