Goodbye to All That: Wan Chai Under Threat

Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, the raucous home away from home for tens of thousands of Jack Tars, GIs and US sailors for generations, is beginning to gentrify, squeezing the famed bar area into ever smaller bits under the relentless wrecking ball of the Urban Renewal Agency.

The latest cleanup revolves around a block-size area along Johnston Road that looks more like it belongs in Sydney or Santa Monica than Wan Chai, with a flock of smart restaurants, fashionable furniture stores and other establishments that appears to be drawing an entirely new crowd of Boxter and Beemer drivers instead of the strolling soldiers, sailors and local businessmen on the prowl that have long been part of Wan Chai's history. It is notable not only because of the change to the district’s colorful scenery but because it also represents a changing demographic, with high-income residents venturing down from the Mid-Levels and Victoria Peak into what heretofore had mostly been a solid Chinese working class area in addition to the nightclub scene.

Long before the Vietnam War, when it exploded as a haven for rest and relaxation, Wan Chai was synonymous with vice. This is the neighborhood, of course, that spawned the World of Suzie Wong, the remarkably sensitive, good and gritty 1957 novel that became a simplistic 1960 movie that spawned a generation of stereotypes of Hong Kong girls as hookers with hearts of gold. A thousand Cantonese triad crimes and movies about crimes have their origins in Wan Chai due to its endless string of tawdry go-go bars, nightclubs, hot-sheet hotels, all-night eateries and other institutions along Lockhart and Jaffe Roads.

Even today, when the fleet's in – except for the Chinese fleet, which bars its sailors from visiting the area thousands of sailors still stagger along the streets looking for women – these days most likely Filipinas and Thais on tourist visas as well as the tough-as-nails cheongsam-clad Chinese bar girls. The area is also, of course, a haven for local expatriates and even throngs of teenagers who crowd around the neighborhood 7-11 drinking tall beers out of paper bags while they slum it away from their international schools for a night.

Wan Chai originally meant "small cove" and was a Chinese fishing village for centuries, with the sea running all the way up to Queen’s Road East before decades of landfill did away with that. Dockyards once ran up Ship Street. Spring Gardens was the original red-light zone. It was an area where underground communist organizers could work alongside bawdy houses. Indeed, women were trading sex for merchandise here when the first clipper ships arrived from Europe and the United States.

Hong Kong's government has been trying to clean it out for years under the guise of redevelopment, going back to the 1970s and 1980s when teeming settlements were replaced with the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts and other buildings, but if anything, it just squeezed the bars and short-time hotels into a smaller area.

"I think it’s a miracle," says Lynn Grebstad, the director of Grebstad Hicks Communications who migrated to the Wan Chai area five or six years ago. "It's a whole swathe of urban gentrification, upgrading of old buildings."

The real gentrification started on the upper side of Queen's Road East, when Swire Properties redeveloped Star Street, and kicked off an intensive effort to create a high-class bar and restaurant district to rival Lan Kwai Fong in the central district. But that didn't really have much of an impact on the girlie bars and nightclubs in the half-dozen blocks along Lockhart and Jaffe Road.

The latest cleanup, however, is something else again. It revolves around an ancient three-story building of four shophouses on Johnston Road that has sprouted into a trendy restaurant, The Pawn, which for more than a century functioned as the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop until the Urban Renewal Authority tore down everything around it, leaving it standing alone among a new forest of high-rises.

Alexander Lui, the managing director of K.Wah International, which redeveloped the area, proudly told local reporters that "we wanted to make this project become part of Wan Chai, not just by putting up a new building, but by preserving the area’s heritage as well" – by saving a single building out of the hundreds that have fallen to the URA's wrecking ball over the past several decades.

What appears to be happening is that increasingly, the high-income denizens of Central, the Peak and Mid-Levels are searching for places to live. The development is a 30-storey, stylish glass-and-chrome tower – JResidence and the JSenses complex – is a gambit to capitalize on that movement.

"After we completed this project we noticed that there has been a lot more interest in the area and many more people visiting," Lui told reporters. "We have given appreciation to the whole neighborhood, and the shops around us are all upgrading."

Unlike most Wan Chai restaurants, which lean to Cantonese or, for the gweilos, chili joints, hamburger stands, Filipino restaurants and kabobs, the J complex boasts Restaurant Le Fauchon and Bo Innovations Concepts, the latter with a vaguely molecular gastronomy that seeks not too successfully to emulate the uber-cool of modern cuisine that got its start with Ferran Adria and his Costa Brava restaurant, El Bulli, usually rated the best restaurant in the world. There is a hamburger joint, but it’s named “Shake ‘em Buns” and it’s as chic as the rest of the area

Ovo, a modern furniture store on Queen's Road East, has invaded the J complex with both high-end décor Ovologue, which describes itself as offering "Chinese cuisine inspired by Chinese modern art," and which looks nothing like the hot-pot and seafood restaurants of Hennessey and Lockhart Roads, with their lines of smoked duck and chicken in the windows.

The next area to be spruced up to look like someplace other than Hong Kong, if the artists' drawings are to be believed, is Lei Tung Street, once Wedding Card Street, which stretches from Queen’s Road East to Johnston Road. Two years ago, the URA emptied out the scores of small print shops on the street where generations of Hong Kong lovers had gone for their wedding announcements, and flattened the entire area, to the outrage of civic reform organizations.

In its place is scheduled to rise a HK$3.5 billion commercial and residential development despite a 2003 promise to lawmakers by the government's planning department to protect the street. Five- and six-storey residential buildings, with wide, attractive windows across their fronts that could have been rehabilitated into an attractive bohemian enclave were to be ripped out preparatory to being replaced with high-rises, expected to add to density already so thick that it is virtually impossible to walk through the nearby wet market during rush hours.

Lei Tung Street is projected to become a pedestrian walkway with what appears to be another flock of small shops which, according to the URA, will attempt to draw the printers back to what is to be called Wedding City. It remains to be seen whether the family shops will want to move into what obviously is going to become a high-rent district, especially after they moved out two years ago and already have found other quarters, some nearby on Amoy Street, which is bidding fair to become the new Wedding Card Street.

So far none of this has had much impact on the open-front bars along Lockhart Road, the overpriced go-go bars or the steaming discos packed with tourists, businessmen and crowds of enthusiastic women looking for a gold ring, or at least taxi fare and the next day’s rent. But if the history of urban renewal in Hong Kong is any indication, it won’t be long before even Wan Chai’s vice will fall prey to what some call progress.