With a grounding in the city’s traditions, a new generation of entrepreneurs are reinventing Hong Kong.
A stone’s throw from the shiny skyscrapers of Hong Kong, you can still find generations-old restaurants whose owners make noodles using bamboo poles. Beneath busy highway overpasses, you can still come across “devil beaters”—elderly ladies who sit on plastic stools and pound on white papers shaped as tigers to curse the people of their clients’ choosing. And you can duck outside of Hong Kong’s many air-conditioned megamalls and join tai chi practitioners in a grassy park.
These contrasts have always enchanted me. I lived in Hong Kong on both sides of 1997, when the British returned the colony back to China as a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong will return fully to China in 2047, and the world has watched the transition take its toll on a city that’s used to democratic liberties. I’ve watched the escalating protests with an aching heart. And upon each return trip, I search frantically for those aspects of the city I love, fearing the unique dynamic that makes Hong Kong extraordinary might disappear one day.
What I didn’t expect on my most recent visit was that a new hotel would give me a glimpse of Hong Kong’s evolution—and even a glimmer of hope that in such trying times, the spirit of the city is stronger than it's ever been. My stay at the new Rosewood Hong Kong helped me understand that the city I love still exists and that this time of transition is actually challenging local entrepreneurs to reflect deeply on their heritage in a way they never have before, and to tell those stories to the world.
The Rosewood Hong Kong opened in March, along Victoria Harbour in the fast-developing Kowloon area, within the Victoria Dockside waterfront development. (Check out my tour of the hotel on Instagram). The landowners, the Cheng family, who own the global 26-property Rosewood Hotel Group, have influential roots in the city. For Sonia Cheng, who entered the family business in 2011 as Rosewood’s CEO, the Hong Kong property is a deeply personal project. Not only was she born and raised in Hong Kong, but her grandfather, Dr. Cheng Yu-tung, was also the visionary behind New World Centre, one of the world’s largest commercial complexes of its time in the ’80s; that site is now home to a new skyscraper in which Rosewood Hong Kong resides.
Finance-driven Hong Kong has been less well-known for its cultural experiences. But now that the city’s status as an Asian financial hub is being eclipsed by China, it’s repositioning itself as a global stage for the arts. Art Basel Hong Kong completed its seventh year this spring, and the new $220 million M+ museum and pavilion intend to rival the Tate Modern in London and New York’s MoMA. The Rosewood Hong Kong is helping to put that stake in the ground with world-class art throughout the hotel. A sculpture by English artist Henry Moore stands in the center of the harbor-facing driveway. Inside, works by renowned U.S. artist Joe Bradley hang in the lobby, along with a life-size sculpture of an elephant by Indian artist Bharti Kerr. These works are juxtaposed by pieces of framed Hong Kong ephemera: a vintage postcard addressed to Europe, or a luggage tag from the 1960s-era Empress Hotel in Kowloon.
Confession: I canceled plans the night I checked in, so I could stay cosseted on the 28th floor in my Grand Harbour Corner Suite, where I could see the famous skyline from both my bedroom and living room. I watched the iconic green and white Star Ferry commuter vessels ply the waters between the mainland and Hong Kong Island. It conjured up childhood memories of my parents giving me change for the ferry as we walked to the terminal on Sunday outings; often I’d lose it on the way.
My suite, designed by New York–based Tony Chi Studio, felt like an indulgent escape into contemporary design. I’ll probably never get the chance to design my New York City apartment with my suite’s elegant lacquered green doors or Japanese smart toilets with heated seats, but I thoroughly enjoyed the fantasy. The residential touches made my stay feel warm and personal: A fresh peony on the bathroom counter delighted me every time I saw it. When I wasn’t gazing at the harbor, I admired the photographs in a book called Sunset Survivors, which tells stories of the people behind Hong Kong’s traditional industries. It was placed artfully next to an oversize paintbrush, which brought me back to the days my mother and I took Chinese calligraphy lessons together out of our home in Kowloon.
I eventually did leave my cocoon of nostalgia and ventured outside the hotel. It had been a few years since I’ve lived in Hong Kong, so I recruited Rosewood Hong Kong’s chief concierge, Waldo Hernandez, and his team.
“What’s your Hong Kong?” they asked me via email a few days before I checked in.
I told them my Hong Kong is the gritty, neon sign–filled world of Kowloon. It’s the old establishments that were made by and for locals. It’s the next generation of entrepreneurs I keep hearing about, who are taking their traditions and reinterpreting them for today. For me, Hong Kong also conjures up images of the late Bruce Lee, a central inspiration for my own martial arts practice, whose childhood haunts and training school are minutes away from where I once lived in Kowloon.
A transplant from the iconic Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel, Waldo is the kind of friend you dream of having as a travel companion: an engaging personality with a hunger for knowledge and a proclivity for venturing into the unknown. His secret weapon: Lotus Leung, a native Hong Konger.
On a weekend outing, Lotus took Waldo and me to Chiu Chow Lok Hau Fook Restaurant, which serves a seafood- and vegetable-based cuisine originating in Guangdong province. She shared stories about how she frequented the restaurant as a kid, ordering the same oyster omelet we sampled together. I asked her about the pot of boiling soy sauce behind a glass window near the entrance, and she told me it had probably been the same umami-rich, house-made batch they’d been boiling and adding to for the past 60 years. For dessert, we popped into Hoover Cake Shop, a pocket-size bakery nearby for duck egg tarts—the legacy of Portuguese monks that Hong Kongers adapted for their own palates. There’s nothing quite like that first bite of an egg tart. We enjoyed the taste of the buttery pastry crust juxtaposed with the sweet, still-warm center as people brushed past us on the sidewalk.
We then passed by the site of the notorious Kowloon Walled City, and Lotus told us the history of the slum, which was once filled with opium parlors and brothels before being demolished more than two decades ago. We were on our way to Tai Wo Tang Café, a former Chinese medicine shop dating to 1932 that was repurposed as a café and serves breakfast all day. It’s part of a recent local trend in which heritage places are being preserved and repurposed rather than demolished to make space for new development. As we ordered our iced coffee, my eyes wandered over the old wooden drawers behind the counter that once held various remedies. I reflected on the alternative fate of this beautiful old space had the owners not preserved it as a café.
We then traced the legacy of Bruce Lee to an exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. We passed by his adulthood Hong Kong home, in the leafy residential Kowloon Tong neighborhood, which was intended to be made into a museum a few years ago but has instead remained dilapidated. Sadly, not everything that’s historically significant survives in this fast-paced city. But I was heartened when I visited the Wing Chun school where Lee trained with legendary master Ip Man. Through the window, I glimpsed students practicing similar moves to the ones inspired by Bruce Lee, moves I’ve been learning in New York City, a direct connection to the lineage of my training.
Whether you’re visiting a Chinese medicine shop reimagined as a café or staying in a skyscraper hotel whose CEO is personally invested in perpetuating Hong Kong’s culture and identity, it’s an exciting time to see Hong Kong. As I explored my former home, I was reminded that nothing ever stands still in time and that in the midst of transition and turmoil, we grow the most. One thing is certain: This newfound spirit of local ownership in Hong Kong’s past, present, and future will inspire me to keep returning.
Check out AFAR's tour of the new Rosewood Hong Kong on Instagram here.