By Kee Foong
Nov 12, 2021
MUSEUMGOERS’ EYES ARE ON Hong Kong this month as M+ finally opens in West Kowloon. Asia’s new foremost museum of visual culture is set to be a gamechanger, with Glenn D. Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art describing it as “the most anticipated event in the art world this year… that will have an impact throughout Asia and the world.”
The arrival of M+ is well overdue for “Asia’s world city,” which lacked a truly international museum, until now. But the wait has been worth it, and it’s welcome news when so much recent coverage of Hong Kong has focused on protests, crackdowns on free speech and the closure of its borders during the pandemic.
M+ may be the star of the moment, but it’s a great time to shine a light on West Kowloon, where the museum is located. It’s one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and fascinating districts, long home to businesses integral to the city’s identity and culture. In this roundup, we visit shops and sights in West Kowloon that have stood the test of time. Then we meander along Tsim Sha Tsui’s (TST) waterfront cultural corridor from Victoria Dockside all the way to M+ and the sprawling West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD).
OLD-TIMERS IN WEST KOWLOON
One of the most densely packed districts in the world, covering the neighborhoods Jordan, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok. It’s historic, local, and everything you imagine Hong Kong to be, and is home to several of the last remaining master artisans in the city.
Mahjong is an obsession in these parts, though the sets for this Chinese game, once handmade, are now almost entirely mass-produced. At Biu Kee, Uncle King keeps the craft alive, slowly hand-carving and painting each character or symbol that goes into a set of 144 plastic tiles, a skill he has been honing for 50 years.
Ask a chef at a top Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, or even in North America’s Chinatowns where they get their cleavers, and chances are, it’s from Chan Chi Kee. This almost century-old knifemaker shop is the cut-and-dried leader of things gleaming sharp, with a strong international reputation. Its hand-hammered woks are also highly regarded, and the small store is frequently packed with shoppers.
Cheung Shing Fans Factory
Follow your nose to Cheung Shing, the last remaining makers of sandalwood fans in the city. The intricately carved fans not only look beautiful, they smell divine too. Sadly, the skills to create them by hand have been lost, replaced by machines instead. The store, founded in 1958 by owner Lowell Lo Yip-keung’s dad, is great for incense burners, and precious sandalwood and agar wood powder and chips, too.
Courtesy of Hawk (2)
Mak Kam-sang’s red, white and blue acrylic signs are as iconic as the red minibuses that they adorn. And like these minibuses, they’re in danger of dying out. Thankfully, young Hongkongers have fallen in love with the retro-cool designs, and the skills of Mak’s calligraphy, keeping the business going. If you can’t find what you want, custom orders are accepted.
What do fermented tofu and spaghetti carbonara have in common? Well, the owners of Liu Ma Kee swear its cheesy bean curd is a tasty vegan alternative sauce for this popular pasta dish. Either way, it’s an easy way to relate to the products of this fourth-generation family business. Creamy, tangy and full of umami, the cubes of preserved bean curd are still cut and bottled by hand on site, almost the same way it’s been done for more than a century.
Dozens of Tin Hau temples – dedicated to the goddess of the sea – are dotted around Hong Kong, reflecting its history as a fishing port. The Yau Ma Tei site, first built in 1865, is the biggest and most important in Kowloon, made up of five buildings. More than a place of worship, the Grade I heritage temple complex doubles as community center, and one building was recently converted into a reading room and honor-system bookstore.
Hong Kong may have a brand-new venue dedicated to Cantonese opera (see Xiqu Centre below), but the Yau Ma Tei Theatre is still worth a visit. The original Art Deco building is the only surviving pre-World War 2 theater in Kowloon, and the adjoining Red Brick building, a former water pumping station, is a protected architectural landmark. The theater continues to stage regular performances, and is a training ground for up-and-coming artists.
TSIM SHA TSUI (TST) CULTURAL CORRIDOR
The waterfront promenade from East TST to the WKCD sports stunning views of Victoria Harbour and the city’s famous skyline. In addition to the Avenue of Stars, which honors Hong Kong’s film and TV celebrities, and a Star Ferry pier, this recently revitalized stretch is also home to important cultural institutions and venues.
K11 Art Mall. Courtesy of K11 (2)
A shopping mall may not come to mind as an art destination, but K11 Musea challenges that, with dozens of works by collectible names. Think Paola Pivi and her whimsical, feather-covered bears; Katharina Grosse, who creates colorful, abstract sculptures; and Yoshitomo Nara, known for his wide-eyed, cartoon-like faces. What’s more, influential gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin has a flagship gallery in K11, and the mall also houses a rotating-exhibition space. (Plus, the complex has swish serviced apartments whose balconies’ harbor views might be considered art in their own right.)
