Not long ago, the western end of Hong Kong Island—basically everything beyond Sheung Wan—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.
By Nick Walton
Photographs by Callaghan Walsh
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. It’s a sound that I find both soothing and nostalgic, having lived above one of Kennedy Town’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 “ding dings” (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 designation—both literally and metaphorically—as the “end of the line.” Thanks to both soaring rents in Central and the 2014 extension of the Island Line of the city’s MTR network, Sai Wan—the Western District—has seen an influx of expats, upwardly mobile locals, and the restaurants, cafés, 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. “Why would you want to live down there?” 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. K-Town, as the neighborhood is colloquially known, was exactly what I was 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 McCafé 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-Town’s emergence as one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city. While a plethora of new restaurants, cafés, 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 that’s both fascinating and reassuring.