Bang goes the neighbourhood! Residents worry as Wan Chai gets trendy makeover

The makeover of western Wan Chai's diverse enclaves is bringing worries as well as new opportunities, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 6:01pm

Wan Chai once conjured up images of Suzie Wong, rowdy sailors on shore leave and pickled drinkers in dingy bars.

Over the past dozen years that vision has been steadily superseded by the rise of concept restaurants and hip cocktail hangouts such as those around Star Street, although old hands might balk at the notion of those trendy enclaves being part of Wan Chai. "That's not Wan Chai," scoffs one regular, "That's Admiralty East."

His reference to Wan Chai's slicker neighbour points to a series of major new properties that sprouted up at the western end of the district, including Three Pacific Place in 2004. Repurposed sites such as The Pawn bar and restaurant, which occupies a three-storey historic building, along with the chic new eateries that opened around Ship Street have attracted growing numbers of young professionals and business people to Wan Chai.

These old communities are very rare ... They're not being protected
Him lo, artist and curator of hong kong house of stories 

Adjacent developments such as the Generali Tower and 28 Hennessy Road (both built by Swire) strengthened the trend, significantly altering the demographics of the neighbourhood.

Yenn Wong, owner of the JIA Group, was a key figure in turning Ship Street into the destination it is today. Her decision to open the popular 22 Ships restaurant and, more recently, its buzzing sister outlet, Ham & Sherry, solidified that aura: Wan Chai was hot.

"We were looking for an accessible location with a surrounding area that is busy seven days a week. We wanted a location with a bit of an edge that hadn't been fully explored yet," Wong says, "The space we saw on Ship Street fitted all of the requirements."

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Its smart hangouts have attracted new residents such as design director Christina Luk. She moved to the Ship Street area because it is "relatively new, quieter and has lots of good restaurants and bars to go to".

The Ship Street area is more Westernised and "its own bubble", she adds. Before its transformation, Luk says she wouldn't have considered living in the district: "The rest of Wan Chai is really hectic and I don't usually hang out there. Lockhart Road is pretty obnoxious."

Wan Chai is more a set of micro-neighbourhoods than a homogenous whole. One of the city's oldest districts, it was a fishing village 150 years ago.

A series of reclamation projects beginning in 1921 extended its reach; well known roads such as Johnston, Tonnochy and Luard were all built on reclaimed land and have grown into commercial areas near the new waterfront. Until the 1950s, however, the district remained mostly residential, particularly enclaves closer to inland slopes.

"Wan Chai is interesting because it is very complex with five separate coastlines and different areas that all have different kinds of people," says Him Lo Lok-him, an artist and curator of the Hong Kong House of Stories, a folk museum occupying a pre-war shophouse.

"The area around Stone Nullah Lane is full of old-time residents; towards the sea it's more commercial and full of office workers. You can experience many different Hong Kong lifestyles in Wan Chai."

But big complexes and fancy dining places are transforming micro-neighbourhoods such as those around Stone Nullah Lane and Star and Ship streets. An estimated 600,000 people now crowd into Wan Chai every day to work or play, nearly six times its permanent population.

Long-time residents are feeling the squeeze.

"Because this is an old neighbourhood, the development is good for appearances, it makes the area look more attractive, but in reality it's affecting the residents," says Apple Wan Sau-ping, a community activist in her 40s, who was born in Wan Chai and has worked there most of her adult life.

"The new bars and hotels are very glamorous, but . . . in terms of noise and basic respect, our community is not being respected. Richer people are coming in and investing a lot of money without thinking of us."

District councillor Lee Kwun-yee says her constituents are frustrated with the changes as chic eateries and nightspots invade quiet streets where they have lived for decades. Noise levels have gone up and continue late into the night, the smells of food fill the air.

"Every day I get calls from residents from the bar area complaining about noise which is really disturbing their lives," Lee says.

She refers most complaints to the police but they have been slow to respond and business owners mostly turn a deaf ear.

Lo laments the transformations on Star Street, in particular. "It used to be like the area around the Blue House - a community. But 10 years ago it started changing. Now it is all cafes or high-priced restaurants.

"In a lot of these old neighbourhoods, the people have lived there their whole lives. When you talk to them they can still remember what it was like when they were kids, and those stories are valuable for Hong Kong people - so you know where you are from and what happened in our city.

"These old communities are very rare, and though the government has some initiatives to preserve them, they're not really being implemented. They're not being protected."

Many long-time residents are being pushed out by escalating rents. "For me, it's sad because the residents don't have any organisations, social workers or professionals to talk to them or give them advice. They don't have any choices. They don't even know what's going on."

On her part, councillor Lee continues to fight back: she is organising a petition to require future applicants for liquor licences in the area to close by 9pm so residents can get some peace.

Lee believes she will have no problem collecting signatures from residents, and says she will present their request to the Liquor Licensing Board once she has gathered 400 to 500.

"Then all the family members can have family time every day, without noise intruding from the outside."

Her proposed 9pm shutdown is laughed off by bar and restaurant owners, who say they would not make enough to cover even the rent if they had to close that early.

Newcomers such as Jonathan Glover, who opened The Butchers Club burger restaurant in Landale Street last month, hopes to keep the buzz going well into the night in western Wan Chai.

"There's a great lunch time trade in that part of Wan Chai and a great dinner trade, and if we could get a great late-night trade, we've done it."

Glover had considered locating his burger joint in more traditional late-night areas, but found the vibe did not mesh with his brand. "We looked at Lockhart Road and it was just too sleazy. We would have ended up selling burgers and being The Old China Hand."

But Glover sees his restaurant as a continuation of a long-time practice in Hong Kong for similar shops to open close to each other.

"You go to Johnston Road, and there are 30 shops that only sell power tools," says Glover. That could apply to burgers, too, with Beef & Liberty, Ted's Lookout and Slims joining the dining scene, Glover says. "We thought let's open there ... The area will be the burger capital of Hong Kong."

Meantime, barflies worried that their old haunts might be gussied up beyond recognition can breathe easy. Stop by Lockhart Road any weekend night, (or early morning), and it's evident that the more infamous face of Wan Chai is alive and well even if long-time watering holes such as Delaney's Irish Pub and The Old China Hand are being given slicker looks.

Delaney's founder Noel Smyth says his Luard Road fixture, the city's first Irish pub which celebrates its 20th anniversary in August, has made record profits for the first half of this year. "It's still amazingly busy," he says. "Lockhart Road hasn't changed a great deal. It's still as vibrant as ever."

Still, he admits that there is a sense of change in the air. "There's a new breed of people in town who would be more familiar with that [Western] side of it, who probably have never experienced the older, Suzie Wong Wan Chai. So, yeah, that has definitely changed."

It is only a matter of time before the two halves of Wan Chai reconcile with each other, Smyth says, and the older generation of business owners are paying attention.

"Will those locations attract new customers to Wan Chai? Generally, the pie can't get much bigger; they're just going to take a little slice out of somebody else's business," Smyth says.

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