I’m not an intrepid traveller. The thought of discovering a new destination, off the well-worn track, devoid (yet) of the standard-bearing five-star hostelries, doesn’t appeal. For me, travel has to be combined with a number of key things: great restaurants, interesting shopping, and a luxurious place to rest my head. This may mean I’m missing out on some of life’s great pleasures. I can live with that.
I want a trailblazing neighbourhood that’s beyond-hipster and is yet to have a Monocle store
To counteract this safe way of seeing the world, I have developed a desperation for a different kind of new: to seek out the unexplored neighbourhoods, to taste the experimental, to visit the hangouts where the curators of these culture shocks go to sip cold beer. I want a trailblazing neighbourhood that’s beyond-hipster and is yet to have a Monocle store open on its street. I want to eat in a restaurant so new that it cannot be booked by my hotel’s concierge.
When the invitation for an Upper Class seat on a Virgin Atlantic press trip to Hong Kong recently pinged into my inbox, rather than embracing the “best of Hong Kong” itinerary put together by the tourist board, I took to social media to gather the 140 characters on the street, in search of “hidden” venues and hot new neighbourhoods. The other journalists on the trip may have been there to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s 20 years of flying to Hong Kong, but for me this was all about off-the-radar ’hoods – and I was willing to walk miles in monsoon rain to find them. Whilst other writers tested the W Hotel’s rooftop spa and pool (very lovely it is too, with its knee-buckling views out over the city’s lofty skyline) and partook of tax-free shopping in the dry, air-conditioned malls lined with global brands and gear, I walked and talked and walked some more.
Oh, for those days when just the flash of a limited-edition Nike Air Rift or the glimpse of a Banana Republic waistband on a pair of pants screamed “I’ve just got back from shopping in San Francisco!”
Travelling in the age of social media and instant information is a double-edged sword. On my first trips to the States some 20 years ago, it took months of reading and endless long-distance phone calls to artists, DJs, the GM of the five-star hotel I was staying in and local designers to create an itinerary that would sate my need to eat at the best local restaurants and to buy the objets that would mark me out on the streets of London as someone who had “travelled”. Oh, for those days when just the flash of a limited-edition Nike Air Rift or the glimpse of a Banana Republic waistband on a pair of pants screamed “I’ve just got back from shopping in San Francisco!” Life was easy back then.
Now we log into Twitter and scroll through the hashtags of our preferred destination and we check out the profiles of those that are posting (to make sure their choices are backed up by their experience and expertise). Even when we’re on the ground the Handy hotel smartphone loaned from the hotel means we can punch our destination into Google Maps and set off. No soggy maps. No poorly-translated, out-of-date guidebooks. It’s all so easy, this travelling lark. And herein lies the problem. For one thing, as soon as a cool new opening is mentioned on social media, it’s hardly hidden, but easily accessible to anyone with a Twitter account and some deftness with the hashtag.
I was pushed aside by a gang of braying South African bankers, wearing that just-left-the-trading-floor loosened tie look
Proof of this came on my first night in HK. Queuing in the warm, monsoon-like rain for “one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant new bars”, I was pushed aside by a gang of braying South African bankers, wearing that just-left-the-trading-floor loosened tie look, hoping to get a piece of the action. That they stood out so much didn’t matter to them: they just wanted to be at the heart of Hong Kong’s hottest new bar. Ping Pong 129 GinTonería is a Spanish-style G&T joint set up by Juan Martinez Gregorio in an old Communist ping-pong hall in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood (only just up, not yet coming, despite pieces in the New York Times). Here, ice is hacked from a huge block and over 40 types of gin adorn the bar. At the point of pouring in the tonic (Schweppes is available, but try something different like the INDI & Co), the bartender scatters a few juniper berries into the mix. These are perfect G&Ts, heavy on the G. Old school furniture and neon and rough concrete make this space more East London than Honkers – but despite the pared-back look – as opposed to the über luxe of a space like Duddell’s, for example – Ping Pong was recently chosen as a Art Basel venue, meaning the queues will only get longer, and the braying louder. The South Africans, despite our protestations, forced their way past to the front of the queue and past the slip of a doorgirl. I wanted to hate the place after that, but I couldn’t. Pour me a perfect G&T and I will love you forever.
