The second coming of Sham Shui Po: revelation or revolt at gentrification?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 5:57pm

This spring, when French street artist Space Invader was looking for friendly walls to mount his tile-based art, he found an enthusiastic response in a place far from the galleries and graffiti of Sheung Wan: Sham Shui Po.

"The reception was really good," says Lauren Every-Wortman, a curator at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation, which sponsored Space Invader's most recent trip to Hong Kong.

Stanley Siu Kwok-kin was one of those who invited the street artist to work on his building's facade. "It's the biggest piece he's done in Hong Kong so far," he says. Siu recently moved the art gallery he runs with two friends, 100 Square Feet, to a first-floor space above the teeming Apliu Street market. "I sent him a picture of the exterior and he said, 'Wow'. He liked Apliu Street."

We’ve started exploring areas we feel we have potential; areas we can gentrify in a good way
Yenn Wong, entrepreneur

Space Invader isn't the only one enthusiastic about Sham Shui Po. Many Hongkongers will tell you it's a good place to pick up electronics parts (and second-hand goods) - but be sure to watch your bag.

In the past few years, however, a new generation of creative entrepreneurs have found the working-class neighbourhood to be a haven of low rents and friendly neighbours.

That's especially true in the textile district south of Nam Cheong Street, where many wholesalers have been forced out of business as the small-scale industries and manufacturers that they supplied left for cheaper pastures. Some holdouts have been replaced by new businesses run by young designers who are banding together to help promote the neighbourhood in a newsletter and on social media.

"This whole fabric district is turning into something special," says Michael Tam Kam-kwong, the owner of Cafe Sausalito, a coffee shop that opened in the heart of the fabric district last November. "You can really feel it's almost a second coming."

Even bigger changes are in the works.

Yenn Wong Pui-yain, the entrepreneur behind restaurants such as Aberdeen Street Social and Duddell's, has joined her husband Alan Lo Yeung-kit - founder of The Pawn and Classified - to open a 150-bed "luxury hostel" on Apliu Street. When it opens in three or four years' time, it will boast a design by Thomas Heatherwick (known for his recent revamp of Pacific Place), a swimming pool and a restaurant/bar.

"Sham Shui Po is somewhere that has a lot of history and is very cultural. I think there's a lot of interesting elements that are popping up there," says Wong, whose first hospitality project was the JIA Hotel (now J Plus Hotel by YOO) in Causeway Bay. "We've started exploring areas we feel we have potential; areas we can gentrify in a good way."

Some residents are sceptical about this notion of benign gentrification. The Urban Renewal Authority has already slated some parts of the neighbourhood for redevelopment; will the rest follow in the footsteps of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, working-class neighbourhoods that have become hip playgrounds for affluent professionals and business executives?

"It's a chain reaction," says Patricia Choi Pui-yee, a designer who has lived in the area since 2006. "The new buildings push up the property prices for the whole area. People will have to move out."

If that happens, the consequences could be dire: Sham Shui Po is one of the last affordable neighbourhoods in central Hong Kong, a place where poor families can live in close proximity to jobs, the MTR and a tight-knit community of social groups and small businesses.

"Sham Shui Po is unique because of its inclusiveness - it lets low-income and deprived groups survive," says Natalie Yau Pui-shan, from the Society for Community Organisation, a non-profit group that works with Hong Kong's marginalised people. "There's a strong sense of community cohesion."

Building on those community networks may be a way to avoid the worst effects of urban renewal and gentrification.

For nearly 10 years, Choi has managed an 11-storey building built by her grandfather on Lai Chi Kok Road. Bit by bit, she has turned it into a creative hub called Wontonmeen, with rooms for artists, musicians and designers.

"Sham Shui Po has such a strong local community, but when I started to live here I didn't know much about it. It took time. It's all about communication and understanding, rather than saying, 'I don't care, I'm just doing my thing'," she says.

Wontonmeen serves as an incubator for small enterprises: Choi is in the process of renovating a ground-floor retail space to provide a home to the upstart Urban Coffee Roasters and Beau Architects. But it also serves as a conduit between creative newcomers to Sham Shui Po and the area's grass-roots residents. Choi works with local craftsmen on design projects, and she has partnered with the nearby Fresh Fish Traders' School to offer students a study space. "It's about engaging the community to do good for this area rather than just making money," she says.

Cafe Sausalito owner Tam shares a similar philosophy. Born in Hong Kong and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he wanted to replicate the Silicon Valley atmosphere of the cafe he worked in as a teenager. He invites other businesses to sell their wares in the cafe on the weekend; during the week, designers and crafts enthusiasts stop by to ask about the neighbourhood's wholesalers.

"I'm becoming like Saul from Breaking Bad - 'I know a guy who knows a guy'," he says with a laugh. "I try to refer them to the older shops because I hope I can help them survive."

Around the corner from Cafe Sausalito, in a four-storey shophouse built in 1945, designers Rex Yam Wing-cheong and Joey Ku Cho-yiu run 22 Degrees North, a boutique, workshop space and art gallery. Sprawling across three storeys and 2,400 sq ft, Yam says it costs the same to rent as a 300sqft space in Sheung Wan.

But Yam isn't in the district only to save money: he came because of its history of small-scale industrial production.

"Art, design, craftsmanship - that's the style of Sham Shui Po," he says.

Last year, in collaboration with Patricia Choi, Yam started publishing a local newsletter to attract people to the neighbourhood's businesses, many of which have been around for generations.

Next month, Yam is spearheading an open-door event that will include public workshops at a family-run letterpress shop that has been open since the 1950s.

He is also working to get permission from the government to run a regular flea market for young entrepreneurs. (Choi is also planning one that will take place in the Maple Street Playground in August.) Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the informal Sham Shui Po night market around Pei Ho Street has begun to attract young creative types, despite the threat of being fined by hawker control officers.

"There are post-'90s kids selling clothes and stuff," says designer Michael Leung Chi-kong, who worked on an event that saw designers sell their wares at the night market.

Since then, he has noticed more and more new faces among the hawkers. He thinks their presence could safeguard the market, which is otherwise populated by elderly people selling used goods to supplement their old age allowances. "By having these hipsters here, dialogue does happen," he says.

"It's about adaptation," Leung adds. "What if the gentrifiers were very aware, considerate and honest about their role? It's about establishing connections, not ignoring your neighbours."

Choi says she hopes that is a lesson applied to the future Apliu Street hostel. "There should be a big non-profit side to it; some way to give back to the community," she says. "Underprivileged people should enjoy nice design as well."

Wong says she feels a sense of responsibility to the area. "We don't want to be one of those developers that just puts in a new and shiny building in an area like Sham Shui Po. We want it to fit in," she says.

Before the hostel opens, the existing three-storey building may be converted into an artist-run space. After its completion, Wong plans to sell locally sourced products, and she is thinking of hiring staff from the neighbourhood.

"We can only do our part in making sure we don't kill the whole neighbourhood by gentrifying it in a bad way," she says. "But Hong Kong is such an open market that it's not something we can control. I can't stop other people from coming in. That's why we want to be sensitive to the area and do the right thing."