Best things to do in Kowloon City, whether it's 3pm or 3am
The neighbourhood is good for food, history and shopping before dark, and for Thai food, beer, karaoke and dancing after that
Kowloon City's small grid of streets is so hemmed in by main roads, it's a wonder this place maintains its vivacity against such a grim backdrop. Maybe it's the pavements wider than anywhere else in Hong Kong, maybe it's the heady ethnic mix, or maybe it's a lingering hint of anarchy and separateness from the old Walled City. Whatever the case, it makes the neighbourhood a real day-and-night affair that's good for food, history and shopping before dark, and for beer, karaoke and dancing after dark. We've decided to pull the full 12 hours tasting both sides of this sometimes forgotten area.
Afternoon coffee and culture
In an area that so often eschews style in favour of substance, it's interesting to find Pantry Bread & Pastries, a very modern coffee house on Hau Wong Road. The minimalist decor is stylish and the seating area spacious. They do a good line of elaborately decorated cakes, and we tried their Lego block-shaped raspberry mousse, which housed a light jam and sponge centre. It was a nice treat for HK$54, and put to rest the thinking that elaborate cakes lack flavour.
We popped next door to check out the newly opened - and very friendly - HighFive restaurant and art space. Opened last month by a Chinese-Canadian who grew up only a few blocks away, it's running a small exhibition of lively paintings by local artist Daryl Cheung until early July. More exhibitions will follow.
Relax in historic surroundings
To walk off that calorific mousse, we went for a stroll in Kowloon Walled City Park, on the site of the famous Walled City: a shanty town of dwellings and factories which was rendered essentially lawless by a quirk of Sino-British diplomacy. It was bulldozed in the 1990s, and replaced by the park, landscaped in homage to the Jiangmen style popular during the early Qing period. Among the waterfalls, ornate pavilions and the impressively loud cicadas, it's a super-serene spot for getting away from the cars and concrete of Kowloon. And the Lung Nam Pavilion is a particularly good spot for terrapin-spotting on a lazy afternoon. For those who want to learn more about the site's colourful past, the park has a small but informative exhibition (closed on Wednesdays) with stores, pictures and videos which convey a lot about what is surely one of the most curious subplots in Hong Kong's history.
Hunting out rare ingredients - and clothes bargains
Back on the City's streets, the market sellers were in full flow come late afternoon, and it's in the locally run shops that the area's overwhelming Thai influence comes to the fore. No place in Hong Kong can rival Kowloon City for the easy availability of food, ornaments, and pretty much everything else from Thailand. Watched over (of course) by paintings of King Bhumibol, Thai Arts and Crafts is a good stop to pick up everything from HK$15 incense sticks to gold statues of Buddhist deities which run into the tens of thousands. And for the foodie who's still trying to recreate that perfect morning glory dish they had on Koh Chang, Ruamjai grocery is the place to go (but keep an eye out - the name on the shop front is only written in Chinese and Thai, not English.) Run by a garrulous Thai-Chinese woman, it's been in business in the area since 2000, and stocks hard-to-find fruit and sweets, as well as an array of speciality sauces. But what caught our eye were the pre-bagged red, green and yellow curries, still warm from the oven of their restaurant down the road. For HK$35, we went home with enough curry for two. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, we went for a rummage in Seven Kee Original, a clothes shop which has been in business since 1932 and is a good place to bag a stylish bargain.
Sunset solitude with a unique view
To see another, and quite different, aspect of modern Kowloon City, we took the HK$70 cab ride to the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, on the mini-peninsula that juts into the harbour and was the landing strip of the famous old airport. Yes, that's the building you've seen across the water but never been able to name, and looks a bit like a humongous bullet train. Though it's mainly for visiting cruise liners, the terminal also hosts events such as the recent Calvin Klein party starring Justin Bieber, and will play host to a 300-metre water slide come August. But cruise ships and oversized outbreaks of organised fun aren't really our thing, so imagine our delight when we realised that neither of these things were there when we arrived and the terminal is, in their absence, an absolute gem of an evening hang-out. The beautiful roof garden with its lily ponds and decked walkways was shared by a small group of visitors, with a few joggers and a young couple settling in for a picnic. The mellifluous sounds of water breaking on the banks from all sides and the vague hum of Kwun Tong's main roads in the background made the garden a lovely, and under-used, spot. It even had that rarest of Hong Kong rarities: a publicly accessible expanse of lush grass. And on a clear day its unique angle, looking down the harbour to the west, makes it a great spot to watch the sun set over the Island and central Kowloon.
Start the night the Thai way
By the time we arrived back in Kowloon City, darkness had fallen and brought with it a whole new side to this diverse area. The neon lights were buzzing and the queues were forming outside the more popular restaurants. Pretty much every Asian cuisine is on offer in this area, but the Thai influence continued to prevail, with more Thai restaurants on the small grid of 10 streets than anyone could realistically aspire to visit. Mini Bangkok, in particular, always requires a wait. But we gave it a miss and headed for the homier and ever-popular Lung Jie on Nga Tsin Long Road. It's no frills, but the pad thai was copious, delicious and not too sweet, and all delivered with that brisk-but-friendly Thai hospitality.
Kowloon karaoke kings
With stomachs filled, we sampled some of the nightlife in Kowloon City, which has too many local dive bars to visit in one night (believe me, we tried.) The lack of proper windows in any of these places spikes the whole experience with an element of mystery - you don't know what you're going to get. But for people who like to know exactly what they're walking into, a good place to kick things off is the cavernous Dragon City on Nam Kok Road, which is always fun for some cheap beer buckets and a few rounds of dice or darts. And like all good Hongkongers, residents of Kowloon City love their karaoke. That's especially true at the Walled City Pub, which had us singing Hotel California almost the moment we walked in. I don't even like The Eagles, but the welcome from staff and regulars was warmer than the glow from the neon-lit vodka bottles hanging above the bar. By the time we left in the early hours, after our fair share of Tsingtao, a large local guy was singing atop a bar table, while peeling off his shirt and swinging it above his head. Just in case we had any energy left, we headed back up Nam Kok Road to hit up Fong Beer, a Thai disco with a DJ, which when busy becomes one big party, with major flashing lights and a seating area indistinguishable from the dance floor. Given the aforementioned mystery of opening a door along this road, this was probably the surprise of the night, and the perfect end to one of the best nights out you can have in Hong Kong.
Pantry Bread & Pastries 24 Hau Wong Road, Kowloon City
HighFive 22 Hau Wong Road, Kowloon City
Kowloon Walled City Park Tung Tsing Road, Kowloon City
Thai Arts and Crafts 52B Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City
Ruamjai Thai 21 South Wall Road, Kowloon City
Seven Kee Original 39 Lion Rock Road, Kowloon City
Kai Tak Cruise Terminal 33 Shing Fung Road, Kowloon
Mini Bangkok 8-10, Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City
Lung Jie 2A-B, Nga Tsin Long Road, Kowloon City
Dragon City 67 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City
Walled City Pub 7 Lung Kong Road, Kowloon City
Fong Beer 58 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City
For this story and more, see 48 Hours, published on Thursday July 2.