SHIP STREET HAS SUDDENLY become Hip Street. The little row between Queen's Road East and Johnston Road used to be just another nondescript Wan Chai side-street. Now it's a trendy address for hipsters, but it still harbours some small neighbourhood eateries.
Every night, a smart-looking crowd clogs the pavement outside tapas hot spot, 22 Ships. Across the road, young locals engage in milk tea courtship at Double Tree cafe. Stylish ladies take afternoon tea at Madam Sixty Ate, while Beautifood and Zoë are doing brisk business with folks looking for a quick salad or takeaway cakes.
Not many streets play host to Michelin-star chefs and comfort food franchises, cheap and cheerful diners and a dim sum palace.
"I actually didn't know the street existed prior [to moving here]," says Margaret Xu Yuan, chef and owner of Yin Yang. Xu was one of the first culinary stars to migrate to Ship Street in 2008, after an Urban Renewal Authority(URA) redevelopment project spruced up old heritage buildings such as the Woo Cheong pawn shop on Johnston Road, and tore down other tong lau (tenement buildings).
Xu moved to one of the area's few refurbished tong lau. "I was thinking of doing a food identity project for Hong Kong," she recalls. "Initially, I looked at the space where The Pawn is. It was too big, so I came over to Ship Street and fell in love with this space."
The narrow, three-floor tenement is in stark contrast to the modern monolithic apartments nearby. "When I first moved here it was quite a quiet street. Now it's busier. It's still not a destination as such. Everything is basically still the same here."
Well, not really. Other dining establishments arrived, such as Pizza Express, the casual Korean Baab, and Life Deli's organic vegetarianism. May's Cookies by local celebrity May Fung sits at the end of the street.
Alvin Leung's Michelin two-star Bo Innovation is on a second-floor space behind Yin Yang. Another Michelin-star chef, Jason Atherton, is the man behind the buzz at 22 Ships. The newest kid on the block is Qi House of Sichuan, opened by the people from Liberty Exchange.
But there was a time when Ship Street was a pier for, well, ships. As Xu explains, "I met the original landlords, a family named Tse, and I asked, 'Were there really ships on this street?' And they said there were. Before the land was reclaimed, ships docked here.
Xu, who serves traditional Cantonese food with locally sourced ingredients, brought the modern Bo Innovation to this location.
"I was introduced to this place by Margaret," the cigar-puffing and self-proclaimed Demon Chef, says. "I had some initial reservations. It wasn't a dining destination. The street had a hardware store, a stationery and print shop. There was even a fishing store. But I'm not surprised by the success. Wan Chai has become a place for dining, as the rent in Central and Lan Kwai Fong continues to go up."
Bo Innovation arrived in 2008. Technically, as tenants of J Senses, the address is on Johnston Road, even though the lift to the restaurant is on Ship Street. A year after the move, Bo Innovation earned two stars in Michelin's inaugural Hong Kong guide. Yet he declines to take credit for the street's rise in popularity.
"I'm just one of 20 places here. I think I made a mark with my two Michelin stars, which brought some interest and media. But what's important is that restaurants who came after me have made it a foodie street."
Bronwyn Cheung, owner of Madam Sixty Ate, says some customers thought the area was too remote. "When we first moved here, people would say, 'Where are you? Oh, you're in Wan Chai, it's so far.' But in the last year, it has got better. Things are getting more gentrified."
Ship wasn't always hip. It took entrepreneur Yenn Wong (of JIA Hotels and 208 Duecento Otto fame) to realise the potential of the one-way lane. "I live in Wan Chai, so I'm used to driving past it," she explains.
"For my concepts, I always look for some place not crazy-busy, but not mass market either. Wan Chai is very local, with a good mix of old and new. Ship Street is accessible but hidden. I also like to open up the space and try to create something at street level.
"22 Ship's two previous tenants failed, and the space was empty for a while. I was worried about the fung shui - maybe it's too near the haunted house." She is referring to the hill behind the north section of Ship Street, opposite Queen's Road. The stairs are next to some old abandoned houses. Among them is Nam Koo Terrace, which has long been claimed to be haunted. It is said the building was used as a military brothel during the Japanese occupation, and the comfort women who died there now haunt the surroundings. But the spirits do not seem to be spooking Ship Street now.
As traffic increases, the worry is that Ship Street could be a victim of its own success. Will its ambience disappear as quaint businesses are driven out by corporations and upscale brands?
Xu is hoping the URA will put preservation over profit when it comes to her historic tenement. "The landlord is very fair," Xu says. "They want something clean, as this will help preserve the building, so they are not imposing big increases on me."
Says Wong: "Ship Street is more affordable than a main street, but paying high rents is hard to avoid with food and beverage businesses," she admits. "We're paying very high rent, but it's all right if the turnover is ok."
There some uncertainty about the future of Ship Street. The URA is redeveloping to the east of the area, and Hopewell Holdings want to erect a mega hotel in the north, which will inevitably change the character of the district. If that happens, the ship may flounder.