Slicing history along Hollywood Rd
31 August 2010
China Daily - Hong Kong Edition
When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1988, Hollywood Road and Wyndham Street were lined with sleepy carpet shops selling colorful ethnic rugs, small, dusty antique shops crammed with junk, tatty go-downs and tired-looking residential blocks. There were only two bars on Wyndham Street: Mad Dogs and Caroline's. After dark, the metal shutters of small shops presented a blank face to quiet streets.
There was no big glassy Centrium building or LKF Tower. SOHO didn't exist. And the world's longest outdoor escalator which crosses Hollywood Road was not yet built.
Back then the only place you could catch one of the few local bands and take in some art over a cheap beer was the Fringe Club. Originally a cold storage warehouse built in 1890, it still sits at the top end of Wyndham Street on the junction with Lower Albert Road.
"When we moved into the premises in 1983 it was very run down," explains Catherine Lau, administrator of the club. "We spent years restoring the place and putting in new facilities".
It paid off.
In 2001 the Fringe Club received a Hong Kong Heritage Award in recognition of the restoration work and in 2009 the premises was declared a Grade I heritage building.
"Wyndham Street and Hollywood Road started to change after the escalator was built in 1993," she adds. "Now there are more restaurants and bars and the area has become more competitive, which is good as it offers customers more choice. It's also good for the Fringe Club because the neighborhood has become busier".
"Things will continue to change when the Central Police Station compound and former police married quarters sites are up and running," she says. Both historical landmarks will soon undergo massive redevelopment. The former will be transformed into a heritage, arts, cultural and tourism hub.
Proposed to be a balanced mix of cultural, heritage and commercial elements, it will house a 500-seat auditorium, 500-seat theater, two art cinemas, a gallery, a multipurpose exhibition space and supporting facilities.
"I sincerely hope the redevelopment will be sympathetic to the early 20th century aesthetic of the building. And that the tenant mix will be heavily weighted in favor of art galleries," says Shaun Kelly, founder of Zee Stone gallery.
I remember when his gallery opened in 1995, I was impressed by its size and the types of exhibitions it showed.
After 15 years on Wyndham Street, the gallery is moving to make way for yet another trendy bar-restaurant.
"Change is inevitable in Hong Kong," he says. "We're moving to One Hollywood Road where our neighbors will be some of the best galleries in Hong Kong. To me, the Wyndham Street and Hollywood Road area is the most interesting and entertaining area in Central - long may that continue".
Hollywood Road and Wyndham Street are now a hotbed of visual stimulation and social activity. Shiny high-rise buildings have squeezed out many of the old walk-up tenements; the sidewalk pulsates with bars, restaurants, art galleries and energy.
"With all the choices of food and beverage venues the area is very attractive," says Phillip Unicomb, restaurant manager of Tivo Wine Bar, who came to Hong Kong in 1996 to manage Wyndham Street Thai, one of the first restaurants to open on the street.
"We get everything from tourists to a steady number of local regulars as the street is now a thoroughfare for office workers from the city. Hong Kong people demand new and stimulating things. They are very nomadic, strolling from bar to bar in close proximity seems to appeal".
There are plenty of antique shops on Hollywood Road. The new ones are more like galleries, so the older ones have had to keep up on appearances. They are much better kept than when I first arrived. The antiques trade is far from new to the road. When it was built in 1844 it was close to the coastline and awash with sailors and foreign merchants selling antiques and artifacts they had collected in China.
"The world famous Hollywood Road and Wyndham Street antique district has been on the tourist and local collectors map for years," says Teresa Coleman of Teresa Coleman Fine Arts Ltd. "However in the absence of any government zoning regulations the area is rapidly disappearing".
Specializing in Oriental antiques and textiles, she first moved onto Wyndham Street in 1987. Hers is another gallery that later this year will move and make way for something hipper.
"Who knows what will replace me," she says. "It's unlikely to be an antiques gallery, more likely it will be a Starbucks, Seven Eleven, a restaurant or a bar".
Further down on Hollywood Road one place remains unchanged. Built in 1847, the Man Mo Temple, named after the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo), has been restored and repainted, but otherwise is the same.
What is changing is its surroundings. Just a few doors away, Contemporary by Angela Li stands out with its white-washed facade, large gleaming windows and uber-modern art. The gallery opened in 2008.
"This part of Hollywood Road has gone from sleepy during the week and only busy during the weekend to busy all week around, thanks to more restaurants, cafes and galleries opening nearby," explains owner Angela Li.
The swanky Centre Stage offers luxury apartments and M1NT, a private shareholders club opened in 2006, has swish parties and events for the rich and beautiful.
Restaurants and galleries are starting to venture even further down towards the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Road.
Regularly passing through the area I have seen the new opening alongside the old; the avant-garde Cat Street Gallery that sprang-up in 2007. Recently a New York Italian-style restaurant took up residence in an old meat storage warehouse opposite Possession Street, where the British first set foot in 1941. Two weeks ago the modern, glass-fronted Java Java coffee and tea lounge opened along the part of Hollywood Road that once only sold wooden coffins.
To reconnect with nature, I often sit under the trees in Hollywood Road Park at the very end of the road. In the 1960s it was just a plot of land with a night market, cheap food, and entertainment, nicknamed the Poor Man's Nightclub. I wonder what the people who once danced and laughed here would think of the encroaching clubs and chic dining establishments nearby.
Nothing stays the same for long in Hong Kong.