Local Takes: Hong Kong

Five notable locals show us how to do Hong Kong, their way

WORDS Kate Springer
June 2019
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Justin Lim

Hong Kong has no shortage of nicknames: Pearl of the Orient, the New York of Asia, the Fragrant Harbour. But none of these really captures the kaleidoscopic range of this city. Each neighborhood has its own distinct energy and personality, yet all are marked by recurring contrasts of east and west, old and new. The topography is equally varied—from the lofty Victoria Peak to the 260-odd islands radiating out into the South China Sea. As each of our five locals show us this month, the only real constant in Hong Kong is its ability to defy expectation.

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Chaotic Harmony in Yau Ma Tei
feng shui designer
Thierry Chow, 31

In a way, Thierry Chow is a typical third-culture Hongkonger. Her family moved abroad when she was a kid. She returned to the city as an adult. Where Chow differs from most of her peers, though, is her subsequent career choice.

Having earned a degree in art and design in Ontario, Canada, Chow moved back to Hong Kong eight years ago, unsure of what she wanted to do. “I was working a few jobs and was pretty unhappy. So I started learning feng shui from my dad, who’s a master,” she says, referring to the ancient Chinese art of manipulating physical space to create positive energy. “And that was the beginning of my journey.”

Having become a master herself, Chow uses her love of design to make feng shui more accessible to young people. “The practice is all about being a better person and being more conscious about your decisions,” she says, sipping a citron honey tea at the hip bookstore/café Kubrick in Yau Ma Tei, a lively historic district in Kowloon. This fall, she is launching a line of feng shui-inspired furniture, jewelry and clothing.

Even amid the bustle of Kubrick, Chow is easy to pick out, with her vintage red dress and vivid lipstick. “As a feng shui designer, of course, I look at the energy of arrangements wherever I go,” she says. “This café just feels so comfortable—the plants combined with the wood and natural light. But it’s a stark contrast to the older vibe of the neighborhood. It doesn’t really make sense.” She laughs and adds, “Why is it here?”

Having grown up in Kowloon, which lies across Victoria Harbour to the north of Hong Kong Island, Chow has a deep bond with the area, and with Yau Ma Tei in particular. “To me, it is the real Hong Kong,” she says. “I love the old buildings, the neon signs, the temples, dai pai dongs [outdoor food stalls]. Hong Kong Island has a glamour to it, but if you want to see how real locals live and work, this is the place.”

We leave Kubrick and walk south to Jade Market, a clutter of stalls selling varieties of the calming stone—bangles, beads, carved dragons. “Best prices!” the hawkers cry. “Precious stones!” This is one of several popular markets in Yau Ma Tei, including Temple Street Night Market, where you can buy everything from silk dresses to sneakers to cellphones. “You can find all kinds of odd things,” Chow says. “Sometimes I pick up really random decorations—dog statues, lion heads, metallic signs.” And sometimes she simply goes there to eat: “The claypot rice is my favorite. It’s made with fermented fish, pork, chicken, mushrooms and the best part is on the bottom. Hong Kong people love that crispy rice. That’s the best bite.”

As we walk, we pass an old woman pushing a shopping cart piled with junk.

“Life here happens on the streets,”

Chow says above the noise of a jackhammer. “There’s something we call the Hong Kong spirit. You can really feel it in this area. Everyone works hard. It never stops.” Or almost never. In a nearby plaza, elderly men lounge on benches in the shade of banyan trees, next to the 19th-century Tin Hau Temple. “Kwun Yam is the Goddess of Mercy—she is known for her compassion,” Chow says of one of the temple’s four deities. “I really identify with her.”

While there are plenty of dining options in Yau Ma Tei—too many to count—Chow wants to show me the nearby Mido Cafe, a retro mid-century cha chaan teng [tea restaurant] with a curved bank of windows. “Growing up, my parents always took me to this type of diner,” she says. “We could never get enough egg tarts, noodles, milk tea. And I just love the design—the green tiles and traditional benches. They’re a symbol of old Hong Kong.”

As we prepare to end our journey, a squat pink building catches Chow’s eye. “Oh, wait! This place! In my dad’s generation, you’d go here for entertainment. It’s like a day disco.” She translates the name to “Sassy Son Sky Singing House.” Inside, a woman stands on stage singing a standard off-key, her face mottled with light from disco balls. “Wow,” Chow says with a laugh. “This is why I love Hong Kong. You always find surprises, no matter where you go.”

Finding Purpose in Sheung Wan
restaurateur
Vicky Lau, 39

Vicky Lau has been bombarded with accolades since opening her Sheung Wan restaurant, Tate Dining Room & Bar, in 2012, including a Michelin star and a “Best Female Chef” nod in the 2015 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards—which is all the more remarkable given the fact that she started out as a graphic designer.

