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There goes the neighbourhood: hipster takeover in sleepy Shek Tong Tsui

As trendy new cafes and boutiques come to the cul-de-sacs and quiet streets of this hillside neighbourhood near HKU, the question is how to balance gentrification with community spirit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 10:39am

Designer Jacky Chan encountered a familiar situation when he was looking for a space to open a new business. “In Hong Kong, it’s quite difficult to find a location that’s both quiet and convenient,” he says. Quiet and convenient: those attributes were used to describe SoHo in the 1990s, just after the Central-Mid-Levels escalator opened. They also described Tai Ping Shan Street and Po Hing Fong five years ago. Now they’re being applied to the latest hillside neighbourhood to show signs of becoming trendy: Shek Tong Tsui.

Chan is one of four founders of Ethos, a 3,000 sq ft lifestyle space on Hill Road comprising café, boutique, event venue and design studio. Since it opened last year, it has been joined by three other businesses which are giving the sleepy neighbourhood something of a hipster vibe.

“It has the same feeling that Tai Ping Shan Street gave me a long time ago, when there were just one or two interior designer or gallery spaces,” says Nana Chan Mu-yi, who recently opened a second branch of her Tai Ping Shan Street bakery/teahouse, Teakha, on Po Tuck Street. A few doors down is Get.Give, an emporium for mindful gifts, and across the street is Ga Gi Nang, a quirky restaurant/bar that opened in February.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Kate Jones, who opened Get.Give in August. “I know everyone in the neighbourhood – Mrs Wong who does the laundry, Nana with the tea next door. Of course, I get scared. Landlords don’t see this sort of thing: I don’t want to see it turn into Sheung Wan, where it started off great and then the spirit died.”

The parallels between the two neighbourhoods is striking: like the back streets above Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan, the cul-de-sacs around the steep slope of Hill Road are quiet, with a light smattering of workshops, garages and small neighbourhood businesses such as noodle shops and laundries. But the area is now bookended by entrances for the MTR’s new HKU Station, and the University of Hong Kong’s West Gate is just a short stroll away.

“Shek Tong Tsui is still a cluster of low-income grassroots people, if you compare it with Kennedy Town or Sai Ying Pun, which are already more gentrified,” says Hendrik Tieben, an associate professor of architecture at Chinese University. “There are already some signs that it will go in the same direction as the other areas. For the moment, it can really be felt in the shops that are transforming.”

Last month, Tieben and Caritas social worker Edmond Wong Chi-hung surveyed Shek Tong Tsui residents on their experience of the neighbourhood, which informed a set of proposals by master’s students to improve public space around the area. Those ideas will be presented to the public and District Council candidates at a forum next Friday. The venue: a space under the flyover snaking down from Pokfulam Road to the harbourfront, where residents often assemble for public activities.

“It’s quite an amazing space. They have a bamboo theatre at one point in the year and people [gather to] watch soccer outside,” says Tieben. “There is a relatively strong community sense among people there.”

Tapping into that community is a goal of Ethos, although it was circumstance that drew Jacky Chan to Shek Tong Tsui. His uncle was friends with a landlord, who offered him a good deal on three retail spaces in the building, so Chan and three friends – Wilson Chan, Sunny Chan and T.S. Lee – used the opportunity to set up the community design space they had been musing about.

Wilson Chan runs the cafe, which features minimalist decor and coffee made with beans from London’s Square Mile Roasters. Jacky Chan oversees the retail shop stocking products by designers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Denmark – a peculiar mix, but one that puts Hong Kong design on an equal footing with those from overseas, he says. The event space hosts regular film screenings and exhibitions, including a recent showcase of drawings by Post cartoonist Harry Harrison. “We try to have creative events rather than commercial,” says Chan.

Down the hill, Jones hopes to avoid thoughtless consumerism through her three-pronged business. Get.Give sells her favourite artisanal homewares from around the world, but it’s also a branding firm that creates bespoke packaging and a consultancy that advises corporate clients on what gifts they should hand out on special occasions such as Lunar New Year.

“My boyfriend is a journalist and he gets sent so much stuff from brands – it’s all this crap that turns up constantly,” she says. “We really want to get to the roots of what gifting is about.”

For Jones, that means products and packaging that are well-considered, environmentally friendly and socially impactful. For instance, there are chopping boards made by a carpenter in Kwai Chung, brushes by German specialist Redecker and hand-woven Kenyan rugs by Hong Kong-based Kahoko.

“We don’t like gimmicks,” says Jones. “There’s got to be a purpose for it, the makers have got to be passionate. We prefer to work with smaller businesses, family-run. And most importantly [their products] must support a community.”

Just across the street, the founders of Ga Gi Nang are keen to foster a similar spirit at their restaurant and bar – its name means “our people” in the Chiuchow dialect.

“We want to have a space where friends gather,” says Gibson Chan Ka-hing, who opened the business with his brother, Ka-tsi, and their friends Eddy Lee Chung-hon and Samuel Lau Chun-him.

They renovated much of the space themselves using recycled materials; a wood pallet, for instance, has been turned into a sofa on their small sidewalk terrace.

“A lot of neighbours, when they finish work, they drop by and have a drink,” says Chan. “Then they go home, change, and come back down.”

That doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration: Po Tuck street resident Daryl Chan Te-hwa says he often ends up at Ga Gi Nang. “I plan to just say hi and go home, and then the shots come out,” he says.

That kind of neighbourly vibe is just what Gibson Chan sought after a decade of working in bars around Lan Kwai Fong. The menu at Ga Gi Nang is eclectic (think Mexico by way of Japan, with a detour through Italy) but the food goes well with the cocktails made by bar manager Faro Gatmaitan, such as the East Side Ways, which is made with gin, cucumber, mint, apple juice and yuzu.

Tea lovers will already be familiar with Po Tuck Street’s other drinks emporium, Teakha, which opened in August. Like Teakha’s first location on Tai Ping Shan Street, the space is filled with comfortable furniture and floral arrangements. The bigger space allows the team to bake all their cakes and pastries on-site for the first time, and there is even more seating for HKU students to occupy. But the space Nana Chan really has her eye on is the street outside.

“I started getting interested in that area when MaD, the social innovation organisation, did a street party along Hill Road,” she says. “Public space is a big part of what Teakha is about, being able to do things on the street.”

Chan is planning a “Kinfolk-esque” dinner in collaboration with Korean-American chef Mina Park, and other businesses in the area are thinking about working together to host a street fair.

“I signed a very long lease for the space, so I guess that’s an indication of my confidence for this area,” she says. “But I also worry about what’s going to happen after six years.”

To Central and Western Concern Group convenor Katty Law Ngar-ning says Tai Ping Shan Street should serve as a cautionary tale for Hill Road and Po Tuck Street.

“Gentrification has certainly pushed up the rent in the area and we saw more frequent changes of shops and more vacant shop spaces,” she says. “I don’t think this is healthy for the neighbourhood. Ideally there should be some form of rent control and landlords should understand that raising the rent too much will actually kill the neighbourhood.”

As much as Shek Tong Tsui’s newcomers may hope to avoid that fate, it seems gentrification is inevitable – the only question is how quickly it will come. “All these buildings have suddenly started renovating,” Jones says. “I keep waiting to see what opens next.”