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. 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. 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.
The newest offering, the playfully chic Hotel Indigo Hong Kong Island, opened in April and was 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.
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
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2013