Wanchai is a live specimen of an ever evolving city. Similar to other modern cities, conservation and development forever hang in a delicate balance. Ever since heralding in the heritage preservation programs in older Wanchai, demolishing old buildings is no longer an option, which leaves land reclamation as the only expansion solution.
Wanchai North is mostly reclaimed land, the newest addition to Wanchai. The expanse of Wanchai North stands in stark contrast to its older and congested counterpart. It seems like Wanchai North, complete with cultural venues, five star hotels, office buildings, government buildings and world class exhibition center, has shed its former self and metamorphosed into a modern utopia.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival is into its 38th year, with two of the most popular performing art venues, Hong Kong Arts Center and Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts situated right in Wanchai North. Held in March every year, the Arts Festival has fostered the cultural scene in Hong Kong by bringing many celebrated international performances to the territory, including music, dance, opera and theater. If you are in the territory during this time, you may want to go online http://www.hk.artsfestival.org to check out the festival calendar. The area is undeniably artsy and has even attracted a myriad of language schools such as The British Council, Alliance Francais and Goethe Institute. It can be aptly crowned as a cultural hub.
Wanchai North is also home to five star hotels, amongst which the Grand Hyatt Hotel is the crème de la crème. As the Asian flagship of the Hyatt chain of hotels the décor spells opulence. Upon entering the lobby, feast your wandering eyes at the art deco furnishings. The fountain in front of the lobby café and the curving stairways are favored backgrounds for photos. Balls held in the hotel are important dates on a socialite’s calendar. As for securing a booking for a wedding banquet in the ballroom, it entails a long waiting list. For a Chinese banquet the price tag is US$1,000 to $1,200 per table, multiply that by 30 tables, the only word to describe the occasion is decadence. A true gem in the hotel is The Grissini Italian restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. The great food and ambience has propped up its popularity which has never faded despite its launch more than a decade ago.
Rent for a harbor view office in Wanchai is on the high end but still a far cry from Central. One office tower that truly stands out is Central Plaza. Aside from being the third tallest building in Hong Kong, recently usurped by the IFC2 and ICC, the tower is built in a triangular shape. The rationale behind the design being more harbor view can be enjoyed from three sides instead of four. Another reputed feature is the top of the tower where a four-bar neon clock is installed to indicate time by displaying different colors at each quarter of the hour. Most of the office buildings in Wanchai North are linked with overhead pedestrian walkways to facilitate pedestrian traffic. The passageways are much wider compared to that in Central. The central courtyard is spacious enough to hold a cluster of restaurants where you can dine al fresco with a choice of international cuisines.
Directly opposite to the Grand Hyatt Hotel are several blocks of somber black buildings. These are government buildings which house the Immigration Department, the Inland Revenue Department, Business Registration Department, Postal Office and court houses. By the amount of people traffic you see traversing between the blocks you may have an inkling of the efficiency Hong Kong is prized for.
The Golden Bauhinia Square is a landmark located outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. The Giant Bauhinia serves as a testament to Hong Kong’s sovereignty as this is where the handover ceremony is held back in July 1997, when the former British colony is handed back to China and Hong Kong is established as a Special Administrative Region. The flag-raising ceremony is held daily at 8 a.m. On July 1st and October 1st, marking the handover anniversary and the National Day respectively, the flag-raising ceremony will be more elaborate.
The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center is an architectural icon on the Wanchai North harbor front. The construction assumes the shape of a bird spreading its wings. A new wing has been added in 2006, adding additional exhibiting space in light of the competition of neighboring Macau. Year round international trade fairs are being held in the many exhibiting halls, some of which are the biggest in the world. The Convention and Exhibition Center has attracted many international, mainland and local vendors to the territory, boosting Hong Kong’s image as a top player in trade and commerce.
Wanchai North is geographically situated at the island end of the cross harbor tunnel. A cross harbor taxi stand can be found outside Sun Hung Kai Center. Despite having built three cross harbor tunnels to ease traffic, the Hung Hom tunnel is by far the busiest. One reason being the tunnel fare is the cheapest amongst the three but the most important reason is it brings you to the heart of Kowloon, Tsimshatsui. Some taxi drivers on the island simply refuse to cross over to Kowloon during rush hour, some even any hour, an indication the tunnel is that congested. If you take one of the cross harbor taxis, you need only pay one way for the tunnel fee. Should you take an island taxi, you have to pay for the return trip as well, making the tunnel fee double. Incidentally, the Star Ferry also operates a line from Tsimshatsui to Wanchai in addition to the one to Central. It is the cheapest way to cross the harbor aside from the Mass Transit Railway.
There is not much shopping in Wanchai North. If you feel like splurging but not so much as you would regret it later on, a breakfast at the Grand Hyatt Hotel’s lobby café is a great idea. Scrambled egg white with crab meat, coupled with fresh baked pastry and unlimited refills of brewed coffee with warm milk no doubt make a sumptuous fare. The attentive service makes it a five star experience. After the delightful breakfast you can take a walk along the Wanchai promenade and take in the view of the harbor and the Kowloon skyline. The promenade is where locals and tourists alike gather to view the spectacular fireworks during New Year’s, Chinese New Year’s and National Day. It is also a great locale to take photos of Christmas lights adorning the walls of office buildings in Tsimshatsui.
If you have a real itch for shopping, an interesting place to browse is by way of a flyover back to Lockhart Road in older Wanchai, famous for its many furnishing shops, from functional to designer. You can see Versace tiles, Philippe Starck faucets, lightings and everything imaginable for your decorating or redecorating needs. If you are not the do it yourself person, you may want to skip Lockhart Road all together as it is one the most congested roads on Hong Kong island. Imagine taxis dropping off and picking up passengers, buses trying to cut in the double parked cars to get to their stops and private cars waiting for a spot, nightmarish. For some serious shopping the closest mall is the upscale Pacific Place Mall in Admiralty.
Wanchai is an area with many interesting contrasts which is mind boggling to imagine them coexisting in harmony. From roadside stalls and wet markets to five star luxury hotels and restaurants. From old buildings listed in conservation projects to modern architectures built on reclaimed land. From furnishing stores stocking Philippe Stark faucets to restaurants designed by Stark the man. From street rituals of beating “petty persons” performed by grannies to stylized performances by acclaimed artists. Wanchai is indeed a place of diversity, with something for everyone.
Bonnie Wong is a full time writer, bilingual translator and founder of Pastel b. cards. She hopes to share the uniqueness of Hong Kong with everyone through her writing. Learn more about me [+]