Published in Kerry Properties’ The Dress Circle February 2007
When the Mid-Levels escalator trundled into service in 1993, city authorities were hopeful that it would help alleviate some of the traffic woes on Central’s congested roads. The plan was that executives residing in the Mid-Levels would find riding the escalator downtown to work, more appealing than taking a taxi.
The escalator, or din tai as it is known in Cantonese, connects Des Voeux Road in Central with Conduit Road 135 metres vertically up in the Mid-Levels and is the largest outdoor escalator system in the world. The town planners’ idea worked perfectly, and the escalator now supports a daily traffic of more than 45,000 people.
But more than being just a people mover, the Mid-Levels escalator has birthed an unexpected offspring in SoHo, the area south of Hollywood Road. Just as transport always transforms land uses, so too the escalator created, as a by-product, the stylish collection of ethnic bars and restaurants and the vibrant, fashionable lifestyle that is SoHo.
“SoHo probably would not have come into being without the escalator. I don’t think anyone planned SoHo – it just shows the creativity of Hong Kong people,” says Allan Zeman, the founder and owner of many of the restaurants in nearby Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s trendiest nightlife area.
While SoHo is the neighbourhood of distinctive eateries and watering holes clustered around Shelley Street, Staunton Street and Elgin Street; Lan Kwai Fong is the more exuberant warren of bars, restaurants and nightclubs around the L-shaped cobblestone lane that joins D’Aguilar Street. Both places are an easy stroll away from each other.
With two buzzing entertainment districts, Central is where the energies are. “The more places there are in the area the stronger the area becomes. Today Central is a great area. There is Lan Kwai Fong, SoHo, the Fringe Club. In entertainment, the area just really, really works. It gives a lot of joy to a lot of people,” says Mr Zeman, popularly acknowledged as the Father of Lan Kwai Fong.
Just 25 years ago the entire landscape was completely different. If one felt predisposed toward a good western meal, one had to put on their Sunday best and go to a hotel for it. “And if you didn’t have a tie, they would give you a tie,” chuckles Mr Zeman. The city was very colonial in those days with a dearth of street restaurants, as we know them today.
Lan Kwai Fong used to be just a back alley with some warehouses and a few flower stalls, until Mr Zeman bought his first building there in 1983 and opened the original California Restaurant, which according to the Lan Kwai Fong Holdings website, is today the purveyor of the finest burger in town.
In those days, it was not really a restaurant area and there was no place even to collect the rubbish. The garbage truck would come at night to pick it up off a huge pile at the corner of Wellington Street where Hongkong Bank is, recalls Mr Zeman. Lan Kwai Fong was considered “fringe Central”, he explains.
“At first I thought that if we could get people to walk one block up the street from Queen’s Road, we would have a business,” says Mr Zeman. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. California started to do really well and Mr Zeman began his acquisition of the buildings in Lan Kwai Fong, slowly converting all the spaces in the buildings into restaurants.
Today, many of the world’s greatest cuisines are represented in the “Fong”. There is award-winning fare to be had in French, Italian, Russian, Nordic, Australian, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and ‘everything in between-type’ restaurants.
Living in the vicinity of SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong brings with it never-ending possibilities: there is roast goose, egg noodles, Chinese bitter tea, the Gage Street wet market, Mediterranean food, Chinese cakes, hardware stores, stationery shops, fitness gyms, rotisseries and a million other conveniences, all within a stone’s throw of each other.
The street scene transforms itself throughout the day; starting with the business suits coming in for lunch, to be replaced by the happy hour drinking crowd, which are replaced again by the folks coming for dinner, and finally, the disco crowd descends. And its proximity to the glass skyscrapers of Central’s offices means convenience for those who work there.
“We don’t have a lot of space like other cities do and just being able to live, work and play in the same area helps Hong Kong. It is like Tribeca in New York, it’s very, very trendy,” remarks Mr Zeman. “It’s a kind of magic. I feel very fortunate just to be in the area.”