INSIDE my hotel it’s cool, calm and quiet but right outside, the streets of Wan Chai are buzzing with activity.
It’s the sort of hustle and bustle that defines Hong Kong, as the residents of this prosperous neighbourhood dart around to complete afternoon errands before darkness settles and they retire to the apartment buildings that crowd the skyline.
A market fills the lanes that wind between Queens Rd East and Johnston Rd and carts selling everything from jewellery and socks to handbags and boiled lollies are arranged so closely together there’s only a narrow strip of concrete for people to walk down the centre of these pedestrian alleys.
An old man sells eggs by the light of a naked bulb while mates from nearby booths play a rowdy game of cards on a plastic table covered with a page from today’s newspaper, a woman arranges pink peonies in a plastic bucket that she places in a long row, and a couple laugh as they measure almonds into small paper bags.
Behind the carts are the shops that occupy the ground floor of Wan Chai’s ageing residential buildings and the greengrocers, fishmongers and butchers’ shops that make this place one of Hong Kong Island’s most popular wet markets are busy with people searching for fresh ingredients for dinner.
Lines of red lamps hang across the fronts of these shops, with oversized bulbs illuminating the produce on the tables below, and cuts of meat and fillets of fish are arranged between wicker baskets displaying everything from slimy raw prawns to bunches of bok choy.
Neon signs already glow over footpaths packed with commuters surging from the underground MTR station, double-decker trams move along Johnston Rd as if in convoy, and a vintage bicycle carrying a load of coconuts weaves between red taxis resting at a stop light.
Middle-aged men kick a football around a Flexipave field in the shadows of towering apartment blocks as storm clouds gather.
The people looking after a gaggle of the neighbourhood’s oldest residents arrange wheelchairs in a shelter before the rain starts to tumble, and a teenager reads a book oblivious to the activity in the busy stadium.
This neighbourhood is one of the city’s most important enclaves – author Harry Reid writes “Wan Chai has been the centre of almost everything in Hong Kong” since the boom days of the opium trade – and while the spot started as a humble fishing village it quickly grew into the harbour’s dynamic dockyards, with a vast network of warehouses.
It was Hong Kong’s red-light district when 19th-century mariners frequented the port, a haven for gamblers after the Happy Valley racecourse opened nearby, and home to the wild bars popular with American soldiers on R&R from the Vietnam War.
But the seedy side of Wan Chai is long gone and today the neighbourhood is home to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, some of the island’s few remaining heritage buildings, vintage dumpling restaurants and fine-dining establishments with Michelin stars, designer furniture outlets, and men fixing shoes at stands on the footpath.
Wan Chai is also the place to find some swanky hotels with the newest offering, the playfully chic Hotel Indigo Hong Kong Island, opening in April and designed to bring the best of this vibrant neighbourhood inside so guests can continue to feel the buzz after retreating into the tranquil haven.
Murals and mosaics of Wan Chai icons dress guestroom walls, an abstract dragon winds around the building to bring luck, blue lacquerware statues of a local kung-fu master stand in the open-plan bathrooms, cushions with Hong Kong street scenes decorate armchairs in the library and local gourmet goodies dot the Post Cafe’s menu.
“We are inspired by the neighbourhood, and because Wan Chai is an original and vibrant place we want to be original and vibrant as well,” Hotel Indigo general manager Bryan Gabriel explains from a comfy couch in the light-filled library.
“The Hotel Indigo brand is not about the future, it’s about the then and the now, so we’ve taken the history of this neighbourhood and included that in the design of the rooms and in the service so you know you’re staying in Wan Chai.
“There are murals of the Convention Centre and the trams on the walls, toys from the market stalls in the lane outside the hotel are put on guest’s beds as part of the turndown service, and Cafe Post takes its name from the original post office across the road.”
Gabriel, who hails from Canberra but has been working in luxury hotels around the globe for the past few years, has fallen in love with Wan Chai since moving to Hong Kong last year to open the smart hotel that measures just 12m wide and 150m long but occupies a whole city block.
“The great charm of Wan Chai is it mixes old Hong Kong and new Hong Kong,” he says.
“You can get $HK12 ($A1.70) dumplings just across the road – the place has been there for 40 years, and the owner’s father was known as the Dumpling Nazi because he would scream at customers to leave as soon as they finished eating – and there are some great new galleries and boutiques.”
The Hotel Indigo boss has a few more tips for those looking to leave the tourist trail and get under the skin of Wan Chai.
“Ride around the harbour on the Star Ferry, leaving from the Wan Chai terminal that’s just a few blocks from the hotel, and then wander through the wet market and along ‘toy street’,” he explains.
“Walk around the streets of Wan Chai to see the places in the stories the staff tell, from the blue house where the kung-fu master lived to the temples and old post office on Queens Rd East, and head down to the Convention Centre to take in the view across the harbour to Kowloon.
“Hong Kong people love their food and a visit to Wan Chai wouldn’t be complete without trying some of the local cuisine so eat at Northern Dumpling, have a meal at 22 Ships, which is one of the hottest restaurants right now, visit the Happy Cake Shop for fantastic doughnuts, and dine at the neighbourhood eateries on Johnston Rd.”
The writer was a guest of Cathay Pacific and Hotel Indigo Hong Kong Island.
GO2 – HONG KONG
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Cairns and Brisbane every day. See cathaypacific.com
The Hotel Indigo Hong Kong Island, at 246 Queens Rd East in Wan Chai, is a modern 29-storey building with the trendy Skybar and an infinity swimming pool on the roof. See www.hotelindigo.com
The Hong Kong Tourism Board website has loads of information. See discoverhongkong.com