Secret Hong Kong
It’s hard to keep a secret in Hong Kong, and even harder to uncover one. In a city so heavily traversed, so patently public, discovery is too often sacrificed at the altar of the obvious. But, from giant biblical structures to off-the-eaten-track restaurants, surprises remain. You just have to know where to look. Start here.
Written by TOHK staff
Hidden paintings: China Club
Every banker worth the pinstripe on his suit has supped, sipped, or (shoe) shined at the China Club in Central. The turn-of-the-century Shanghai-style clubhouse, conceptualised by David Tang, is also known for its extensive Chinese art collection. In fact, every piece of art found at the China Club is created by Chinese artists – all except one, hidden on the wall of the ladies’ loo on the 13th floor dining room.
It is a piece created by painter Andrew Pickersgill, who is a good friend of Tang. The small painting depicts the jazz band of the former Peace Hotel, which used to make annual trips down to Hong Kong to play at the China Club’s anniversary parties. And if you venture into the Club’s library, which features 8,000 books (1,000 of them on Western classical music), check out the painting by Dong Renyong hanging above the fireplace. Lift it gently and you will find that the artist painted on both sides of the board, and Tang had it framed on the back as well.
China Club, 13/F, Old Bank of China Building, Bank Street, Central, 2521 8888
Home cooking: Tokyo Chilli House
It’s called Tokyo Chilli House, but it’s a Thai restaurant in a flat. At least the chilli part is right. And how right. Food at this culinary equivalent of a speakeasy (eateasy?) is lip-smackingly scrumptious, from the glistening fried prawn cakes right through to the selection of traditional curries. It’s the sense of home-dining, though, that makes this very private kitchen unique. Sit at simple tables separated by transparent black shrouds that filter the soft lighting into even more homey tones. Reservations essential.
Flat B5, 9/F, Block B, Kingston Building, 2-4 Kingston St, Causeway Bay, 2915 0083. Daily noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm.
Wounded beasts: HSBC lion statues
The two bronze lion statues located at the base of the HSBC building were cast in Shanghai in 1935. During the Second World War, in the aftermath the Battle of Hong Kong (Christmas day 1941), Japanese soldiers took potshots at the lions. The bullet holes are still clearly visible. The occupation force then sent the lions to Japan to be melted down. Luckily, before the noble creatures met that fate, they were found in an Osaka junkyard by the Allied occupation forces, lying next to a statue of Queen Victoria that had also been looted from Hong Kong (and which now stands in Victoria Park). In case you’re interested in the names of the wounded, the one on the left (with his mouth open) is Stephen, named after the general manager of the Hong Kong branch, A.G. Stephen, and the one of the right is Stitt, named after the former general manager of the Shanghai branch at the time.
1 Queen’s Rd Central
The shop-keeping grand master: S.C. Tong
One of Hong Kong’s most respected qi gong masters can be found by a beach with no name at the edge of Stanley Market. He’s known as Grand Master S.C. Tong and has been living in a tiny sea-side house since he was seven years old. He is now an undeterminable age: he looks as if he could be in his fifties, but he’s been looking this good for the past 15 years… There’s every possibility he’s already reached immortality.
When he’s in Hong Kong, the master can be found selling dusty old Buddha statues at the market. A sign hangs on the shop wall with the words “Universal Style Chi Gung” – a style he developed and now teaches in Hong Kong, China, and Japan. Step into his shop and spark off a conversation – Grand Master Tong will give you a lesson.
To find him at Stanley Market, take a left at the T Junction, walk all the way to the end where another junction takes you to either the sea-side promenade (on the right), or public toilets (on the left). Take the left. Tong’s shop is the second on the left, beside a gorgeous old Banyan tree.
Art deco cool with a pool: Chinese YMCA, Bridges Street Centre
At the start of the 20th century, well before the shiny buildings of Central came down from the sky, the humble Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association got a place on Des Voeux Road. As membership grew, the Chinese YMCA in 1918 opened larger premises on Bridges Street, which boasted Hong Kong’s first indoor swimming pool, first indoor game hall, first assembly hall, and first fitness room.
The art deco-style red-brick building still houses those amenities, all still operational, as well as a restaurant. Members can take a dip in the historic pool – situated in the basement – for a mere $40. Those afraid of the cold need not worry – the 90-year-old pool feature now has modern heating.
51 Bridges St, Sheung Wan, 2540 0526, www.ymca.org.hk. Opening hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-9.30pm; Sundays and public holidays, 10am-6pm. Membership inquiries: email@example.com
Haunted art space: Embassy Projects
Artist Adrian Wong thought he was in luck when he found a 3,000 square foot space in a Fo Tan industrial building for just $7,000 a month. Despite warnings it was haunted, he moved in with his girlfriend, a fellow artist.
