The area around Wan Chai's Sun, Moon and Star streets offers a haven from the city
Hong Kong may be a throbbing hub of rampant capitalism, but it still has pockets of solitude
Not long ago, I overheard a conversation between a middle-aged French-Canadian couple standing on Moon Street, guidebook in hand. "Apparently, this is one of the last authentic neighbourhoods left," said one of them, looking around. "You know, with little shops and low density, as opposed to all those giant monstrosities you see everywhere else."
It wasn't an unfair assessment. Through a quirk of geography, Star, Sun, Moon and St Francis streets have become an island of tranquility in a congested city. Settled in 1889, when Hong Kong's first power plant opened nearby, the area was for decades a working-class residential enclave. That changed after 2004, when Swire Properties opened Three Pacific Place, which attracted thousands of office workers and a new crop of bars and restaurants to make their office-bound lives more tolerable.
Even as the high-rises encroach, the neighbourhood's dead-end streets, narrow alleyways and leafy squares retain their quietude, a quality complemented by an eclectic range of businesses that see the area's calm as an asset.
"All of this makes the neighbourhood very precious," says architect Christopher Law. Three years ago, Law's firm, the Oval Partnership, worked with Swire and the government to revamp the area's public spaces. "We wanted to create spaces that the whole community will use as an extension of their flat; spaces where everyone feels welcome," he says.
Wake up the Hong Kong way with French toast and milk tea at Duk Yu, a cha chaan teng on St Francis Yard. Grab a seat indoors, where menu items are scrawled in black marker on the white-tiled walls, or on the street next to the green tea stall that is one of the city's last surviving dai pai dong.
If it's espresso you need, nip around the corner to St Francis Street, where an eponymous cafe grinds up beans from Britain's Nude Coffee Roasters, alongside accessories from British designers such as Ally Capellino.
"In East London, street-side cafes are an essential part of daily life," says co-owner and former London resident Wing Lo. "This area reminds us of Shoreditch," says his partner, Mark Chan. "The interesting thing is that it retained that old Hong Kong feel to it."
Central yet removed, the area around St Francis Yard serves as an incubator for interesting local businesses. Chief among them is Kapok, which founder Arnault Castel relocated to the area from Tin Hau in 2008. Since then, the design shop has spread to six more locations around Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore, including a flagship branch on Sun Street, which (like many of the area's boutiques) includes a coffee bar. With its mix of intriguing imports and products from local designers, not to mention its frequent parties and product launches, Kapok planted the seed for the neighbourhood's globetrotting, casual-chic character to emerge.
That personality has drawn a growing number of global lifestyle brands. "It's one of the most interesting shopping areas in Asia right now," says Tyler Brûlé, founder of jet-setter bible Monocle, whose Hong Kong shop — one of four in the world — opened on St Francis Yard in 2010.
Other international arrivals include stylish New York fragrance-maker Le Labo and British designer Timothy Oulton, who recently opened a two-storey furniture emporium in the area.
Wudai Shiguo is a deceptively large basement emporium of Americana-inspired menswear and accessories. Just around the corner, the pedestrian-only precinct of Sau Wa Fong is now filled with distinctive boutiques such as the Architectz' Factory, a treasure trove of vintage miscellanea, and Incredibles, which offers rugged menswear from brands such as raw denim specialists Tellason Jeans.
Another standout is Jouer Atelier, a macaron bakery that is filled with vintage home accessories and other curios. Opened earlier this year by pastry chef Anne Cheung, it lives up to its name with playful presentations and a daily macaron menu that reads like lunch at a French restaurant: blue cheese, onion soup and tarte aux pommes.
Steep streets and plenty of steps make this an easy place to work up a sweat. Luckily, there is no shortage of spots to unwind. Since it opened in 2012, TED's Lookout has become a popular venue for a relaxed tipple, thanks to its outdoor alleyway seating and extensive cocktail list. It seems especially well suited to the hot weather, with fresh spins on classics such as the pisco sour and mint julep.
Nearby, Amical Coffee offers a less boozy way to relax and recharge. "Amical means friendly, happy and cosy — I wanted to create all these qualities here," says owner Queenie Tse.
All of Amical's coffees are roasted in Hong Kong and can be enjoyed in the cafe's quiet first-floor space, which includes a leafy terrace overlooking Sun Street.
"People seem to love the terrace, especially since it's not at street level," says Tse.
Navigating Hong Kong's Sun, Moon and Star streets
17-18 St Francis Yard, tel: 2528 0713
St Francis Street
5 St Francis Yard, tel: 2549 9254, ka-pok.com
4 Sau Wa Fong, tel: 2529 8638, incredibleshophk.com
17A Moon Street, tel: 2520 0076