Across the hills from Victoria Harbour, industrial spaces on Hong Kong Island’s southern shores are being repurposed as restaurants, galleries, and guest rooms. But could a new MTR line put the brakes on what’s emerging as the city’s unofficial artistic and cultural center?
Hong Kong may be relatively small, but it also proves that distance is relative. Commutes that would barely faze tired professionals in other financial centers—40 minutes from home to office, say—are viewed here as intolerably long. People are reluctant to contemplate a journey that involves a bus transfer. And Kowloon, a mere 10-minute ferry (or even faster subway) ride from the bustling Central district, is acerbically referred to as the “dark side” by those living across the harbor.
And then there is the side that nobody talks about—the south side of Hong Kong Island itself, separated by a spine of steep green hills from the iconic skyline of Central and the hurly-burly of Wan Chai. This is one of the few areas in Hong Kong that the top-notch MTR train system has yet to penetrate. It isn’t exactly uncharted territory, of course, being home to some of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods and even a few big-ticket tourist attractions, including Ocean Park, the open-air Stanley Market, and the floating seafood restaurants of Aberdeen. But overall, these destinations tend to be experienced in isolation, with visitors dropping in from more popular parts of the city and promptly bussing back out. The south side is seen as laid-back, a nice place to live perhaps, but also slightly inaccessible, not somewhere things are “happening” or that warrants exploration.
But that is changing. One sunny winter morning I ride a massive, creaking elevator to the third floor of the Harbour Industrial Centre on Ap Lei Chau, a small island lapped by the boat-filled waters of Aberdeen Harbour. On exiting, I make my way through a cavernous hallway that echoes with the sound of metal on metal, dodging shirtless men pushing carts piled high with bundles of plastic. Toward the end of the corridor, a signboard points the way to the incongruously placed Artichoke Canteen. I enter and am confronted with what is an alien sensation in Hong Kong—space.
The café is warm and inviting with high ceilings, an open kitchen, and an expansive terrace with views of the sparkling water beyond. Colorful artwork adorns the walls and a stereo pumps out acid jazz. Wooden tables and plush chairs are set a reasonable distance apart, making this one of the few restaurants in Hong Kong where there’s no need to worry about elbowing—or even being overheard by—neighboring diners. There are no queues or time limits here; Italian co-owner Birgit Vagani says people are encouraged to hang out as long as they like. “It’s not like Central, where too much is going on. It’s more relaxing.” In addition to sampling Artichoke’s mostly vegetarian fare—risotto with sautéed forest mushrooms, quinoa-stuffed artichoke hearts—patrons can check out adjoining art space Toof Contemporary, which on my visit is exhibiting a series of aluminum-printed photographs by an obscure Estonian artist. The café and gallery are known collectively as Airspace, which Vagani and partner Riccardo Bardallini are positioning as a multifunctional venue that lends itself equally well to performances, installations, parties, or just a lazy afternoon of reading. “The industrial setting gives you the possibility to do a lot of things around art and creativity that, because of space constraints, you’re not able to do elsewhere in Hong Kong,” Vagani says.
Among the beverages on offer at Artichoke are ales from Young Master Ales, a craft brewery founded by former financier Rohit Dugar in a neighboring building two years ago. Focused on quality ingredients and limited production, it’s created a compelling and constantly changing range of beers—from a light soba ale to a complex, hoppy IPA—that have made it to the taps of select venues like the Mandarin Oriental hotel’s storied Captain’s Bar. Dugar also runs tours and tastings every Saturday afternoon in his plain but charming brewery, where sunlight streaming in through large windows and worn surfaces piled high with beer-making equipment give the air of a country workshop. Like Vagani and Bardallini, he was initially attracted to the area not only for the amount of space available but also because of whom he’d be sharing it with. “There are a number of other small, creative businesses here. It’s a bit of a community,” he says.