How Upper Station Street in Sheung Wan became a dining destination

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2015, 3:48pm

For years Upper Station Street, just up the hill from Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan, was an ordinary residential street. There were few cars, little foot traffic and the only food business was an eons-old Chinese sausage factory. But much has changed in the past four years.

Helen Lindman co-owns and co-designed popular corner cafe Nosh at number 11 with her husband Arne. Renowned for its weekend brunches when stools outside catch the sun, the cafe bustles on weekdays as well, thanks to its quality coffee and delicate pastries.

"It's not the first place you'd come to as a tourist," she says. "Someone needs to tell you about it. It's a bit of a gem."

Lindman dreamed of finding a block to renovate in the area and started with 55 Tung Street. "In 2008, that street was completely sleepy. There was one gallery, Sin Sin on Sai Street. Otherwise it was just car repair shops and some fruit stalls."

She started on 11 Upper Station Street next. The couple weren't planning on designing Nosh themselves, but ended up doing just that. Since Nosh opened just over a year ago, others have moved in nearby: Secret Ingredient, Upper Modern Bistro with its Michelin star, and Little Burro, as well as brand new neighbours Mitte, Crafty Cow and DayDayCook.

"In Hong Kong, you have a short time frame," says Roger de Leon, managing partner of Little Burro. "Change is inevitable. This is a fast evolving city; even New York doesn't evolve as fast."

Although it leads from Hollywood Road, the steep hill along Upper Station Street seems far removed from Sheung Wan. The small food businesses share space with a few boutiques and an art gallery.

"You have the high-rises and congestion of Central, then you arrive here to find few cars, low-rises, wide streets," says Little Burro's managing partner James Fisher. "It's like a little oasis. If I had a guest in town, I'd bring them to this street. I thought it had the potential to start attracting more businesses."

Mitte is the latest to open. "We love the energy and vibe of Sheung Wan," co-founder Richard McCabe says . "The area has a feeling that creativity is all around, and it has an inspiring, almost calm feel, which makes you want to hang out."

While weekends are beginning to see a stream of locals, expats and tourists, weekdays are still quiet. "It can be risky to open up in an out-of-the-way spot unless you are really confident," says de Leon.

There is always the fear that gentrification will change the character that attracts people to an area in the first place. But Sheung Wan's new tenants are taking pains to preserve and respect the community.

"You don't have to tear down a building to create something new. You can keep the heritage and still keep the buzz. Other cities with old towns have done that," says Lindman.

While the facade of number 11 is in keeping with the original building, changes have been made inside.

"The temple offering lady is still there, too. She was convinced she would be bought off, but we said, 'We'd like you to be here'."

Upper Station Street alone has gone from having no restaurants to having five in five years. Can the area take this pace for much longer? Lindman believes it can. "It's the more the merrier," she says.

"The goal for us was to make it a vibrant neighbourhood, but not like SoHo. There's a very strong council here and they don't want bars open from early to late at night.

"It is a place to live and dine and go out. It's been fun to be part of gentrification, but, hopefully, the area will keep its neighbourhood feeling."

It can be risky to open up in an out-of-the-way spot unless you are really confident
Roger de Leon, Little Burro

One of the latest arrivals is famous online cooking site DayDayCook; celebrity chef Norma Chu couldn't resist the street's allure. The area seems to evoke similar emotions from all its new tenants.

"We love the mix of old and new. When you stroll around, you feel like you are in a 'real' place. It has an authentic character and personality; it feels like a place that is dynamic and changing, yet it still retains its true spirit," says McCabe.

"We don't want to be part of any neighbourhood changing into what locals would perceive to be worse," says Fisher.

"We don't want to take anything away from the culture. I'd be heartbroken if any local food shops went out of business. They are important cultural landmarks and provide great value for the people in these neighbourhoods. A lot of people rely on them."

"Our model is also low cost," adds de Leon. "It's a no-frills takeaway. We have a limited specific menu. We know how many burritos we have to sell and we chose the location very carefully with that in mind.

"You can only wrap so many burritos without changing the business model. It is landlords that drive change in neighbourhoods. The rent is our biggest risk as a restaurant business in Hong Kong."

Crafty Cow is just opposite Mitte and it's doing well after a busy opening a few weeks ago. "SoHo is full and it's boring already," says Tomi Ho of Crafty Cow. The F&B consultant has been working for more than 12 years as a location finder and concept creator.

"People are looking for places to the west that are still near Central. This is the upcoming area after PMQ. People here tend to be younger and more artistic compared to SoHo," he says.

"We looked around this place before we moved in and saw Upper Modern Bistro, Little Burro, Nosh and a few other cafes. We thought it needed something in the middle. We hope to bring a diversity of cuisine. People will start coming here for the food as well as the peace of the area."

Crafty Cow's interior and food are attracting plenty of what he calls "third culture kids with third culture dining".

"Our cuisine has an American food base with Asian influences. We cook using French methods with Japanese, Korean and Chinese ingredients. Our gyoza dumplings are stuffed with duck confit and foie gras and served with spicy ponzu sauce. Typical third culture food; third culture kids basically eat everything," he says.

Several street parties have brought Upper Station Street's restaurants together with those on Tai Ping Shan Street. These events were spearheaded by Secret Ingredient.

"We are talking to our neighbours about an Upper Station Street block party in the summer. I used to work at Cépage and helped organise the Starstreet Gourmet and Wine Walk.

"We're looking at doing something similar. I hope our restaurants bond, as this will make a stronger community and bring more people to the area," he says.