It's a familiar story: cheap rents draw independent businesses to a working-class enclave, transforming its car body shops and recycling depots into eccentric shops and eateries. Located between Haven Street and Caroline Hill Road at the back of Causeway Bay, the neighbourhood dubbed Caroline Haven seems to be following the same path as its cousins around Tai Ping Shan Street and Star Street.
But there's a difference. Rather than tong lau, this discreet corner is dominated by hulking apartment blocks from the 1960s. Much of the action here takes place in grimy shopping arcades that thread through the ground floor of these enormous buildings. It's a blessing and a curse, lending the area a distinctive atmosphere but leaving it vulnerable to property developers, which are slowly acquiring flats inside the buildings that make up the neighbourhood.
"I hope the property companies don't get majority ownership, because if they don't tear down these buildings, this will become a really hip area," says Kosei Kamatani.
Five years ago, the 30-year-old entrepreneur opened a frozen yogurt shop at the corner of Haven Street and Leighton Road, drawn by the unusual mix of affordable rent and heavy pedestrian traffic.
"It has a hidden-away feeling," he says. "It's one of the last bastions of old Hong Kong in Causeway Bay."
Kamatani now owns four businesses around Caroline Haven, including a pizzeria, a ramen shop, a shisha bar and an exceedingly popular Japanese ice cream parlour. In recent years they have been joined by a wave of new cafes, restaurants and boutiques. "People didn't notice this area before," says Kamatani. "But now they see the potential."
START THE DAY
Open since early July, Cafe Yawn inspires just the opposite, with a selection of hand-dripped coffee (beans from Panama and Ethiopia were offered on our most recent visit) and excellent espresso. The pastry selection includes the trendy "ball law croissant," an unholy union between the French Viennoiserie and a Hong Kong pineapple bun. Like most of the retail spaces around Caroline Haven, Yawn is tiny, but it offers a range of seating options including communal tables and bar seating.
If the perfectly-pulled espresso you are sipping inspires you to up your coffee game, you're in luck: Caffe Habitu's Coffee Academy and Roasting Studio is located just across the street, offering appointment-only workshops on brewing and tasting.
For a more traditional morning tipple, venture inside the bowels of Lei Shun Court, where you'll find two old-school fast food joints with dai pai dong-style seating. Both Tong Kee Fast Food and Sun Tong Sum Cafeteria offer the kind of honest-to-goodness Hong Kong comfort food that is being quickly gentrified out of existence in many central neighbourhoods. A meal of omelette and toast with milk tea at Tong Kee is a particularly robust way to start the day.
The fluorescent-lit arcades between Haven Street and Caroline Hill Road house a mix of workshops, restaurants and newly opened shops with a vintage aesthetic. Hola Classic started two years ago and sells a selection of tailored menswear.
"It's new style but classic," says owner Peggy Yeung, whose partner, Raymond Lun, designs the clothes. With caddy hats and patterned tweed, these are the kind of suits you'd wear while drinking craft cocktails from a mason jar.
Retro is the word at Mooishop, which stocks furniture and accessories from the 1960s and '70s: painted metal lampshades, coffee tables with inset tile patterns and early Polaroid cameras. Owners Arthur Yung and Erica Chan have catalogued each and every item on their website. Be sure to call ahead before you visit because the shop closes when Yung and Chan are delivering furniture.
Nearby, there is another window into a bygone era: one of Hong Kong's last speciality bowling shops.
"We do anything related to bowling," says Chiu Wing-yau, who has run Bowling A-One Proshop for 10 years. That includes selling and maintenance of balls, shoes and pins. Business comes mainly by word of mouth. "There are only five or six bowling alleys left in Hong Kong," says Chiu.
Not all of Caroline Haven's shops have an eye to the past. One of its most recent arrivals, Numb Workshop, stocks a contemporary unisex range of monochrome clothes and accessories. A black city bike looms over the shop from a cockloft.
"Functional, comfortable urban mobility is the core concept," says owner Chan Miu — bags and clothes that look good whether you're on the MTR or riding your bike.
Until September 8, Numb is also playing host to Go-Sees, a programme that pairs international artists with shops across Macau and Hong Kong. A mechanical sculpture by local artist Chilai Howard Cheng sits at the back of the shop; when activated, it whips its power cord like a cowboy herding cattle.
Some neighbourhoods lend themselves to long, drawn-out dinners. Caroline Haven, on the other hand, is a snacker's paradise, with a panoply of takeaway joints and small restaurants serving light meals. Via Tokyo is one of the most popular, with Japanese soft-serve ice cream in flavours including green tea and hojicha. It regularly attracts a crowd that spills out of the door and goes down the block.
Waffills serves up crunchy Belgian waffles, while down the street, Musang King specialises in all things durian, from pancakes to ice cream. Hogology offers Taiwanese-style pork chops in a space filled with nostalgic tchotchkes. Danish Bakery is a beloved 41-year-old institution that churns out decadent fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, all of it nestled inside sweet, chewy buns. Relative newcomer Little Burro is a California-style Mexican joint with excellent, enormous burritos that can be washed down with well-priced craft beer and margaritas.
Kosei Kamatani prefers to take it easy. When he isn't slurping down noodles at his own restaurant, Ramen Jo, he heads to Delicious Thai, an easy-going spot with plenty of outdoor seating that makes for good people-watching. "You see a lot of familiar faces," he says.
EAT & DRINK
9 Haven Street, tel: 26411511
Caffe Habitu Coffee Academy and Roasting Studio
1/F Haven Court, 128 Leighton Road, tel: 3104 0075, caffehabitu.com
Tong Kee Fast Food
Caroline Hill Court, 15 Caroline Hill Road, tel: 2577 2908
Sun Tong Sum Cafeteria
Shop A, Lei Wen Court, 23 Haven Street, tel: 2576 0722
106 Leighton Road, tel: 2895 1116
124 Leighton Road, tel: 2613 9600
28 Haven Street, tel: 2618 9032
122 Leighton Road, tel: 2805 6665
106 Leighton Road, tel: 2576 7353
125 Leighton Road, tel: 2336 3909, little-burro.com
3 Caroline Hill Road, tel: 2885 0638
33 Haven Street, tel: 2577 7822
17A Haven Street, tel: 2870 0245, facebook.com/holaclassic
25 Haven Street, tel: 2312 7007, numb.hk
25 Haven Street, tel: 2882 1384, mooishop.net
Bowling A-One Proshop
Lei Ha Court, 11A Haven Street, tel: 2577 7668