YOU DON'T THINK of Kennedy Town as a culinary destination, but something's sure cooking in the neighbourhood. New restaurants and bakeries are popping up in the area to cater for residents moving into new high-end residential towers. And with a MTR station set to open there next year, the trend is likely to continue.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Hau Wo Street, a stone's throw from the waterfront. The block-long strip boasts Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Italian, Belgian and Spanish eateries - and has added a few more to the list in recent months.
On this strip, Gary Cheuk Shiu-kuen opened the Pavilion Gourmet deli in January. "As a Hongkonger, I was interested in setting up shop where I grew up," says Cheuk, who lived for nine years in Switzerland, where he studied hotel management.
"When one looks at other districts on Hong Kong Island, there isn't really much potential … and Kennedy Town was an obvious choice for me," says Cheuk, formerly of Sai Kung's one-thirtyone French restaurant.
"Change is inevitable in Hong Kong. And here in Kennedy Town [as well as] Pok Fu Lam and Southside, the cache of potential customers is a mix of locals and expats. What I bring to the table neighbourhood is speciality goods with a neighbourhood feel.
"I have clients who come specifically to pick up goods they can't find in other delis," Cheuk says, ticking off pork cheek bacon (guanciale), beef carpaccio and fine fresh produce.
"It is rare to find French Philibon melon or Japanese ice lettuce in town. In a place like Hong Kong, having a niche is important."
The deli has two freezers filled with high-end gourmet goods from Europe including Iberico baby pork racks, Challandais duck breasts and free-range chicken breasts from France. The shelves upstairs hold jams, vinegars, pickles, pasta and sauces.
With his Macanese partner, Cheuk imports cheese, ham and wines - and mans the cash register himself.
"After being a chef for so long, one longs for a change of pace," Cheuk says. "It's a learning curve. While this line of work is a slower pace compared to being a chef, I think more long-term - once the business can sustain itself, I can work on new projects. For now, I am happy bringing in gourmet products to a discerning clientele."
Next door is Cake's Secret, opened by chef James Chim Yik-shun, who previously worked for Maxim's and Sevva. The bakery recently celebrated its first anniversary.
Chim says that while other entrepreneurs might be put off by the low volume of foot traffic in the area, he likes the quiet location.
"I felt the space on Hau Wo Street was inspirational. Rent is always an issue in Hong Kong and I knew I wanted to stay on Hong Kong Island. Kennedy Town turned out to be the perfect place for me to take what I have learned and implement it to suit the taste of my customers."
Cake's Secret has 19 dishes on the menu such as apple crumble tart, lemon tart and the purple sweet potato cake. The green tea and red bean cake, a twist on the beloved Cantonese dessert, is lightly sweetened and fluffy, and is dusted with green tea powder.
The shop has attracted some fans, including a housewife who says she buys mango tarts only from Chim, university students who make weekly trips and one Macau resident who comes all the way to Hong Kong just to pick up a cake.
To mark the shop's anniversary, Chim will make two new desserts: a cotton candy cake (chocolate cake with layers of white chocolate cream, and covered in purple icing) and mango mousse, made of fresh puréed fruit, passion fruit cream and macarons.
"In Hong Kong, the taste of the everyday man has changed in the past few years," says Chim. "My cakes are not very sweet. For years, I've been baking and following the lead of my former managers and was forced to put aside what I had learned before [working for them].
"Now, I get to bake for my customers with my heart. There is a sense of satisfaction running one's own business," he says.
Similarly, Chan Tai-man, of Vietnamese restaurant The Lotus, speaks highly of Kennedy Town's relaxed atmosphere. Also on Hau Wo Street, the restaurant serves drip coffee, spring rolls and, of course, pho.
"Here … it's still very quiet when you compare it to places like Wan Chai [where The Lotus' original branch is located], and we've been here for nine months," says Chan.
"The living is better and the district is right next to the water. Around the neighbourhood, Hau Wo has become well known as the street for eats. The restaurants leverage off each other and often absorb any overflow of customers."
Down the road is the 10-year-old Arashigawa Yakitori restaurant, known for its Japanese skewers. Chan Kwok-chu, the proprietor (who has another restaurant on Jervois Street in Sheung Wan) says he enjoys the neighbourhood feel of Kennedy Town.
Chan has seen many changes in the area since he set up shop.
"When I first moved in, my neighbours were dried fish and medicine shops," says the 55-year-old, who treats his staff like family and can be found playing mahjong with them during the split shifts.
"In relative terms, Kennedy Town has mostly been an affluent district for older residents, where the streets would be deserted by 9pm. Before the construction of the Tsing Ma Bridge, the water would be dark, the streets empty. Today, the waterfront is beautiful and sparkling and at 11pm, you can see young people wandering around. It's relaxing."
Chan attributes Arashigawa's staying power to the varied menu, which features New Zealand lamb chops, chicken wings and Brazilian beef tongue (only the middle part is grilled, with the rest saved for braising).
"We serve small dishes which are top quality. For typical Chinese food, however, it's large dishes of rice and meat," he says.
"We have former [Kennedy Town] residents who come back to visit. "We also have car and bike clubs from Pok Fu Lam who come for a bite to eat. Our clientele is very diverse," he adds.
"Kennedy Town is a special place and it is my wish that, with the help of the government, we could preserve it.
"A walking and biking area along the promenade would be great for people. Imagine being able to cycle from North Point to Kennedy Town. Even connecting Western District to Central would be a first step," Chan says. "What makes Hong Kong Island special is our harbour."
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