Most travellers to Hong Kong gravitate towards the glamour of its main island, yet across Victoria Harbour lies the more heavily populated Kowloon. Nicknamed the ‘dark side’, despite being permanently lit up in a fiery neon glow, Kowloon is restlessly trapped between Western idealism and Da Li (the Chinese mainland).
Kowloon's generally heaving, frenetic atmosphere – a neon swirl of gritty markets and steaming crab-and-beer stalls – seems a world away from the dapper expat crowd of Hong Kong Island.
With more holes-in-the-wall than a Triad hideaway, Kowloon (meaning ‘nine dragons’) can swallow the undiscerning tourist, particularly after the sun goes down. Here are some of our favourite ways to tame the scaly beast and uncover the best of Kowloon by night.
Take in the view
From Hong Kong Island, the best way to reach Kowloon is via the historic Star Ferry. Disembark at Tsim Sha Tsui, where early evening is the perfect time to go in search of designer stores and fine dining, with spectacular views of the Hong Kong Island skyline as it begins to light up in the evening. From 8pm each night, the Symphony of Lights laser show kicks off along the Avenue of Stars on Tsim Sha Tsui's promenade, sending flashes of green and purple across the horizon from the island's tallest skyscrapers. The bar at the Intercontinental Hotel is an ideal viewing spot for this colourful display. A less salubrious option can be found along the East Rail line, at Hung Hom’s fabulous dive bar, V King Lounge (Shop K2 & K6, G/F, Hung Hom Ferry Pier), the only drinking establishment actually on the water.
Nathan Road is the main thoroughfare through Kowloon and its bright lights and department stores draw thousands of serious shoppers until midnight. Lots of small streets around Nathan Road offer a more local experience. Temple Street is the most popular for rubbing shoulders with the masses. You’ll need sturdy footwear to negotiate the back streets of Mong Kok – the heart of 2014's Umbrella Revolution and one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world. Luckily you can find all manner of pumped up kicks on Sneakers Street (Fa Yuen Gai).
Running parallel to Nathan Road is charming Shanghai Street, where old milk teahouses, food stalls and kitchenware shops make a charming detour day or night. If you can’t find what you want, try Chungking Mansions, back on Nathan Road, once a must-stop refuge on the hippie trail and now a welcoming microcosm of global trade. Here you can change currency, buy electronics, get a massage, meet a few colourful characters and sample cheap, delicious South Asian cuisine.
Travelling north along Nathan Road, you'll find Dundas Street, which marks the beginning of an emerging hipster scene in Mong Kok East. There’s no shortage of places to drink around these gaai (back alleys), whether milk tea, twice-boiled herbal medicine or a cold pint of Blue Girl beer. All three are served at Fullcup Cafe, where chatting, rather than dancing, is the order of the evening and there's live late-night jazz and indie gigs on the third floor.
Around the corner, you can hedge your bets at various street games of mahjong, but be sure to know your tiles. Otherwise, go for broke at the tiny noodle shops, record stores, workshops and artsy cafes (many specialising in macha-flavoured ice cream) here. If lost, in-the-know staff at The Ale Project (thealeproject.com) on Hak Po St will calm your nerves with delicious pints of craft beer and giant portions of bar snacks.
Even at midnight in summer, you’ll see elderly locals practising tai chi before bedtime and teens shooting hoops on floodlit courts while Canto-pop blasts from digital speakers. Just north of Prince Edward MTR station along Tung Choi St are several rows of bars where games of darts and dice are a nightly ritual.
Wander east (or hail a taxi) past the flower market – busy setting up for the morning at this time of night – and you'll eventually find Kowloon Walled City, which was un-governed Chinese territory during British rule and home to hundreds of opium dens and brothels. These days, it’s a beautiful public park open around the clock. Kowloon City is also home to a vibrant Thai community, who spill onto the streets after dark. Catch your breath over a whisky in the dimly lit Veni Bar (G/F 40-42 San Po Kong Road).
Most MTR lines close around 1am in Kowloon, so you'll want to jump in a red taxi to get across to punk den Hidden Agenda in Kwun Tong on the east side of Kowloon Bay. Cover charges depend on who is playing, but average around HKD$100. The entrance is through a car garage and is far from obvious; look for a gig poster or security guard to guide you. The lift opens at the club door. If there is no action here, try the Italian restaurant room around the corner, Tfvsjs (Unit B, 10/F, Gee Luen Factory Building, 316-318 Kwun Tong Rd). Run by a post-rock band, it’s large, painfully cool and there's a bring-your-own-booze policy.
If you're still out and now getting hungry, continue via taxi to Wong Tai Sin's Chui Wo Lee (Shop 2, Lower Wong Tai Sin Estate, Ching Tak St), a 24-hour outdoor seafood restaurant whose fried squid balls have been satiating a late-night boozy clientele for years. And if you're still ready to roll after that, you can bring the sun up at Love Da Cafe (Chiap King Industrial Building, 114 King Fuk St, San Po Kong), an ‘underground’ club ten floors up in an industrial warehouse where cardboard boxes litter the entrance and smoking is basically compulsory. The crowd here tends to be older and raucous-yet-discerning, and the sound system rivals anything on Hong Kong Island.
If you find most taxis are refuelling at the nearest dim sum joint and you can't just handle the trip home, around the corner is the excellent Pentahotel. Back in Kwun Tong, L'hotel élan is an equally smart option. Soon enough, the morning sun will burn through smog as check-in runs into check-out. But Hong Kong sleeps late and you deserve a lie in. When you gather up the energy again, the nine dragons of Kowloon will be waiting just outside your door.