Hong Kong: a place bursting at the seams in almost every sense of the phrase. Like any politically charged city, there’s an undercurrent of creativity that provides an outlet for Hong Kong’s rebellious streak, translating into a clutch of interesting food experiences, design ideas and artistic endeavours.
Here’s our guide to sampling what’s hip in Hong Kong and uncovering the local heart of this Asian metropolis along the way.
New art galleries
Hong Kong may not be the first on a contemporary art lover’s guide to world cities, but Hong Kongers are at an interesting moment in their history. The decades following the handover from British to Chinese rule have led Hong Kong to question its identity and search for its roots, and these undercurrents have sprung into a unique art scene, which nowadays culminates in the annual Art Basel Hong Kong (hongkong.artbasel.com), which showcases predominantly works from Asian and Hong Kong-based artists and galleries every March.
Art tends to seek unrefined spaces to thrive, and the rising rent prices and dearth of venue spaces have led many Hong Kong gallery owners to abandoned or run-down high-rise warehouses in Aberdeen, a quiet fishing village transforming itself on the south side of Hong Kong Island.
Lorries carrying rice and veg now compete with art trucks delivering massive sculptures to and from several high-rise warehouses here. Spring Workshop (springworkshop.org) is one such venue, a rotating gallery of local exhibitions alongside a sleek, warm residency space where artists can live, work and eat. There’s also an outdoor terrace where they host public film screenings and concerts.
In the next high-rise over, Gallery EXIT (galleryexit.com) produces cutting edge exhibitions by local artists and some from around Asia, many speaking to contemporary realities of life in Hong Kong and how the city’s varied history has informed current cultural trends.
Back in Central, PMQ is a new design centre on Hollywood Rd that's doing its part to revive this historic part of Hong Kong. Based in the old Police Married Quarters (hence the name), several levels of former apartments have been transformed into gallery spaces where artists and designers can work, connect with the public and sell their wares.
Hip restaurants and bars
The ‘death of fine dining’ is finally arriving in Hong Kong, a city that until recently was littered with high-end restaurants that only corporate budgets could afford. There’s still plenty of top-shelf food to be found in Hong Kong, but those not on an expense account will be pleasantly surprised by the arrival of small, specialist restaurants. Usually run by individual, up-and-coming chefs, these hotspots serve one or two things very well. New takes on old favourites are popping up everywhere, as are exciting fusions of east and west.
Leading the tradition-bucking charge is Little Bao, a tiny, rectangular space with bar stool seating along the open kitchen. It’s located, appropriately, across from the PMQ design centre. Bao, an Asian-style sandwich served on steamed a steamed bun, is the order of the day here. But renegade chef May Chow has playfully mixed up her American and Hong Kong backgrounds to make what she calls 'Asian burgers'. The menu is extremely small and rotates around the signature pork belly bao (a must), with a few side-dishes that will surprise (mac and cheese made from rice cakes rather than pasta), and the make-your-life green tea ice cream dessert burger.
New kid on the block, Ho Lee Fook (holeefook.com.hk), whose puntastic name actually means 'good fortune for your mouth' in Cantonese, is making waves on the Hong Kong scene with its avant-garde menu and massive cocktails cooked up by another young chef and food fanatic Jowett Yu from Taiwan.
With rents often being hiked in space-deprived Hong Kong, many chefs are turning to their own personal spaces and creating private kitchens that a maximum of one or two groups of diners can attend per evening. One of the most atmospheric private kitchens in Hong Kong is that of Margaret Xu. A self-taught chef, Margaret is known for her use of historic Hong Kong cooking techniques and has recently opened a special new kitchen at her beachhouse, Ying Yang Coastal (yinyang.hk). Margaret devises a ‘fantasy menu’ based on what she can get that day at local markets, what fish she catches herself and what herbs and veg she’s grown in the front garden. You’ll need to get a group of eight together to book the single private table.
Hong Kong's nightlife scene is slowly expanding west from the night owls' bastion of Lan Kwai Fong - the traditional heart of Hong Kong drinking - into historic neighbourhoods where unusual spaces are being converted into new-use bars and lounges. One such space is Ping Pong Gintonería (pingpong129.com) in relatively quiet Sai Ying Pun district. Built out of a former ping pong gymnasium, this is a hidden bar specialising in gin - a most refreshing tipple in Hong Kong’s hot and humid climate. The bar itself has no English sign; look for the Chinese characters for ‘ping pong’ (乒乓球) displayed above a red door on Second St, and descend into the delightfully restored open lounge, complete with the former ping pong club’s neon sign hung above the bar.
Or, opt to get an insider's tour of all of the above from Little Adventures in Hong Kong (littleadventuresinhk.com), a group of locals who put together bespoke private tours of Hong Kong's secret corners, including a breathless nightlife tour with city socialite Johannes Pong.
Megan Eaves is Lonely Planet's North Asia Destination Editor. If lost, she could very well be found guzzling wonton soup down one of Hong Kong's dai pai dong. You can follow her on Twitter @megoizzy.
Megan travelled to Hong Kong with support from the Hong Kong Tourism Board (www.discoverhongkong.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.