For a year, everything was fine, but returning home late one night after a few drinks, Wong was attacked outside his door by what he thinks was a monkey (all he could make out in the dark was a pair of beady eyes and a swishing tail).
It wasn’t the only unsettling incident: months later, during a play rehearsal, six members of Wong’s cast and crew fled the premises after the front door inexplicably slammed and bolted itself shut. They have refused to go back ever since.
Later, Wong had a run of curiously rotten luck after a producing a series of works that sought to invoke ghosts. Within the space of a few months, he had all his possessions stolen, was admitted to hospital for nearly a week with unexplained internal bleeding, and, immediately after release, found his laundry was covered entirely in small red circles. He solved the problem in true artistic style: with a public spirit-cleansing performed by two exorcists.
Today, Wong – who has since moved to Causeway Bay – uses the space for mostly low-key exhibitions, performances, and gatherings. He doesn’t publicise the events widely because he prefers the intimacy of small groups.
Embassy Projects, No. 19, 4/F, Blocks A& B, Wah Luen Industrial Centre, Fo Tan, Sha Tin, www.embassyprojects.org.
Secluded beachfront: The Bay
When diners want a sunset alternative to the over-crowded Stoep at Lower Cheung Sha Wan and the super-remote One-Thirty-One in Sai Kung, The Bay restaurant in Mo Tat Wan on Lamma Island is waiting for the willing. The only way to get there is by sampan from Aberdeen’s Fish Market (near the Jumbo floating restaurant), or by foot from So Kwu Wan – about a 20-minute hike in. Once there, take in the gorgeous water views and warm sunsets at one of their family-sized tables.
The bi-lingual menu features fresh seafood Mediterranean style. Some dishes to look forward to include: mussels steamed in white wine shallots sauce, bouillabaisse, grilled prawns with cherry tomatoes, and sardines with pine nuts and parsley. There’s a wide open golden-sand beach right outside the back deck, and if you go during the daytime you can take a walk round the headland to tiny Tung O village, where actor Chow Yun-Fat grew up.
7 Beach Front, Mo Tat Wan, Lamma Island, 2982 8186, www.thebayhk.com. Opening hours: Tue-Sun, 11am-10pm.
Under the bridge: Park Island photo spot
Okay, you can see the Tsing Ma Bridge from pretty much anywhere, but for a new perspective, try walking to the unpopulated area of Ma Wan (Park Island). If you’re an adept enough explorer, you’ll find you can quite easily mosey right on up to the base of the pillars that support the massive edifice. From there, you get not only a decent ocean-front picnic spot but also a great vantage point for unusual photography of the landmark, as the picture attests.
Covert rock resident: Perry Farrell
It’s a remarkably well kept secret that Perry Farrell, the pioneering frontman of Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros, founder of the Lollapalooza Festival, and general alt-rock god, spends a lot of his time being utterly anonymous in Hong Kong. For a good part of the year, he hides away with his family in a flat high above the bustle of Tsim Sha Tsui.
The story goes thus: after Farrell married dancer Etty Lau Farrell and had two sons, the family decided to set up base here to allow the kids to enjoy bilingual lives. When he’s not touring with his new act Satellite Party, Farrell wanders the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, generally being ignored by the general public.
Biblical structure: Noah’s Ark
There’s a hulking, brown colossus looming over Tung Wan Beach on Ma Wan (Park Island). It’s biblical in proportion. Seriously.
In 2004, Andrew Yuen Man-Fai and Pastor Boaz Li Chi-Kwong of evangelical Christian media organisation Media Evangelism climbed Mt Ararat in eastern Turkey and found what they claimed were the remnants of Noah’s Ark. Excited and inspired by their discovery – which they documented on blurry video that was unfortunately corrupted by a “mysterious force” – they returned to Hong Kong determined to build a replica of the famous life-raft.
Four years later, they’ve done just that, with the help of Sun Hung Kai.
Built to scale on government-owned land at Ma Wan Park according to the dimensions mentioned in the Bible, the ark is one-and-a-half football fields long, 22.5 metres wide, and four storeys tall. It will house a museum to educate and enlighten the public, a 3D movie theatre, 200 hotel rooms, and several restaurants. In and around the edifice, there’ll also be both live and model animals, including, curiously, some two-headed turtles that, according to Yuen, exhibit the genius of God’s intelligent design.
Yuen also wants the Ark to spread a message of love and unity – after all, he reasons, we’re all in the same boat. “We have witnessed many crises on earth – not only global warming but also animals going extinct, as well as natural disasters like the tsunami,” he explains. “We want to remind people to love the earth and love life.”
The Ark is expected to open to the public by Easter 2009. There are also plans for a smaller, floating replica (estimated cost: up to $40 million) that will ferry passengers direct from Central to Ma Wan. So far the landed Ark has cost $10 million, which has been funded by a flood of donations from well-wishing Christians. Media Evangelism hopes to raise another $18 million.
