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Hong Kong’s Tai Hang District: The New Soho

29th November 2015

Parked cars clear out as the sun goes down, and in their place come new cars, as if working in shifts. The first set are there because of the mechanics, whose auto-repair shops have long filled the neighbourhood; the second belong to the diners and revellers who come to enjoy what the area has recently become.

There aren’t many quarters like Tai Hang left on Hong Kong Island. A slum until the 1990s, it lies in the shadow of the glitzy shopping district, Causeway Bay, and is hemmed in by a hill on one side and high-rise buildings on the rest.

 A Tai Hang noodle shop, opposite one of the area’s many car mechanics (Image: Mathew Parker)

It retains its working-class credentials through the profusion of those car repair shops, traditional cafes and dai pai dongs – open-air food stalls. Yet it’s also home to a new wave of independent cafes, bars and restaurants; a quick online search for the area now throws up words like “foodie” and “heaven”.

The owners and workers in these places, many returnees from cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, Tokyo and San Francisco, were attracted not only by the cheaper rents, but also by the community feel.

But this is no hipster invasion. Knocking back pisco sours at Guay, a Latin-American cocktail bar, I was introduced to Ricky, still frisky at 58, and getting merry with a beer on the pavement.

 Guay cocktail bar (Image: Mathew Parker)

One of the owners of Bing Kee, the legendary, 60-year-old, family-run, milk-tea dai pai dong next door – a place where people queue as long as it takes – Ricky works at the stall in the day and drinks here at night.

Alex Lau is the owner of Buddy, a high-end car detailing shop with a gleaming white Porsche lodged inside. To look at him (fresh chubby face, cannabis T-shirt) and his shop (raw wood, minimalist) you’d never guess he worked here as a mechanic 20 years back.

“It was very different then,” he tells me, through my new friend and translator, Candy, co-owner of Guay and also a lobster roll and hotdog cafe called Pop It.

“There was only Bing Kee and the char siu (barbecued pork) shop, and most of the people were mechanics.”

Now the choice of food here extends to Go Ya Yakitori, a wood-panelled yakitori (Japanese chicken skewers) place, and Ramen Nagi, whose chef-owner Nelson Cheung describes Tai Hang as a “hole in the wall of Causeway Bay.”

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 Go Ya Yakitori, one of Tai Hang’s new breed of cafe (Image: Mathew Parker)

When he came back to the area, Alex saw how the clientele was changing and adapted his business accordingly.

How long the neighbourhood will remain the same is hard to say: the rapid gentrification of Hong Kong is the subject of fierce debate among citizens and urban geographers alike.

Some argue that places such as Tai Hang and the previously sedate western district of Kennedy Town (both candidates for “the new Soho” tag) are already lost.

 One of Tai Hang’s last remaining congee shops (Image: Mathew Parker)

In fact, developers bought two residential blocks in Tai Hang a year ago, and the old residents moved on. All except one old lady, still resolutely hanging her washing out and throwing water on passersby in protest. She may well be the last line of defence: when she passes on, redevelopment will begin in earnest.

Yet between Hong Kee, one of the few remaining old-school congee shops in HK, and Ramen Nagi, the new Tokyo-style noodle restaurant, Tai Hang is one of the city’s most interesting and fluid places right now.

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This article was written by Deepti Kapoor from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.