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Kwun Tong neighbourhood guide - creative haven that's gentrifying

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 3:27pm

Kwun Tong's story is not unique. Most cities have an old industrial area where factories and warehouses emerge from obsolescence to become havens for artists, musicians, designers, entrepreneurs and anyone else looking for cheap rent. Kwun Tong is all Hong Kong: a peculiar blend of art and commerce in a landscape of grimy buildings that seem frozen in time.

Although it was a centre of salt production dating back to the late 1200s, Kwun Tong's modern history didn't kick off until the 1950s, when it was developed as Hong Kong's first new town. It soon became the roiling heart of working-class Hong Kong, a bastion of left-wing politics and a centre of manufacturing for everything from textiles to plastics to electrical appliances. In 1979, when the first MTR line opened, it led not to Central but to Kwun Tong.

When industrial production was relocated to China in the 1990s, Kwun Tong's empty, highly affordable industrial spaces were colonised by creative types; musicians were especially fond of the area.

In recent years, the government has rebranded the area as an upscale business district; developers such as Swire Properties have already opened swanky new office towers. But Kwun Tong's creative community are not going to give up without a fight: efforts to promote the area's gentrification have been met with protests.

PIER PLEASURE

If you're coming from Hong Kong Island, follow in the wake of factory workers and commute by ferry. Boats from North Point take you to the dilapidated Kwun Tong ferry pier, where soaring waiting halls and rusted ceiling fans hint at a more bustling past. Half the pier is vacant, but its eerie atmosphere has proved welcoming to art festivals such as last year's Around Sound.

Next to the pier you'll find another sign of Kwun Tong's evolution: a newly extended waterfront promenade with rust-coloured structures that evoke the site's previous incarnation as a recycling depot. Halfway along the shore is the Energising Kowloon East Office, ground zero for the government's effort to turn Kwun Tong into a new business district while retaining some of its cultural character. Though it hosts regular events such as Fly the Flyover, a chair-themed art show that runs until May 27, the office has been boycotted by many of the neighbourhood's creative types.

"I love that the creative community has energised the neighbourhood in an organic way, contrary to the forced and superficial revitalisation efforts by EKEO," says designer Michael Leung, who ran a studio and rooftop farm in the area for several years.

COFFEE AND CURIOS

For a glimpse at Kwun Tong's future, step into the glossy marble-clad lobby of One Landmark East, where you can order a top-notch shot of locally roasted coffee at Caffè Essenza. That should provide you with enough fuel to explore another side of Kwun Tong's regeneration: discount shopping at the Camelpaint Buildings, which are filled with outlet stores for fashion brands such as Initial. food and drink outlets include IC Beer, which stocks a range of craft brews from Belgium, the US and beyond.

Looking for a surprise? Take a look inside Simple Living, where Fung Wing-kuen has filled 7,000 sq ft with old bicycles, vintage lamps and other things you never knew you needed. "At first I just collected cameras, but later on I couldn't stop," says Fung.

His latest thing: old metal clamps and pipes, which are prized by designers for creating industrial-themed furniture.

TRAY CHIC

When your stomach starts rumbling, look for one of the many restaurants inside industrial buildings, a legacy of the days when factory workers needed quick and affordable food to keep them going. Surrounded by corrugated metal, Kokon2 is a stylish newcomer to the Kwun Tong Industrial Centre; it offers affordable bento boxes for lunch and sushi platters in the evening. Similarly cosy is Coffee Art, where you can buy pasta, breakfast fry-ups and good coffee.

ART OF THE DISTRICT

Kwun Tong's business-friendly makeover has taken its toll on the neighbourhood's cultural scene. While Osage Kwun Tong once boasted the most spacious private art space in the city, the contemporary art gallery has been forced to downsize its former 15,000 sq ft home for more modest digs. But it's still one of the most exciting art destinations in town, with a roster of local artists including Wilson Shieh and Leung Mee-ping.

These days, what remains of the area's creative energy can be seen at the pop-up craft markets and parties in spaces like A Nice Place To … and the rooftop of the Easy-Pack Industrial Building, which is home to designers such as the Cave Workshop. This year saw the debut of Sunday Agenda, a monthly flea market and music festival at Hidden Agenda, a stalwart venue that has survived government raids to become the city's top indie music venue.

You can even take a furniture-making workshop with Start From Zero, the street art crew that now invests its anti-establishment ethos in tables and chairs.

For HK$800, you can join a small group and make your own wooden stool.

The same industrious spirit prevails at tfvsjs, "Originally we were an independent post-rock band," says trumpet player Thomas Lam. When a rent hike forced them out of their original practice room, they found a 4,000 sq ft space on Tai Yip Street, on the western edge of Kwun Tong.

They converted part of the unit into a band practice room and recording studio, but with more than enough space to spare, they decided to open an eatery. Aside from bass player Sean Yuen, who has worked as a chef at a number of fine-dining restaurants, they had no restaurant experience. "We made our own furniture, did our own decoration — we even learned soldering," says Lam.

Mismatched furniture is complemented by vintage Chinese shop signs collected by guitarist Adonian Chan. The food is equally accomplished — Lam makes a mint-ginger mocktail while Yuen whips up a dessert of home-made frozen yogurt, green apple sorbet and two kinds of dehydrated beetroot.

The space also hosts lectures, musical events and others, but Lam isn't optimistic about the future of Kwun Tong's creative scene. "It really depends on the rent," he says.

At least tfvsjs's future is secure. "Before the restaurant we were friends who played together, but now we have another kind of bond."

Kwun Tong: places you need to know

 

EAT AND DRINK

Caffè Essenza One Landmark East, 100 How Ming Street, tel: 2950 0130, caffeessenza.hk

Kokon2 Unit B, 1/F Kwun Tong Industrial Centre, 436-484 Kwun Tong Road, tel: 5991 6033

Coffee Art G46, E-Plaza, 7 Shing Yip Street, tel: 5403 7883

tfvsjs Unit B, 10/F Gee Luen Factory Building, 316-318 Kwun Tong Road, tel: 2415 4999

 

SEE AND SHOP

IC Beer Unit M, 4/F, Block 3, Camelpaint Building, 60-62 Hoi Yuen Road, icbeer.com

Simple Living 13/F World Interests Building, 8 Tsun Yip Lane, tel: 3118 0687 (by appointment only)

A Nice Place To… Unit F, 5/F, Block 4, Kwun Tong Industrial Centre, 436-484 Kwun Tong Road, tel: 3188 5152

Easy-Pack Industrial Building 140 Wai Yip Street, tel: 3568 2416

Hidden Agenda Unit A, 2/F Winful Industrial Building, 15-17 Tai Yip Street, tel: 9170 6073, hiddenagenda.hk

Start From Zero 7/F Yat Sun Building, 13 Tai Yip Street