Melting pot

Neon-lit skyscrapers pierce the clouds and big-brand names light up the sky — modern Hong Kong is a powerhouse. But just as potent is its passion for tradition: local young designers ply past skills and hip new chefs use ancient ingredients. It’s a ravishing recipe of old and new. Nick Redman tucks in

 

In Hong Kong, ducking off a steep side street in SoHo around midnight, through an unmarked door, I fell headlong for the Old Man. 

Looking like Grandma’s living room, the Old Man is one of the coolest spots in Hong Kong right now — according to the trendy couple beside me. It certainly felt pretty special, from the drinks, to the design, to a giant mosaic of Ernest Hemingway’s hirsute chops on high. Chatter swirled about tropical-print stools as I scanned the novel menu, its strange concoctions each a salute to his stories. 

Taxiing to my hotel in the muggy early morning, I could see why Honkers has fallen for Hemingway. What a fitting figurehead for the city, both man and metropolis so transient and restless, creative and repressed.

(Main image: The night market on Temple Street)

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An office building’s illuminated facade

A marriage made in heaven (after all, he loved the city the one time he came). Hong Kong’s certainly had its relationship issues: a British colony relinquished in 1997, now under China’s wing. Western no more, yet not mainland Eastern either. Has anything home-grown sprouted in between? In pictures it looks possibly more thrusting than ever, worldly and confident; a stunning pin-up. Having fancied a close-up for a long time, I boarded a plane and booked into Hong Kong’s great grande-dame hotel, the Peninsula. (It turned out Hemingway had been here, too — in ’41, with his war-journo bride, Martha Gellhorn, on a ‘honeymoon’, which he spent cavorting, while she was off reporting.) The hotel was 90 years old last year, an icon of the Kowloon district, standing tall and timeless, while all around the city works, frantically, on its identity. Glamorous new hotels fizz into the sky like fireworks in this town, most recently (at a respectful remove east from the Peninsula’s patch) the Kerry, resplendent with Turkish onyx interiors in liquid sweeps, mimicking the harbour before it; and the Murray, an update of a ’60s office block in Central, still with the iconic recessed windows, plus a roof lounge, Popinjays, overlooking jungly slopes, named for the parrots that fly around it.

The Peninsula itself was reassuringly sumptuous, a comfort blanket in a territory figuring out the future, made to cocoon first-timers like me. Under chandeliers, potted ferns stood about like plumed Tiller Girls. Guests contemplated the towering scones of its afternoon tea in the lobby. In its ’50s French restaurant, Gaddi’s, I raised a glass to Gable, Gardner and stars who’d been here before me. And after dark I got the bigger picture, in the top-floor lounge, Felix, a ’90s-retro zone of gauzy Starck drapes and Barbie-ish furniture. Across the waters of Victoria Harbour, lit by the fireflies of red junks on tourist duty, was Hong Kong Island, a nightscape of skyscrapers pushing kaleidoscopic product placements on the horizon. Panasonic, Prudential, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch. I felt like a transit passenger in the Lost Land of Brands.

In search of a more local impression, the next day I took the Star Ferry from Kowloon to the island for the funicular railway to the Peak. It felt touristy (I became an expert on Melbourne, eavesdropping on the seven-minute ascent), but the city explained itself more clearly as I saw last night’s view back over the waters. Kowloon lay north, the Peninsula the size of a Monopoly piece; the New Territories stretched beyond, fading, somewhere, to China. Below lay the view known from postcards: the towers of commerce splayed by perspective, like monster shocks of quartz. It was sensational but remote. And robotic on closer inspection — Hong Kong seemed to move without much actual human motion: on escalators under the plinths of skyscrapers; along travelators through endless malls; or in its trademark red-and-white taxis, pouring across flyovers, like torrents of tiny kiddies’ sweets off a factory conveyor belt.

I needed to find my feet — which is where Wanderlust Walks stepped in. Alex, the German expat behind it, recommended a ‘street art’ stroll as the way to taste home-grown Hong Kong — and what she didn’t know about the city’s emerging talent you could daub on a dumpling. 

Around Tai Ping Shan, a tram ride from Central, the street walls were a blast of psychedelic cartoons, the fruit of the city’s big spray-can art festival, HK Walls. We wandered alleys, past a Bruce Lee mural here (signed Xeva, South Korea), a scarlet strumpet there (Neil Wang, Hong Kong). A challenge to authority?

‘I inhaled a Hong Kong that could only have seeped up through the cracks between East and West’

A boredom with bland brands? Whatever, it was potent. I inhaled a Hong Kong that could only have seeped up through the cracks between East and West.