High living: IM Pei’s little-known apartment block
Before his angular, striking Bank of China tower became a world famous landmark on the Hong Kong skyline, IM Pei, one of the most prolific and enigmatic architects of our time, took on a project in Causeway Bay. In 1982, working with local partner W. Szeto, he was contracted to design Sunning Plaza and Sunning Court, near Leighton Road. While Sunning Plaza may look like just another mirrored glass commercial complex, Sunning Court, a stone’s throw away, represents one of Pei’s rare forays into residential developments.
The façade, a mauve mosaic with expansive windows running almost the entire length of the building, leads to apartments of roughly 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, and a luxurious penthouse of more than 4,000 square feet. The complex, which has views of the Happy Valley mountains, was renovated in 2003.
Anyone can have the opportunity to live here – funds permitting. The units are available for rent strictly through Hysan Development. The going rate is about $25 to $32 per square foot – you do the math.
Sunning Court, 8 Hoi Ping Rd, Causeway Bay
‘Alfresco’ basement: Star Cafe
Kowloon’s “four floors of whores” might seem an unlikely location to find quality tomato soup, but those in the know make a special journey to the Carnarvon Road building’s basement to find Star Café. There, in the company of alley cats and rice bags piled to the ceiling, you can feast on instant noodles in a thick tomato-broth base.
The quickest, but trickiest route here is to find the Hip Kuang Electrical shop at 40-42 Carnarvon Rd in Tsim Sha Shui. Walk through the shop – the owners are used to the traffic – past the rice cookers, and down a flight of steps. From there you enter another world in an enclosed alleyway, far from the chaos of Tsim Sha Tsui. Keep going until you pass the dripping toilets, and turn right at the bend. A few fold-up tables and chairs will indicate your arrival.
B/F, 40-42 Carnarvon Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2721 2908
Easy money: Ice House Street ATM
Given its high concentration of bars, clubs and restaurants, it’s always been something of a mystery why Lan Kwai Fong has a complete lack of ATMs. The apparent nearest option is an annoyingly inconvenient (and often sweaty) trek down to the HSBC on Pedder Street, where the reward for your efforts is often a longish queue of other people in a state of social interruption who would much rather be back in the air-con sipping beer. A far better option is the Wing Lung Bank ATM tucked away inside the reception area of the Central Hospital, on Ice House Street. From outside the doors of the Fringe Club, cross the road and veer left and you will be a few metres away from some fast cash – and, best of all, there are no queues. There’s a $25 service charge for customers of banks other than Wing Lung, but it’s a small price to pay.
Abandoned luxury development: Sea Ranch
Visiting Sea Ranch today feels like visiting Discovery Bay after a direct hit from a neutron bomb. The southwest Lantau ghost town is shabby, crumbling, and crushingly depressing to visit, but one feels it would make a good horror movie set. The developer went bust in the 1980s and legal proceedings rumbled on for years. There are residents, apparently, but we couldn’t see any on a recent visit. Sea Ranch is totally private, meaning only residents and their guests are allowed to visit. You’re certainly made to feel like a trespasser every second you’re here “unofficially”.
Mention the settlement to Hong Kong property agents and you’ll get a quizzical “Where?” in response, but, for those who hanker for a film noir-like dirty weekend, a few Cheung Chau agents do have properties for short-term rentals. Bring your own everything – there’s only one retail outlet of any sort here: a soft drink stand at the security post that stands on Sea Ranch’s tiny pier.
Cheung Chau Island is the gateway to Sea Ranch, and wallah wallahs (small boats) can be hired for $30-$80 each way. This trip takes about 25 minutes. There’s also a scheduled “ferry” service that departs daily from Cheung Chau from a small pier to the left of the main pier. This vessel is a white and blue motor launch and leaves at about 7am each day.
Premium picnic: Times Square sky-garden
Times Square’s Food Forum is usually packed with families and tourists scouting through their collection of trendy restaurants – but a few in the know have been sneaking up past the 13th floor for an alfresco lunch.
A small terrace, fitted with astro-turf and white picnic benches, seats about 30 people comfortably. Surrounded by a rustic wooden fence, one almost forgets the hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay. Bring your own lunch or takeaway food from Citysuper below and get some fresh air within a premium commercial development, without the premium prices.
To get there, take the Food Forum lift up to the 13th floor and bear left, where a smaller set of escalators lead you to the Menard cosmetics retailer. Go straight past and the terrace is on your left. The terrace is closed after 6pm, as there are no lights.
