What to see and do in Kennedy Town
An MTR station is set to revitalise the district, but there is already plenty going for this charming inner-city neighbourhood
In Kennedy Town, there's one question on everyone's mind: what will happen when the MTR arrives? With the West Island Line extension set to open by the end of the year, this outpost on the western edge of Hong Kong Island will be connected as never before. The changes are already being felt. "It's quickly becoming the same homogenous zone of chain stores and 'luxury' shoebox apartments," says local artist Nadim Abbas, who was born and raised in the neighbourhood. "I do enjoy having a tipple in one of the fancy new restaurants now and then" — especially Belgica, a low-key Belgian beer bar on Hau Wo Street. "But I've also seen a lot of the older establishments close down due to rent hikes."
It's not all bad news. Though the MTR's impending arrival has shaken up a once quiet neighbourhood, it has also brought with it a new wave of businesses. Many are chains, but plenty of others are independent ventures with a strong neighbourhood feel. And the particular charm of Kennedy Town endures, with its quiet hillside terraces, little-known landmarks and end-of-the-line feel.
You don't need a jolt of caffeine to start the day in Kennedy Town: Sun Hing is enough. Open from 3am to 4pm every day, this hole-in-the-wall yum cha joint on Smithfield attracts a crowd of students, construction workers and local old-timers. Bargain baskets of dim sum emerge from the steamy kitchen to great anticipation. Don't miss out on the quail's egg siu mai, steamed black sugar cake and runny custard buns. Hungry after a long night? One construction worker customer recommends the rice dishes: "When you need to work, dim sum doesn't fill you up."
Not far away is The Cofftea Shop. "I was working in my family's business and couldn't stand it, and I had always wanted to have my own coffee shop," says owner Herbert Lau. After working for several years at Coffee Academics, he found the perfect location for an Italian-style espresso stand at the corner of Davis and Catchick streets. Lau makes his coffee with a manually operated lever espresso machine, which he says can deliver a superior cup compared to the semi-automatic machines used by most cafes. He also uses Italian-roasted Musetti beans imported by a friend. "These days, Asian people like to play around with single-origin beans, but for me, Italian coffee has a nice intensity," he says.
SHOPPING ON THE EDGE
The University of Hong Kong's westward creep towards Kennedy Town means the school's newest entrance, the Centennial Gate, is just a short uphill walk from the heart of the neighbourhood. (If exercise isn't your thing, try the escalator next to The Belcher's estate.)
One of the highlights of the university's expansion is the Run Run Shaw Heritage House, an unexpected granite structure that looks like a Chinese version of an English country house. Built in 1924 as a residence for senior Western engineers, the house was restored and reopened earlier this year. It now provides a home to the University of Hong Kong Press bookstore, which has a particularly strong catalogue of books on local history, culture and architecture. It's also worth checking out for the curvaceous interior designed by HKU architecture professor Jason Carlow, who used a 3D modelling software called Grasshopper to create bookshelves that wrap seamlessly around the edges of the historic rooms.
Be sure to leave room in your bag for some food. Back downhill, on the New Praya, Free Market offers an abundant selection of imported Filipino goodies like hot sauce made from labuyo peppers, bricks of shrimp paste and clear bottles of tapuy, a rice wine.
Down the street, there's another impressive selection of treats at Sunday's Grocery, a deli opened this year by Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang, the masterminds behind Yardbird. "It's that mum-and-pop shop kind of feel that I'm attracted to," says Abergel. "Everything is very much hand-picked. We want customers to come in for a sandwich and then we can introduce them to a really reasonable bottle of whisky."
Though New York bodegas may have been the inspiration, Sunday's Grocery forges its own path with an eclectic list of pickled appetisers and sandwiches ranging from a classic bánh mì to yuzu kosho roast pork with avocado, pickled red onion and watercress. There's also wine and beer on tap, a wide selection of Japanese whiskey and a burgeoning array of fine tequila and mezcal.
Kennedy Town traces its urban development back to 1886, when Hong Kong governor Arthur Edward Kennedy reclaimed a strip of land along the harbour. But even before then, the area's hillsides were dotted with landmarks such as the Lo Pan Temple. Built in 1884, it is the only local shrine dedicated to the Chinese patron saint of construction workers. Today, the surrounding pedestrian-only streets are among the most pleasant in Hong Kong.
The Sai Wan Swimming Shed is another atmospheric hideaway. Located just below Victoria Road on the western edge of Kennedy Town, it was built by the government in the 1950s to provide a changing room and wooden pier for nearby residents who swam in Sulfur Channel. Today, it attracts more photographers than swimmers for its sunset views and crashing waves.
Kennedy Town's gentrification has brought with it a host of new restaurants, many of them run by the restaurant groups that dominate Central. That includes a new, neighbourhood-oriented version of Tivo, Aqua Group's Wyndham Street lounge.
"We want it to be a place where everyone can gather around to share food," says assistant manager Eric Mak. Dishes include pan-fried river prawns tossed with chilli flakes and particularly scrumptious oven-seared Brussels sprouts. Its floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of passing street life make it a relaxed place to spend an afternoon.
Not all newcomers are corporate. "I wanted to open a business here because I live here," says Paul Pun, who owns the cheerful waterfront spot Fish & Chick with his partner Magdalena Ho. Pun studied in Australia and he wanted to marry two dishes that are common down under: fish and chips and roast chicken. He found traditional Western roast chicken too dry, so he covers his in a Chinese-style mustard marinade before putting it in the rotisserie.
Pun sees Kennedy Town heading down the same road as Tai Hang, which has gone from an obscure village-in-the-city to a buzzing nightlife destination in just a few years. But for now, he is enjoying the atmosphere. "It's got lots of history. Everybody here has stories."
EAT & DRINK
Shop B2, 25-33 Hau Wo Street, tel: 2817 7717
Shop C, 8 Smithfield,
tel: 2816 0616
The Cofftea Shop
Shop H, 78-86 Catchick Street, tel: 9104 2404
2 Holland Street, tel: 2543 1238
Fish & Chick
Shop 6, 25 New Praya, tel: 2974 0088
Hong Kong University Press
Run Run Shaw Heritage House, HKU, tel: 2858 1655
50 Kennedy Town Praya, tel: 3162 3931
66 Catchick Street, tel: 2628 6001
Lo Pan Temple
15 Ching Lin Terrace
Sai Wan Swimming Shed
Victoria Road across from Caritas Jockey Club Mount Davis Hostel