WONG CHUK HANG is no longer the industrial wasteland it once was. An Ovolo hotel is scheduled to open in autumn, and a cluster of hip cafes and restaurants have sprung up alongside a home store, prime office blocks and, less conspicuously, a growing number of art spaces.
"There's already a spirit, although it is hidden because everybody is in a building," says Dominique Perregaux, owner of Art Statements, as he enters a lift in the office tower opposite the nearly completed Ovolo on Wong Chuk Hang Road.
His eighth floor art gallery is among the seven spaces in Wong Chuk Hang that are participating in this year's ArtWalk: the others are 3812 Contemporary Art Projects, Caroline Chiu photography studio, the Cat Street Gallery Annex, Pekin Fine Arts, Spring Workshop and Yallay Space.
Last year, there were none.
Perregaux, who moved to Wong Chuk Hang last June, says galleries are drawn to the area because of the bigger spaces and lower rents compared with Central and Sheung Wan.
The Swiss gallerist used to have a space the "size of a shoebox" on Mee Lun Street off Hollywood Road between 2004 and 2010. The monthly rent was as high as HK$80,000. For the same amount "you can have almost a floor in Wong Chuk Hang", he says, sitting in his 5,000 sq ft white-cube loft.
This sentiment is shared by Fabio Rossi, director of London's Rossi & Rossi, who co-launched Yallay Space in the district with French art dealer Jean-Marc Decrop in January, showcasing art from Asia and the Middle East.
"You have greater accessibility in Central but you may end up working [and only managing to] pay the rent," he says, lolling on the sofa in his office at the back of his 6,500 sq ft gallery.
In Wong Chuk Hang, "you can own the space and not be at the mercy of landlords who keep upping the rent".
Having spent more than 20 years travelling to Hong Kong on business, Rossi kept an eye on Wong Chuk Hang's progress while living in New York. Then, in the summer of 2011, he relocated to the city. He rented a small office in the district as a year-long "pilot experiment" to test out the possibility of setting up a larger art space for more adventurous projects - and it worked.
"While there's still that psychological reluctance - 'You're not in Central!' - the reality is if you have something interesting, people will come," says Rossi, over the sound of construction work outside his window.
Pekin Fine Arts purchased its Wong Chuk Hang space two years ahead of its official opening last December.
"It is an exciting neighbourhood in transition, much like the Caochangdi village area in Beijing," says gallery owner Meg Maggio. "It is a grass roots neighbourhood, very local, very real and down to earth."
A specialist in contemporary Asian and Chinese art, the Beijing-based American gallerist studied and worked as a corporate lawyer in colonial Hong Kong in the '80s and '90s. She has endless enthusiasm for Wong Chuk Hang. "I love its location, convenience and proximity to Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay," she says.
"It's just 15 minutes away from Central," says Perregaux, whose clientele are mainly from overseas or living on Hong Kong Island. Once the MTR South Island Line is completed in two years, the journey time from Central will be reduced to seven minutes.
Other than the rent, one major reason galleries are either setting up shop or migrating to Wong Chuk Hang are the possibilities that come with a large space. For Perregaux, that means realising his vision.
He says his Central space in the past was not only small but also narrow and strangely shaped - not an ideal venue for art exhibitions. Now, he can showcase high-quality, large-scale works by international artists.
"In Wong Chuk Hang you can do interesting things that you may not be able to do on Hollywood Road. And people won't see shops selling paintings here ... but real exhibitions," he says.
But with a sense of excitement in the air, will Wong Chuk Hang retain the grass roots character that made it so charming to the likes of Maggio?
Having witnessed how gentrification had turned his former neighbourhood around Gough Street in Central from printing shops to upscale restaurants in just six years, Perregaux is realistic about the car washing and repairing businesses around the corner.
"Unfortunately, I think they'll be kicked out at some point."
Hong Kong ArtWalk 2013, April 18, 4.30pm-11.30pm, various locations. HK$450, HK$150 (students). Proceeds go to the Society for Community Organisation. Free shuttle bus services between Central, Wong Chuk Hang and Aberdeen/Tin Wan. Tel: 9843 0553, or go to hongkongartwalk.com
Right up your street
As it enters its teens, art tour broadens palette with a spread of sideshows
ArtWalk is celebrating its 13th year, with a total of 70 galleries in Central, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, Happy Valley, Quarry Bay, Western and Southern districts taking part. As in previous years, the art feast offers a diverse range of events for participants to enjoy while roaming between galleries.
At Schoeni Art Gallery Project Space on Chancery Lane you can learn more about the work of the event's benefiting charity, the Society for Community Organisation, through Lei Jih-sheng's photography. There will be clay throwing demonstrations at The Pottery Workshop on Hollywood Road, while towards Sheung Wan an "arts bus" will be parked next to Man Mo Temple to play videos. AO Photo Book Centre, The Space and DeeM will display their photography books, modernist furniture and design items, respectively.
Local artist Otto Li Tin-lun will set up a mixed-media sculpture on Shin Hing Street, near Hollywood Road. Climb further up to Tai Ping Shan Street and you'll see another young artist, Law Yuk-mui, staging her installation inspired by the nearby Blake Park.
The itinerary of this year's extra events extends to Wong Chuk Hang, where photographer Caroline Chiu will open her studio to display selected works, while charity art space Spring Workshop is showing an installation by architect duo Eskyiu, as well as Bibliotheek, an ever-expanding library as part of the art space's year-long collaboration with Rotterdam's Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art.
There will be more posters, paintings, photographs and installations displayed along various streets until around midnight on April 18.