A long weekend in… Hong Kong

History makes way for the electric present, as a white-hot art scene, adventurous expat chefs and iconoclastic retailers give the Pearl of the Orient a dynamic new lustre. Maria Shollenbarger reports

The Hong Kong Central skyline
The Hong Kong Central skyline | Image: Getty Images/TAO Images RM

This is Hong Kong’s moment. Its buttoned-up days of being defined by its commerce are long gone, as a far more electric and engaging story plays out, featuring expatriate chefs, world-class art dealers and all manner of cultural plot twists. Arguably, here more than anywhere else in Asia, the sweet spot where municipal investment and government initiatives meet the doings of authentic creative classes and pioneering tastemakers is manifesting concretely. It’s visible, from the much ballyhooed development of the West Kowloon Cultural District (whose equally anticipated M+ Museum for visual culture is due to open in 2018) to the converted warehouses and lofts of Chai Wan on the eastern stretches of Hong Kong Island, where local artists, designers and printers have commandeered studio space and revitalised a once-desolate quarter.

The interior of Asia Society’s Ammo bistro
The interior of Asia Society’s Ammo bistro | Image: Ammo

Not to say that there’s not plenty going on right in Central. In the heart of Sheung Wan, the PMQ (formerly known as the Police Married Quarters) was reborn last April as a multipurpose dining-retail-exhibition space – spearheaded by local-government authorities, but reliant on entrepreneurs and artisans to fill its warren of alcove spaces and make it work. By mid-July, more than half of them were up and running, with occupants ranging from some unknown-but-aspirings all the way up to Muji, which sells its top‑end Found line here, and the London über‑chef Jason Atherton, whose Aberdeen Street Social has drawn reliable crowds of scene-makers to its garden-level cocktail bar and first‑floor dining room since it opened its doors in June. Ronin, around the corner in a minuscule cul-de-sac, has also been wowing them with a brazen mash-up of izakaya and serious “bro” food, along with a craft beer, whisky and sake list, recommended in lieu of wine by Canadian chef‑owner Matt Abergel (he of Yardbird yakitori fame). Tiny and dark, with just 14 bar seats, it’s the one to book way ahead of your visit. Walk‑ins are welcome, however, at loud and crowded Chachawan, where Adam Cliff – a former right-hand man to Nahm’s David Thompson – turns out authentic Isaan (northern Thai) classics, some of which pack enough heat to make you see your ancestors.

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The aforementioned Atherton has had a presence here since October 2013, when he opened 22 Ships in the centre of Wan Chai, west of Causeway Bay. A decade or so ago, this wasn’t necessarily a part of town you’d expect to alight in and find a decent bit of food and a nice boutique to browse. Which makes today’s Wan Chai, with its molecular tapas (courtesy of Atherton) and haute rice cookers and umbrellas (courtesy of Sir David Tang, who’s back with a new venture here), all the more compelling. Atherton’s Iberian-influenced menu plays with provocative textures and unlikely east-meets-west pairings to a backdrop of hanging filament lights and 1980s pop. A few doors down and across the road is another Atherton venue, the apero-hour favourite Ham & Sherry, which placates the inevitable overspill from 22 Ships with rich shavings of Joselito ham and dozens of excellent wines by the glass. That rice cooker, meanwhile, along with other delightfully luxurious iterations of household items – from coin purses to water jugs to pyjamas – can be found on Johnston Road, at Tang’s new home and lifestyle emporium, Tang Tang Tang Tang. Though he sold up his Shanghai Tang empire to Richemont many moons ago, the FT Weekend’s agony uncle has clearly not lost his extraordinary retail acumen and eagle eye for reimagining sundries as outrageously lovely things; the listed 1888 building in which the 325sq m boutique is housed is pretty enough to merit the journey on its own.

The Sky Lounge at The Upper House
The Sky Lounge at The Upper House | Image: The Upper House Hong Kong

One tiny Wan Chai lane and its tributaries, hidden behind Pacific Place, is ostensibly where it all started. Star Street, together with adjacent Moon and Sun Streets, has long been an enclave of sweet, independent shops, bars and bistros that rewards an hour and a half’s strolling with a small United Nation’s worth of international design, from Japanese leather master Kunio Tsuchiya (who opened his only outpost outside Japan here), to the monochrome Scandinavian mens- and womenswear designs at Vein, which also stocks a small but perfect edit of home accessories. For directional womenswear, a quick trip to Causeway Bay is in order; it’s where local style powerhouse Hilary Tsui opened the 185sq m Liger boutique last year and retails a heady and (for the lesser fashionista) occasionally confounding mix of relatively accessible western designers (Hussein Chalayan, Richard Nicoll) and obscure Asian ones (the Korean capsule brand Pushbutton).