“I got into design because I love the creativity and craftsmanship,” she says. “But after a while, I felt something was missing. It’s so commercialized.” In search of more rewarding work, Lau enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok, before returning to Hong Kong to work at the now-shuttered Cépage. In 2012, she struck out on her own with Tate, followed five years later by Poem Patisserie.

“Food is still something you create with your hands, but it has more purpose,” Lau says, “which really appealed to me.” Little surprise, then, that she gravitates to Sheung Wan. Located west of Central, the area is Hong Kong’s creative hub—home to cool cafés, design boutiques and art galleries, along with traditional tea houses, antique shops and temples.

“Growing up, we lived on the Kowloon side, but my dad is very adventurous, so he would take us all over town,” Lau says. “I remember coming to Sheung Wan frequently, because my dad loved the antique shops.” Years later, these experiences inspired her to open her first restaurant here. “As you grow as a person, I think you start to appreciate more of the historical aspects of your home.”

Leaving Tate, we walk down Hollywood Road, passing the neighborhood restaurant For Kee (famous for its crispy pork chop rice) and a small temple with incense smoke swirling from its doorway. “People go to these temples every day,” Lau says. “I’m not religious, but it’s common in Hong Kong. There’s a really famous one nearby that I’ll show you in a bit.”

Up a stone staircase, we enter Tai Ping Shan, Hong Kong’s oldest neighborhood, which has been transformed into a bohemian enclave. “It’s full of cute little indie designer shops and cafés,” Lau says, heading for Teakha, a charming spot known for its creative cakes and twists on traditional teas. “Everything they do tastes good and looks beautiful,” says Lau. “It’s so nice to just hang out in this area, because you don’t feel rushed at all.”

A few blocks east, we find the Yuan Yuan Tang tea shop, whose owner will happily guide guests through the preparation and etiquette of a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. “It’s a process,” Lau says with a laugh. As we continue, talk turns to urban design. “My background as a graphic designer affects the way I see things in terms of texture, color and of course grids. Hong Kong has no grid! Whereas in cities like Tokyo or New York, everything is aligned. Just look at the road here. It’s all warped!” 

A few minutes later we encounter Man Mo Temple, a majestic 19th-century complex with jade-colored roof tiles and elaborate interiors. “It’s very famous, dedicated to the God of Literature,” Lau says. “A lot of parents take their kids here before exams to pray for good grades.” Inside, rows of hive-like incense cones dangle overhead. Before a splendid red-and-gold altar is a small heap of oranges and pears left as offerings by devotees. 

Back on Hollywood, we enter the Liang Yi Museum, home to a huge, privately-owned collection of Chinese furniture, much of it dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties. “I love that the museum feels so personal—you can feel the owner’s passion,” Lau says. “Did you notice that there’s no glass around the antiques? You can touch them, see the intricate details, sit in the chairs. That’s what museums should be about.”

Outside, Lau leads me down a flight of stairs to Cat Street Market, whose colorful stalls sell everything from decorative fans to vintage Hong Kong movie posters. “I come here sometimes to look for ideas for the restaurant,” she says, pausing to examine a delicate antique vase. “There’s so much inspiration covering all these different periods of history, so much culture packed in one little market.”

Around the World in Central
mixologist and bar owner
Antonio Lai, 39

If you visit a molecular cocktail bar in Hong Kong’s Central district, chances are it’s run by Antonio Lai, the flamboyant mixologist who jumpstarted the bar scene when he opened the award-winning Quinary in 2012. Since then, he has opened several more Central hotspots: the gin mecca Origin, the foodie favorite VEA, the speakeasy-style Room 309, the colonial era-inspired The Envoy and the recently opened Draft Land, which offers craft cocktails on tap.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lai has worked in cities from Beijing to Paris, so when it came to launching his own businesses, Central (which he jokingly calls the “UN of Hong Kong”) was an obvious choice. Sandwiched between Victoria Harbour and the Mid-Levels area, Central is home to some of the city’s glossiest hotels, restaurants and bars—connected by a network of escalators and elevated walkways. “It’s in the center of the action,” Lai says as we walk down Lan Kwai Fong, Central’s bustling nightlife strip. “Nonstop energy.”

It’s clear that Lai knows a thing or two about energy. In a multicolored shirt and high-top sneakers, he springs up a steep slope towards Wyndham, one of the city’s oldest streets but now a clutter of signs advertising dining and entertainment options. “Gum jo gei?” [“Here so early?”] a smiling server asks as we approach Ding Dim 1968. The place is a far cry from typical dim sum spots, with their roving carts stacked with bamboo steamers and banquet tables designed for long, leisurely meals. “It’s high-quality and quick,” Lai says. “They already know my order: har gow [shrimp dumplings], chicken feet and char siu bao [barbecue pork bun] with sugar on top.”

We continue along Wyndham to What To Eat, where a line stretches around the corner. “People love this Taiwanese food,” Lai says with a grin. His go-to dish here is the lo yuk fan, or braised pork with rice. “The owners, two really nice ladies, have become my friends,” he says. “They bring food over to Draft Land sometimes, and we return the favor by delivering cocktails. I really treasure that neighborhood feeling.”

Weaving through bumper-to-bumper red taxis, we head up to Tai Kwun, a slick arts and leisure complex occupying the old Central Police Station. “This spacious courtyard in Central? Where every little inch is money? It’s very rare!” says Lai as we explore the development, whose restaurants include Aaharn, a Thai spot from superstar chef David Thompson. “Do we have time for some shopping?” Lai adds. “One of my favorite shops is here.” A moment later we are in Loveramics ceramics store, examining a tall, razor-thin glass. “We actually use this at our bars. It looks beautiful with a big block of ice in it.”

From here, we go on a bar crawl, starting at the American-style dive The Pontiac­—“It gets the recipe right, good value, good atmosphere, good service, good music,” Lai says. Then we move on to COA, a minimalist spot devoted to mezcal. Finally, we take a stool at The Old Man, a retro cocktail bar whose Ernest Hemingway-inspired drinks menu earned it the number-five spot on the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Bars list. “This is really good for Hong Kong,” says Lai, whose favorite drink here is the vodka-based Moveable Feast, garnished with a cheese-wax oyster leaf. “It proves that we have a serious cocktail culture.”

As our eyes readjust to daylight, we descend yet another hill to Wellington Street, where we are soon flanked by lifeless-looking high-rises. Lai, possibly catching the underwhelmed expression on my face, grows animated. “These towers aren’t just offices,” he says. “They’re filled with restaurants and bars. One floor could be Japanese food, then Peruvian, Belgian, French, Cantonese, Russian.

It’s a world in one building.”

Hong Kong From on High 
events organizer
Justin Sweeting, 42

I am on the phone with Justin Sweeting, who’s trying to guide me through a squiggle of hillside streets. “Are you at the blue residential building? Go to the back, turn left and right … ” Sweating and flustered, I finally find Sweeting standing on what may be the world’s most scenic soccer pitch: Hong Kong’s hyper-modern skyline sprawling before us, jungly terraces rising behind, a chorus of cicadas buzzing overhead. “Sorry about the hike,” he says.

Given his line of work (Sweeting’s company, Magnetic Asia, organizes music shows) I’d expected him to take me to a few clubs. Instead, here we are, high above the Central district, enjoying the view. “This was one of my favorite places as a kid,” he says. “I’d come here for pickup games—everyone from teenagers to granddads would play together.” It’s not an ideal spot for a soccer pitch—one touchline is bordered by a cliff face—but you get used to this sort of thing in Hong Kong. “Space is an issue here, so you find these places squashed in wherever they fit—behind a residential building, or on the side of a mountain.”

Sweeting—who now has three children of his own—grew up on the nearby campus of The University of Hong Kong, where his father taught history. “We had a lot of freedom, it’s really safe here,” he recalls. “And there’s a multicultural mix that normalizes diversity at a young age. I realize now how valuable that is.”

While attending college in Bath, England, he co-founded the post-punk band Six Ray Sun, but returned home to what he calls an “arid” music scene. “There were no shows and you’d have to mail-order CDs. As a kid, it was depressing. But as an adult, I saw an opportunity.” In 2008, he co-founded Clockenflap, now the city’s largest music and arts festival. The firm also organizes smaller gigs and has a hand in the city’s main digital ticketing platform. 

As we walk along Conduit Road in the Mid-Levels area, Sweeting points out the gilded gateways and luxury cars lining the street. The neighborhood wasn’t so posh when he was a boy, but the rural feel endures. “You feel like you’re on the edge of the wild. Look at these trees,” he says, gesturing at a big gnarly banyan. “They have so much personality.
They range from these Dr. Seuss-type things to beautiful palms—they’re amazing.”

We continue west on Conduit until we reach Lung Fu Shan Country Park, at the foot of Victoria Peak, which at more than 1,800 feet is Hong Kong Island’s tallest mountain. You can ascend The Peak by tram, but Sweeting prefers to walk. “If you follow that pathway for about an hour, it will take you up to great views of the city,” he says. “You will avoid the crowds on the tram and be surrounded by nature.”

Suddenly, my guide ducks into the brush. “This trail will take you to the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir,” he says over his shoulder, referring to a spot that provides its own spectacular city views.

“I think the hiking in Hong Kong surprises people.

You can be on a trail in minutes, surrounded by hills, rocks, banyan trees. This is the wild.” As if on cue, a swarm of black-and-blue butterflies swirls around us. Sweeting stops and holds up a finger, as if to say listen. There’s a chattering from distant treetops. “The sounds are so comforting, especially the cockatoos. It’s a noise that I think is really Hong Kong.”

The hike is lovely, but I’m relieved when we turn downhill towards Shek Tong Tsui, a popular foodie neighborhood on the island’s western edge. “I love how this area has so many traditional Hong Kong buildings,” Sweeting says as we walk along Hill Road. “And just look at this flyover—the way it cuts through the skyscrapers, it’s so dramatic. It’s one of my favorite roads in Hong Kong.”

Finally, we cut down a narrow alleyway to the hip café Syut by tfvsjs, opened last year by the local math-rock band tfvsjs. I comment on how odd it is to have gone from pastoral to industrial-chic in a matter of minutes. Sweeting smiles. “Hong Kong can be many things at once,” he says. “It’s these experiences, these little heartbeats, that really set the city apart.”

Island Vibes in Mui Wo
environmental advocate
Fanny Moritz, 30

Fanny Moritz upended her life almost eight years ago, trading the genteel suburbs of Paris for a fast-paced life in Hong Kong. “At the time, I didn’t even speak English or Cantonese, but I moved anyway,” she says with a laugh. “I decided to stay because everyone told me that it was the best city in the world to open a business.”

After learning English and running a website-design firm, Moritz fell in with a community of environmental activists. “I learned about the zero-waste movement and the idea really changed my life,” she says. In 2017, she founded NO!W No Waste, an online retailer that sells reusable and biodegradable homewares and accessories. The company’s success has come with a cost. “I’m a workaholic, so I have had two burnouts in the past four years. I’ve learned that we really need to take care of ourselves and it’s important to go back to nature.”

One of Moritz’s favorite places to decompress is Mui Wo, a beachfront village on the east coast of Lantau Island, about a 45-minute ferry ride west of Hong Kong Island. With a population of just 5,500 people, Mui Wo has become a big draw for outdoorsy types, due to its pretty waterfalls, explorable bat cave, hillside hiking trails and free-roaming water buffalo. The area also has a growing number of places to eat and drink, including the inviting Mui Wo Cooked Food Market on the water’s edge.

“I love that there’s a lot to do here but you still feel relaxed,” says Moritz, gesturing at a thickly-forested mountain looming over a crescent of pale sand. “Hong Kong is so connected, but sometimes you have to turn off your notifications. It’s amazing that we have these mountains and beaches. You can easily escape and take a rest.”

At Village Bakery, a hole-in-the-wall artisanal café, Moritz orders a hot chocolate and a doughnut, fuel for the next part of our tour: a stroll along the promenade, north towards Silvermine Beach. “Mui Wo reminds me of the French lifestyle in a way,” Moritz says, stepping aside at the gentle trill of a bike bell. “I grew up in a very small city, almost like a village, where we had cows and farmlands.

I love that simple life, that sense of community.”  

We pass small shopfronts selling watersports equipment, a few bars and restaurants, rows of modest homes. At one point, Moritz stops suddenly, craning her neck to read a sign above our heads. “Yes, China Beach Club,” she says. “This is a great restaurant. You can sit on the terrace, looking out at the water. You really experience another side of Hong Kong.”

Finally, we reach Silvermine, an arc of golden sand flanked by mountains and sea. Off to our right, a man snoozes in the shade of a tree, while dozens of colorful fishing boats bob in the distance. A woman ambles by with a stroller, offering a cheery hello. “What’s charming for me is just the fact that, on the islands, it’s easier to meet people,” Moritz says. “People are friendlier here.”

We continue along, the waves lapping at our side. “Hong Kong has some incredible beaches,” Moritz adds, rattling off some of her favorites, including Tai Long Wan, a bay on the eastern side of the Sai Kung Peninsula, which is known for its beauty, its tranquility and the journey required to get there. “It’s one of the most dramatic views in Hong Kong,” she says, “worth the effort.”

Back in Mui Wo, Moritz suggests we take the one-hour cliffside walk to Pui O Beach, where feral cattle roam. Closer still are the exquisite Silvermine Waterfall and Caves. But then the smell of pizza hits us, so we follow our noses to The Kitchen, a modest eatery serving legendary pies. “This is one of my favorite ways to spend free time—gather some friends, head to the islands and relax over good food and drinks,” Moritz says. “This really is the life.”

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