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Popinjay’s at The Murray Hotel

Down the road, English chef Jason Atherton had scented local promise, planting his restaurant, Aberdeen Street Social, in a striking piece of retro Hong Kong architecture called PMQ. I admired its modernism, pale in the gentle late sun, as Chinese banyans climbed the perimeter wall and diners lounged on the terrace.

A rare survivor in this pull-it-down town, it was built in 1951 as quarters for young married police officers, and spared demolition when that closed in 2000. It’s a head-turner, the living spaces now brimming with cafes and pop-ups.

One stood out, stacked with nostalgic-witty ceramics and camp-as-candy ‘Suzie Wong Night Club’-logo bags — the calling card of Goods of Desire, an indigenous star in the international city firmament of Prada and Versace. Douglas Young, the Hong Konger behind the brand, works in an atelier across town, in Kowloon’s Sham Shui Po — Garment District. The premises are easy to find, in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre — an artists’ colony in a converted nine-storey factory (you can sign up for a nose around). He was a chatty dynamo, his mission — to make the Hong Kong he loves tangible, what with Asian traditions ‘on the verge of extinction in a western-centric world’.

‘There’s still relatively little study on Hong Kong culture — books, movies, music,’ he said. ‘I want to make things that address that imbalance, that young people want to buy.’

I adored his Angry Cat toys sticking up a middle finger — spoofing the classic golden waving lucky cats that spell good fortune in Asia. I had a wander around Sham Shui Po and the streets he strolls for inspiration. It was intoxicating, all gaudy tropical prints on cheap fabric rolls, shabby shopfronts shedding wizened lettering, and grimy Art Deco curves of wilting apartment balconies.

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Hong Kong

Sham Shui Po was a whiff of a Hong Kong loved by generations, where street food adhered to methods decades old: at Kung Wo Beancurd Factory a noisy antediluvian drum of gloop whirled alarmingly, but the tofu pud was a silky treat, made to a recipe passed down through the business. I copied the regulars and stuck my face silently into my bowl, spooning up sweetness as ethereal as a cloud. By evening, south of Sham Shui Po, I was with the crowds of Mong Kok area; among love’s young-dreams feeding each other tubs of fish balls slathered in chilli sauce bought from kiosks lining the pavements. With prices requiring mere shrapnel-change, there was no need to know what you were ordering. Just point and devour (or discreetly discard).

I knew where to take my brunch cravings next morning: to Kennedy Town, 25 minutes by tram from Central, on the western tip of Hong Kong Island where giddy-tall tenements meet tropic-blue sea. Here, tradition seemed content to co-exist with gentrification, evidenced by rents trailing many zeroes in estate-agent windows, the honeypot Lebanese-owned cafe, Catch, doing avocado every which way.

I gave that one a miss for Cheung Heung, a cha chaan teng, or classic Hong Kong tea house. ‘It has been here at least 50 years,’ said Kevin, grandson of the owners, as I snapped the Formica fittings. 

The coconut tarts were hanging around for seconds, stuffed into paper bags for a patient fan base, queueing. ‘Hong Kong original!’ said the man at the next table, pointing at my custard tart.

‘If you find in China, it is imitation!’

‘Glamorous new hotels fizz into the sky like fireworks in this town’

In Hong Kong, imitation can be an amusing game. I loved the way the chef at trendy Mott 32, in Central, seemed to be having such fun with staples. His Peking duck spring rolls came stuffed with that healthy western obsession, kale, unexpectedly stunning. His bao buns seemed a thumbs-up to Spain (Hemingway would definitely have had those).

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The Peninsula Hong Kong

Things were contrastingly high-temple-serious that last night, at Fish School: a Helsinki-goes-to-Hong Kong haunt in the San-Francisco-steep quarter of Sai Ying Pun. Counterbalancing the spare aesthetic of stone and timber, dishes were rich, the flavours engagingly alien. Only when Chris, the chef, whipped out his phone to show a photo of a bramble he’d picked that morning in the New Territories to adorn my pudding, did I realise: he’d been foraging.

‘I like to work with the kind of stuff my mum used to get from the market,’ he said, with a sage’s poise, as I hoovered up a starter of glistening fish. It looked like dill-laced salmon but was, he told me, cobia, rolled in seaweed. ‘It’s local — caught in the South China Sea.’

With Fish School, the aim was to offer ‘a slice of what the city can provide’. That didn’t include one curious striped specimen in the fish tank. ‘It’s a knifejaw,’ he told me. ‘We put it on the menu, but nobody knew what it was, so we kept it as our pet.’

Some things it seems are still too local, even for the locals. 

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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing