Wan Chai is one of Hong Kong’s oldest areas and it’s always been far less influenced by the city’s one-time colonial overlords than its neighbouring districts to the west. To this day, Wan Chai is a dense assemblage of residential flats, small stores, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and the occasional bar, crammed into just a few streets.We start at Wan Chai’s far western end, by Star Street – an area that’s home to some of the city’s hippest boutiques and eateries. Grab an energising coffee at Elephant Grounds at the entrance to the area, before heading up the hill to explore. Make sure to pop by design store Kapok, which stocks work from some of Hong Kong’s best designers, before swinging by combination art gallery and print shop Odd One Out. Also seek out Lala Curio, hidden away down an alleyway off the main streets. It’s crammed full of whimsical, Chinoiserie-inspired decor, furniture and accessories.
Start out with a coffee at Elephant Grounds.
We’re heading down the hill and into Wan Chai proper now, turning on to Queen’s Road East: the city’s first ever road, which still snakes along a good portion of the island. The Happy Cake Shop (106 Queen’s Road East) has been baking Hong Kong’s unique buns and cakes since 1979 and there’s always a reassuring queue out the door. Trays of baked goods are regularly brought out from the back, and you’ll want to grab whatever’s piping hot: go for a coconut-filled cocktail bun or a sugar-crusted pineapple bun, which actually contains no pineapple at all. And of course, you can never go wrong with a classic egg custard tart.
Further down Queen’s Road, we get to the Hopewell Centre – one of the city’s very first skyscrapers. This cylindrical building contains Hong Kong’s only revolving restaurant, The Grand Buffet but you’re not here for the food: you’re here for the glass observation lift that propels visitors up to the 56th floor. As you ascend, the dense city falls away from you and the harbour pops into view beyond.
Enjoy the views of the city from the Grand Buffet
We follow Queen’s Road again until we arrive at Stone Nullah Lane. A “nullah” is an open storm drain, an Indian word borrowed during colonial times. Thankfully, the nullah has since been covered over, although the name remains. Sitting on the lane is one of the city’s best-preserved pre-war buildings: the Blue House (72 Stone Nullah Lane), so-named for its vibrant hue. This balconied tenement appears just as it would have done when it was built in the 1920s, thanks to restoration efforts that have won it Unesco plaudits. The building was once home to a respected kung fu studio, and the ground floor was occupied by a bone-setting clinic – the traditional Chinese practice that’s a combination of chiropractic and martial arts. Now, the Hong Kong House of Stories on the ground floor hosts small-scale exhibitions.
At the top of Stone Nullah Lane, the beautiful Pak Tai Temple sits ensconced in the shade of two enormous banyan trees. It’s the largest temple complex on Hong Kong Island, hidden away among auto repair shops and residential units. Pak Tai is a martial god, responsible for the triumph of good over evil. The temple was built in 1863 but is actually home to a copper statue of the deity that’s more than 250 years older. Make sure to check out the buildings to the side, where some of the temple’s original tiling is preserved.
Wan Chai from the sightseeing lift at the Hopewell Centre. Photograph: Alamy
By now you’ll be in need of a restoring drink, and Tai Lung Fung (5-9 Hing Wan Street) has just the thing. This unpretentious bar is steeped in Hong Kong culture, from the distinctly Hong Kong tiling to the old-school memorabilia on the walls – all just the right side of kitsch.
Suitably refreshed, we’re heading into the open-air market on Wan Chai Road. The “wet market” – so named for the water spritzed on the vegetables, and the stalls that are hosed down every day – offers a true snapshot of Hong Kong life. Market-goers haggle over the price of bok choy, butchers carve off chunks of pork belly, and chickens are killed and plucked for the freshest possible meal. In among it all are dotted dried seafood stores, eateries and bric-a-brac boutiques.
The wet market gives a snapshot of Hong Kong life. Photograph: Alamy
Time for a classic bite in a cha chaan teng. These no-frills eateries – literally “tea restaurants”– grew up around Hong Kong’s industrial boom in the 50s and 60s, serving uniquely Hong Kong cuisine. The 61-year-old Ho Wah Cafe still serves up all the old favourites. Order the house speciality: a toasted corned beef and egg sandwich, washed down with strong, sweet milk tea.
Next door to Ho Wah sits the Green House, named for its one-time paint job. This group of 10 prewar tenement buildings has been refurbished (and painted white), reconfigured around a small open square into Comix Home Base, an arts centre for Hong Kong’s comics industry. The space holds regular exhibitions, so there’s always something new to see.
Reward your wanderings with a superbly crafted cocktail at The Optimist (239 Hennessy Road), one of the city’s best restaurants. Or if you’re in need of a view, then head across the road to Wooloomooloo Steakhouse, whose rooftop bar offers gob-smacking views of the city from right in the middle of it all. Look over the edge and the roads seem to stretch away far beyond you, orange-lit arteries glowing and blinking as dusk falls on Hong Kong.