Art hotels are not new, but the Rosewood raises the bar with notable pieces at almost every turn. Among them, Wang Keping’s bird sculpture, Bharti Kher’s life-sized elephant, and Joe Bradley’s abstract canvases in the lobby areas. Then there are the six Zodiac paintings by Damien Hirst in the Butterfly Room, and a mural by Hyderabadi artist Kandi Narsimlu in Indian dining hotspot Chaat, to name a few. Guests can request a tour of the collection with Rosewood’s in-house art ambassador.
The city’s first public art museum, established in 1962, has gone from somewhat drab to rather fab thanks to a makeover completed in late-2019. Its purview remains the same, and includes local and Chinese art – calligraphy, ink paintings, antiquities and modern art – as well as international shows featuring Botticelli and Surrealism. The museum’s refined dining restaurant Hue, and relaxed, alfresco Ink, are great for a bite or beverage.
The space museum is a landmark dome that houses a planetarium, space theater screening OMNIMAX and 3D films, and interactive exhibitions that keep young ones entertained while educating them about the wonders of the universe. T+L Tip: Most sessions are in Cantonese, though English sessions are also offered so check in advance.
It’s hard to miss the brutalist Hong Kong Cultural Centre, occupying a plum spot on the waterfront. The city’s premiere performance arts venue is home to the Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and world class HK Phil, helmed by star conductor Jaap van Zweden. Its year-round program features anything from a Beethoven symphony or Puccini opera, to contemporary fare such as a French hip hop dance troupe or K Pop concert.
This purpose-built cultural precinct where you’ll find the new museum sits on 40 hectares of prime reclaimed land, Hong Kong-style. It’s host to major cultural venues, as well as a huge, family- and pet-friendly art park. The waterfront promenade will eventually connect with Tsim Sha Tsui, though a mess of construction means that it’s currently a challenge to access. Fingers crossed that will be sorted in 2022.
FROM LEFT: Photo by Kevin Mak/Courtesy of HdM; I am a Monument, the collection at M+ Museum, courtesy of M+
The big daddy, or mama, of Asia’s contemporary art museums is this new 65,000-square-meter harborfront monolith designed by starchitects Herzog & de Meuron. Shaped like an inverted T, its ceramic-tiled façade doubles as giant billboard that goes off each evening with a display of film, animation and artwork that can be seen from afar. The wow factor begins when you step into the soaring cathedral of concrete that is the Main Hall, with natural light beaming in through large skylights down to the Found Space below, used for large-scale installations.
Most of the 17,000 square meters of dedicated exhibition spaces are spread across 33 galleries on the museum’s horizontal lower levels. Undoubted star of the show is the Sigg Collection, named after the Swiss businessman, diplomat and art collector who donated more than 1,500 works, helping to ensure this new Hong Kong museum has the most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art anywhere, spanning the 1970s to circa 2010.
M+ has more than art, however. Asia’s museum of visual culture covers architecture, design and moving images, from the exclusive to the everyday. Be sure to check out the vintage advertising and propaganda posters, and the original Kiyotomo Sushi Bar, shipped piece by piece from Tokyo and meticulously rebuilt in the museum. With rooftop gardens, public auditoriums and a bevy of cafes, M+ is a museum for everyone.
A contemporary venue purpose-built for xiqu, or traditional Chinese opera, the Xiqu Centre sports a woven metal façade meant to resemble a lantern glowing behind a beaded curtain. Visitors enter through a part in the “curtains” into an atrium with a 1,000-seat Grand Theatre suspended above. Chinese theater may take time to appreciate, so introductory Tea House performances are best for a taster, featuring snippets from classic operas.
Freespace is a welcome addition to the city’s performance-art scene. The versatile venue hosts contemporary dance, live jazz and classical concerts, theater, film and multimedia shows, plus talks and workshops. A number of free events are held outside in the forecourt and front lawn of the venue; check the website for ticketing details.
In a bid to deepen ties between Hong Kong and the motherland, a new outpost of China’s Palace Museum is scheduled to open in WKCD in mid-2022. The original, in Beijing’s Forbidden City, is a treasure trove of Chinese art and antiquities, with significant pieces from its collection due to be shown here.
Where to stay
Rosewood Hong Kong
doubles from HK$3,600
The Peninsula Hong Kong
doubles from HK$4,080
The Langham Hong Kong
doubles from HK$920
The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong
doubles from HK$2,700
W Hong Kong
doubles from HK$2,000