Jason Atherton’s Ham & Sherry
Jason Atherton’s Ham & Sherry | Image: Chester Ong

Towering just to the west of Wan Chai are the glass-and-steel monoliths of Pacific Place, the sleek antithesis of Star Street’s lo-fi, original charm, but with one housing an equally original hotel – one of the finest, not just in Hong Kong, but all of Asia. The Upper House has fixed a spot at the top of nearly every “best of” list for good reason. Its 117 rooms really do feel like home – if home were designed by local architect-wunderkind André Fu, along clean, calming lines and in soothing neutral tones, with hammered-nickel sinks in the walk-in minibars and freestanding limestone-clad tubs in the bathrooms. Café Gray Deluxe chef Gray Kunz’s all-day bistro on the 49th floor has some of the best views in town, to match the pitch-perfect braised short ribs and steak tartare on the menu.

The Clock Tower, Kowloon
The Clock Tower, Kowloon | Image: Luigi Vaccarella

The Landmark Mandarin Oriental offers less scenic views, but this would be a bad reason to write off a stay here – there is, after all, no shortage of terraces and top-storey floor-to-ceiling vistas across the city from which to take in its inimitable skyline. More to the point, the Landmark is special: small by Hong Kong standards, at just 14 floors, and very sexy, it has suites that exhibit extreme ingenuity in their use of space (dining tables that turn into desks in an instant), and staff that set a new bar for personalised service. The spa is top-notch, with products from the cult line Sodashi, while the Michelin-starred restaurant Amber wows with virtuoso presentation that has made it Power Dining Central.

Inside Tang Tang Tang Tang
Inside Tang Tang Tang Tang | Image: Tang Tang Tang Tang

Traditionalists may instead lean towards The Peninsula, which is knocking them out in the wake of a multimillion-dollar renovation that has left it awash with quietly gorgeous finishes (the leather-detailed dressing rooms must be some of the most perfect on earth). Lunch at Spring Moon, to watch the dim sum masters in action, is a must. Or they’ll turn to The Landmark’s venerated elder sister, the Mandarin Oriental: beyond the elegant, if mildly conventional, appeal of the rooms, it has much to recommend it for a visit if not a stay, to experience its pre-handover, proto-Anglo charms: the old-school social scene at The Captain’s Bar or the fish pie at The Chinnery. (The views from the very 21st-century penthouse M bar are pretty great too.)

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This year the Mandarin-Oriental was the locus of many of the goings-on surrounding Art Basel HK, as it will be again in 2015. It’s the crown event in a calendar of auctions, fairs, exhibitions and performances that have in their aggregate conspired to fix the city on the map of art-world big players. A clutch have made a major market nexus of the Pedder Building just off Queen’s Road, a stone’s throw from the Landmark. Among those are Lehmann Maupin and juggernaut Larry Gagosian from the US; Ben Brown from London; and local doyenne Pearl Lam, who repatriated from Shanghai two years ago. A morning spent hopping from space to brilliantly configured space (Lehmann Maupin’s by OMA is especially impressive) offers a stimulating mix of globally recognised names and possibly less familiar Chinese artists.

After all of which, two museums that cast centuries of Chinese and Asian art and craft into provocative and intelligent context are worth visiting. The New York-based Asia Society debuted its stunning Hong Kong exhibition space atop a jungled hill in Admiralty in late 2012. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects on the site of the British army’s former Explosives Magazine Compound, it strikes a brilliant balance of past and present, heritage buildings and dynamic spatial manipulation. Its two-tier concrete walkway flows assertively towards the harbour; its hushed, cool gallery spaces are retrofitted into the former munitions labs; its wide terraces are extravagantly paved in green marble. Stop in at Ammo, the unexpectedly chic bistro, for a glass of Ruinart at the copper-and-burlwood bar.

The other gem is back in Sheung Wan, an easy stroll from the PMQ (though a world away thematically). The Liang Yi Museum is the culmination of a longstanding ambition of Peter Fung, a prominent local collector, to showcase a diverse but uniformly priceless array of Chinese furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties, much of it fashioned from precious huanghuali and zitan woods. The space itself, converted from a 1960s tenement, is as serenely lovely as its works of exquisite craftsmanship. Linger to savour the history and quietude, because the buzz of Hong Kong’s electrifying present will be all around you the minute you set foot back outside.

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