West Island MTR line has led to the rapid gentrification of Kennedy Town

Kennedy Town's rapid gentrification is being spurred by construction of the West Island Line, and there are concerns that the area's overhaul will sacrifice character for commerce, writes Enid Tsui

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 9:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 9:56am

An old monument tucked behind the public toilet on Sai Ning Street is a discreet reminder of Kennedy Town's insalubrious past. The 103-year-old archway and foundation stone of the Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital are among the few remnants of a collection of uninviting establishments that have occupied the area.

For a long time, the western end of Hong Kong island was the end of the road. Today, the Kennedy Town abattoir is gone and the Victoria public mortuary is set to be relocated. The macabre no longer has a place in the historic district as it undergoes gentrification.

They are now paying up to HK$5,000 a month for a tiny room in the few remaining tenement
Edmond Wong, Senior social worker

The West Island Line, scheduled to open later this year, has been the main impetus for change. Better transport links will make Kennedy Town, the line's terminus, a viable home for many.

Private developers have been replacing old tenement buildings with luxury apartment blocks since the line was first tabled in the early 2000s. With characteristic audacity, they are now selling flats in Kennedy Town at Mid-Levels prices. Many restaurateurs have also arrived to cater to new, moneyed residents.

But Kennedy Town retains the essence of a down-to-earth, working-class neighbourhood. Its residents still include technicians from the Whitty Street Tram Depot, where shifts often start before dawn. The China Merchants Group (CMG) continues to use its godowns, and kaito services ply the waters between the Western District Public Cargo Working Area and outlying islands.

A more comprehensive makeover is looming. A land use review by the government's Planning Department says existing industrial buildings and godowns are "incompatible" with what is now a largely residential neighbourhood.

Talks are under way to change the zoning of the CMG godowns and wharf from industrial to commercial, leisure and tourism-related uses. The department has also earmarked the former Mount Davis Cottage Area, a shanty town established by mainland refugees, the Married Police Officers Quarters, and the former abattoir among the areas for residential use.

Edmond Wong, a senior social worker at the Caritas Community Centre on Pokfield Road, is pleased that much of the land will be used for public housing.

"Many tenement buildings have been bought out by private developers. The owners may get compensation, but their tenants in partitioned flats have nowhere to go.

"Many are unwilling to leave the area because of work and education. They are now paying up to HK$5,000 a month for a tiny room in the few remaining tenement buildings left. Their only hope is to get into the public housing system."

The government has also promised to turn over more of the waterfront to the public. It is ready to release four piers at the Western Wholesale Food Market for public use, and the Central and Western District Council plans to build a promenade with funds from the HK$100-million Signature Project Scheme.

Open space is scarce in urban Hong Kong, and Kennedy Town's enviable waterfront means it has the potential to become a major nightlife destination.

On the New Praya, Ben Ho is overseeing preparations for another restaurant. The Hong Kong operational manager for Singapore's Les Amis Group of restaurants runs Piccolo Pizzeria & Bar and Bistro Du Vin in Davis Street. Ho is also helping another Singaporean investor develop the Fish & Chick restaurant.

"This market has a lot of scope to grow. There is street parking available, and the MTR will bring a lot more non-residents here in the evenings and at weekends," Ho says.

"You also tend to find much bigger shop spaces here than in SoHo. But the biggest draw has got to be the best sunset in Hong Kong," he says, gesturing towards the waterfront.

That expanse of water, with views of Green Island, almost disappeared in a since-abandoned reclamation plan in the 1990s. It prompted a team of academics to demand better public access to what is now prime waterfront.

In August, the University of Hong Kong's department of urban planning and design published a bold proposal for the area's development, commissioned by the Central and Western District Council.

The proposal suggests the government goes much further with its harbourfront plans and build a 2,400-metre-long promenade that stretches to the Central Government Offices in Tamar. Wong, who organises residents' concern groups in the area, says it is a utopian scheme that is unlikely to be carried out without compromises.

The plan requires moving the Western Wholesale Food Market, the Western District Public Cargo Working Area and the Kennedy Town bus terminus. The government has already indicated that the cargo area is too important to be removed. Locals also fear that the redevelopment is part of a broader gentrification of Kennedy Town that will inevitably bring the demise of well-known businesses.

Raymond Lai, a logistics worker, regularly visits the four-decades-old Cheung Heung Yuen Restaurant in Belcher's Street - an old-fashioned cha chaan teng justifiably famous for its silk stocking milk tea and egg tarts.

"I have lived here almost all my life. I moved here as a child with my parents and now I am a parent. It makes me feel very sad to see the old shops and restaurants disappear. This place is one of the last ones left," he says.

But the new outlets make a pleasant change to the pandemonium in the city centre, for those who can afford them.

"I like to come here for lunch. Kennedy Town is so much more pleasant than Central and it is within walking distance of my home," says David Bryan, a lawyer who lives in Pok Fu Lam.K-Town, his choice of restaurant, has a high ceiling and is practically cavernous by Hong Kong standards.

As for the lonely monument behind the public lavatories, the government wants to move it to a more respectable location by the sea. That, at least, is one piece of history that will have its day in the sun against a backdrop of ceaseless change.

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