Another day, another downpour, another “new” neighbourhood to explore. The main growth areas in Hong Kong are defined by the expansion of the subway line and spill over from established popular neighbourhoods, such as Sheung Wan and the Central district, that are already full to capacity with indie boutiques, restaurants, bars and, well, people. Kennedy Town gets its new subway station later this year, which will connect it with Sheung Wan in just eight minutes. Because of this, according to HK contacts desperately trying to find affordable places to live in a city with rents that soar as high as its ’scrapers, it’s the new place to be. Or will be: as I schlepped from street to street, attempting to hunt down dive bars, new restaurants and indie boutiques, I realised that the cab (which I eventually hailed, due to the deluge) had dropped me off about six months too early. On Saturday, the mechanics’ garages which line many of the streets on the waterfront stand silent, their shutters rolled down. A few ex-pats (polo shirt with upturned collar, chino shorts, loafers with no socks) push strollers around the sleepy streets, but it’s all in stark contrast to the constant rumble of people and traffic just a few miles down the road. I stumbled across a couple of soon-to-open stores, one a great little coffee shop called Waffling Beans, where the owners were applying the finishing touches. They explained that high rents in Sheung Wan had pushed them out to Kennedy Town (but that the rent was still steep – this being HK, after all).
Another spot with promise was Sunday’s Grocery: for travellers like me, the flash of a beautiful font or the flicker of a commissioned piece of neon will always light the way. I leant in as the manager was lining the shelves and hanging the take-out menu, which included filled-to-order sandwiches and fried chicken (only available on Sundays) – of the chi-chi kind, obviously. Bottles of Japanese whisky from craft distillers lined the shelves alongside typical (but impeccably-sourced) convenience store goods. Opened by the brains behind two of the city’s best restaurants – Yardbird and Ronin – Sunday’s is the joint the new inhabitants of Kennedy Town have been waiting for.
There are, of course, still the bad old places too: after a beer in a crappy Mexican bar selling microwaved nachos, I squelched back to the Central district empty-handed, soaked through.
The next day I ditched my mission. I’d jumped the gun on Kennedy Town; Sai Ying Pun had already been sniffed out by the bankers. The rain was beginning to get to me, and my feet couldn’t take another pounding. Instead I headed for the well-trodden trail, with a list of addresses written in Mandarin by the W Hotel’s concierge for the cab drivers to decipher.
I headed to the relative calm and luxe of the Four Seasons where I abused my contact book and headed down for dim sum in the bowels of the building
I wandered the cute, indie stores of Star, Sun and Moon Streets in Wan Chai, gobbling up beautifully-packaged organic soaps – all made in HK from small producers with a great eye for branding – from the lifestyle store Kapok. I joined Hong Kong’s ladies-what-shop to sample new season wares at Shanghai Tang, then hailed a cab to the sprawling LFC mall. There I bypassed the queues at the Apple Store and headed to Lane Crawford, whose keen-eyed buyers have stocked the shelves with beautiful stationery, T-shirts by local fashion designers and limited-edition sneakers.
Laden with bags, I headed to the relative calm and luxe of the Four Seasons where I abused my contact book and headed down for dim sum in the bowels of the building: even my contact, head of the hotel’s PR, couldn’t wangle me a table at the lauded Lung King Heen, the world’s first three Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant. Instead, she went ten times better and secured me a spot at the prep counter of HK legend Chef Chan Yan Tak. After proudly showing me his delivery of live frogs, he made me a selection of dim sum, which I greedily ate standing up. Mouthful after mouthful of utter perfection: it was the first decent food I’d had since I arrived (my forays into no man’s land meant having to eat for fuel rather than fun). Then, after being scooted out of the kitchen by the chefs starting lunch service, I headed to the top floor and took in the soaring views and a beautifully mixed espresso martini.
From the Four Seasons I headed out to Sheung Wan. Here, alongside the graffiti and clever flyposting, I spotted artwork created by a friend in Margate, Kent, and handed over a wad of HK dollars for a pair of Nikes I’d not seen in the UK. Despite my lunch, I ate amazing pastries and had a perfect cuppa at Po’s Atelier, had a great flat white from the Cupping Room, and wandered in and out of galleries. I sank a cold beer at the Duecento Otto 208 pizza joint on the Hollywood Road, and clocked in a few more gallery stops, bumping into the famed Chinese artist Huang Rui, who was part of The Stars Group along with Ai Wei Wei. He was setting up his show at 10 Chancery Lane for Art Basel and gave me an impromptu talk on his new installation piece, showing me pictures of the now-infamous exhibition pinned to the railings of the China Art Gallery in 1979, quashing 30 years of censorship.
The moment when a bartender shows you his collection of one-off bottles of booze bought at auction over the years and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds (thank you Mark Jenner at Duddell’s). To watch one of the world’s greatest chefs painstakingly prepare the best dim sum I’ve ever eaten (Four Seasons). To covet beautifully designed pieces of clothing by local Hong Kong designers, showcased by a retail store with vision (Lane Crawford). To drink perfectly-mixed cocktails in a cute little bar above the pulsating Hollywood Road, accessed only by the possession of the entrepreneurial owner’s mobile number (Fu Lu Shou, 31 Hollywood Road, Central). It’s for wonderful, random moments like these that I travel. C
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Hong Kong
Photography by Lisa Richards. Lisa Richards is one of the co-founders of the GB Pizza Company