Underground passages: Hong Kong’s tunnel networks
That Hong Kong is a home to a number of disused tunnels is a fairly widely known; what’s rather less known to the average Hongkonger is the remarkable extent of the network. Bored deep in into the hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island by both the colonial government (in 1939 and 1940 in anticipation of Japanese bombing raids) and the Japanese occupation forces (mostly during 1942-43), there are about 90 of these tunnels, about 30 of which were built before the Japanese invasion.
A small number of these air-raid shelters are of disputed origin, including Argyle Street and Broadwood Road. There are tunnels, all largely inaccessible but occasionally inspected for safety reasons, in: Canton Road, Kennedy Road, Wai Chai Road (extensive), Star Street, Stubbs Road, Tai Hang Road, Lower Albert Road, Sai Wan Ho’s Hoi An Street, and Aberdeen’s Old Main Street.
Tellingly, most of the pre-war tunnels are located in areas generally favoured by British and other European expatriates; the local teeming masses in high density areas like Sham Shui Po were evidently expected to depend on capricious fate or the power of prayer when Japanese bombers darkened the skies 67 years ago.
Members of the public can view the exact locations of the tunnels on detailed maps kept at the library of Civil Engineering and Development Building, located at 101 Princess Margaret Rd, Ho Man Tin.
Secretive swimming: Lantau waterfalls
For an infinity pool outside the Four Seasons hotel, you could do worse than a trip to Lantau, where you can find a beautiful private swimming spot among the rocks and foliage of the hillside above Tai O. Take the bus to Tai O and hop off by the temple built for Li Ka Shing’s late wife. Past the temple’s entrance, you’ll see a car-park on your right. From there, take the overgrown waterworks road that veers off to the left and walk for ten tranquil minutes until you arrive at a dead end featuring a large rock pool. Years ago the stream was cut off by a man-made wall built into the hillside. The result is an infinity pool, with water gently trickling over the edge. Dive in – it’s nice and deep – and you can literally float in the pool with your elbows resting on the wall. Enjoy the view.
While you’re in the area, take any of the buses from Mui Wo in the general direction of Tai O or the Big Buddha. A couple of stops after Pui O, you’ll pull into the tiny village of San Shek Wan. Now, we’d upset our sources if we blew the cover on this one, but here’s a clue: look up, and don’t go during the rainy season. Somewhere in the hills there’s an idyllic series of rock pools fed by waterfalls.
Nepalese nibbles: Lovely Corner
Until a waiter opens the door for you on the fifth floor of the Winning Building, you can’t be sure you’re not about to walk into to a private apartment. Come to think of it, once you’re inside, it’s still hard to shake that feeling. With cushioned bench seats, a half-dozen low tables, hanging drapes, and dim lighting, Lovely Corner gives new meaning to the word “intimate”. The cheapest food and drink prices in Central – $30 for a glass of wine, and the same for a big plate of onion bhaji – make this late-night ethnic retreat even more appealing.
Lovely Corner, 5/F, Winning House, 26 Hollywood Rd, Central, 2854 0916. Opening hours: 5pm-5am.
Arresting colonial architecture: Old Tai O Police Station
Built in 1902, the police force at the Old Tai O Police Station once had the monstrous task of combating pirates in the waters and bandits from the mountains who terrorised Tai O residents.
“Now we’re a quiet and peaceful town,” says one Tai O resident. “Too peaceful.” The lack of crime in the area has led to the station’s current vacancy.
Perched on a rock by the Tai O ferry pier, the abandoned station is an architectural gem peeking out from large trees. The building is a beautiful example of colonial architecture with the twist of Chinese pan-and-roll roofing. The two-storey building has two parts: a main block and a barrack block, connected by footbridge. Hike up to get a better look, but beware of fallen trees and the steep stone stairs.
There are plans to convert the station into a boutique hotel, café, or museum.
Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O, Lantau Island. Take the ferry from pier 6 in Central to Mui Wo and then board bus number 1 to Tai O. Disembark at the final stop, turn left, and walk towards Tai Po market. The walk to the Tai O ferry pier takes about 20 minutes.
Mystery band: Kim Tak Building
Their first album was a beautiful production – both in music and art. A lovely dreamscape of ambient electronica and post-rock with classical inflections, 2006’s In the Forest and the Field was built layer upon layer, loop upon loop over a period of four years. The four members of Kim Tak Building keep their individual names secret, preferring the collective identity of the band. Despite their remarkable debut effort – a significant but overlooked achievement marked by restraint and intricate composition – they've struggled to sell many of the 1,000 self-financed copies of the CD, which come packaged in a hard-back, cloth-covered booklet with warped fantasy-style art drawn by one of the band members.
They’ve played only two gigs, both private affairs in their Jordan flat-cum-studio, which is housed in the building from which they take their name. About 30 invited people attended each 35-minute show. They’re now working on a second album – a two-piece concept work, with one part dedicated to the night and one to the day. Look for it at the start of 2009.