Not long ago, the western end of Hong Kong Islandâ€”basically everything beyond Sheung Wanâ€”was the preserve of locals and intrepid expats. Those days are over. Now home to a buzzing restaurant and bar scene (as well as their own metro stations), the once no-go neighborhoods of Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun are now firmly on the map.
With a ding of its bell and a rattle of its coachwork, another east-bound tram departs Kennedy Town, as trams have done every few minutes since the precarious double-decker streetcars were introduced to Hong Kong Island in 1912. Itâ€™s a sound that I find both soothing and nostalgic, having lived above one of Kennedy Townâ€™s two tram stops for three years. However, travelers visiting the western neighborhood today will experience a very different place from the one that welcomed the first â€śding dingsâ€ť (as the streetcars are affectionately known) a century ago, or even this wide-eyed expat in 2008.
Kennedy Town, named for Arthur Edward Kennedy, the seventh governor of Hong Kong, is finally benefitting from its once unenviable designationâ€”both literally and metaphoricallyâ€”as the â€śend of the line.â€ť Thanks to both soaring rents in Central and the 2014 extension of the Island Line of the cityâ€™s MTR network, Sai Wanâ€”the Western Districtâ€”has seen an influx of expats, upwardly mobile locals, and the restaurants, cafĂ©s, and bars that keep them sated. This is particularly apparent in pockets of Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town, a traditionally working-class precinct bookended by the flanks of brooding Mount Davis and the factory buildings of Shek Tong Tsui.
I still remember the first time I stepped foot in Kennedy Town. When I told my colleagues at the South China Morning Post where I was apartment hunting, they smirked and shook their heads. â€śWhy would you want to live down there?â€ť one asked, exasperated.
Undeterred, I caught one of those rumbling trams through the frenzy of rush-hour Central toward the dark, silent harborfront at the end of the line. â€¨K-Town, as the neighborhood is colloquially known, was exactly what I wasÂ looking for: quiet and close enough to the city to be convenient but without the ridiculous rents. It was a place where I could practice my Cantonese and eat like a local; where I never had to wait in line for an organic single-origin espresso because, back then, it was McCafĂ© or nothing. On the rooftop of my 1950s six-floor walkup, I would barbecue with friends while families gathered for dinner in the countless apartments towering above us. At night, I could hear pilot boats tooting to each other on the harbor. It was bliss.
Much of that charm remains, despite K-Townâ€™s emergence as one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city. While a plethora of new restaurants, cafĂ©s, bars, and high-rise developments continues to seduce trendy DINKs westward, the area still clings to its earlier persona. True, the building I first moved into in 2008 has since fallen prey to the wrecking ball. But many older enclaves remain, creating a blend of old and new thatâ€™s both fascinating and reassuring.