New Life in Old Hong Kong ,,,,,,,,WAN CHAI used to be best known among foreigners as an area crowded with seedy bars and massage parlors, but it remained popular for locals, filled with historic tenement blocks, old-fashioned street markets by day and youngsters shooting hoops after school. Now, the Hong Kong neighborhood is thriving, as a nascent cultural scene emerges and as young creative types and entrepreneurs alike are being lured by cheaper rents.
At the forefront of this revival is the Pawn (62 Johnston Road; 852-2866-3444; thepawn.com.hk), a gastropub, housed in a renovated three-story colonial building dating back to 1888. The Pawn is a bit of an oddity in a city where buildings rarely last more than a decade. The site once held a pawnshop, and the pub has kept the iconic chess piece — an image still found outside pawnshops across the city — as its logo since it reopened in 2008. Diners can now sample modern British classics in the dining room and on a deservedly beloved roof garden.
“The local community is becoming more aware that one of the ways to improve and create quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong is by preserving the historical and architectural value of local characteristics,” said Paulo Pong, an area native and a founder of The Pawn.
He is also a wine expert who has made sure that the pub offers obscure favorites, like a 2005 Kalleske Greenock from Australia’s Barossa Valley (740 Hong Kong dollars, or about $97 at 7.6 Hong Kong dollars to the U.S. dollar).
Nearby is the Michelin-starred restaurant Bo Innovation (60 Johnston Road; 852-2850-8371; boinnovation.com), a rare purveyor of molecular gastronomy in China. The self-proclaimed “demon chef” Alvin Leung serves concoctions like kangaroo steak with a Sichuan pepper crust, and Chinese pork sausage ice cream. The chef’s tasting menu is 1,080 Hong Kong dollars, not including wine.
It says something about Wan Chai that the French designer label agnès b chose the area for its only art gallery outside of Paris (18 Wing Fung Street; 852-2869-5505). The spot features rotating installations and one-off exhibitions. Nearby Gresson Street is crowded with hawker stalls selling flowers, so Ooi Botos Gallery (No. 5; 852-2527-9733) can be hard to find, but it’s worth the search for unusual high-end painting and photography.
At Books Attic (D1, 7-17 Amoy Street; 852-2259-3103; bookattic.info), Jennifer Li, the owner, serves free Chinese tea as you browse through thousands of secondhand books, including out-of-print editions from the city’s days as a British colony.
Kapok (5 St. Francis Yard; 852-2549-9254; ka-pok.blogs.com) is a creative hub, selling whatever mix of jewelry, housewares and clothing Arnault Castel, the owner, finds interesting. Recent discoveries included a necklace by Stephanie Simek made of real solidified honey (1,980 Hong Kong dollars).