From the much-loved M+ museum to the historic streets of Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, the arts and culture district of West Kowloon is the new must-visit in Hong Kong.
Sleek cocktail bars materialize beside 1950s cha chaan teng diners. Bamboo scaffolding scales glossy high-rises. Retro pawn shops rub shoulders with designer boutiques. Everywhere you look, Hong Kong blends modernity and tradition – and nowhere does this brilliant contrast come into focus more than West Kowloon. Every traveler with a creative side will want to make a beeline to these artsy West Kowloon hotspots.
In the works since the 1990s, the 40ha (99-acre) West Kowloon Cultural District on Victoria Harbour signals Hong Kong’s grand ambition to become the top arts destination in Asia. That goal appears well within reach, as the vast cultural quarter plans to add yet another 17 state-of-the-art museums, performance venues and theaters to the existing offerings. While a few major landmarks – such as the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which is due to open mid-2022, and Lyric Theatre Complex – are still in progress, there’s already much to experience. Immerse yourself in the diverse world of visual arts at the M+, catch a Cantonese opera at the Xiqu Centre, enjoy live music at Freespace, dine along Victoria Harbour and explore the network of peaceful green spaces.
Within the West Kowloon Cultural District, M+ is undoubtedly the star of the show. Having opened on 12 November 2021, the concrete-clad museum of visual arts and culture is one of the largest in the world, and houses a long list of attributes: more than 65,000sqm (700,000sqft) of space, thousands of artworks, 33 galleries, a trio of cinemas, an animated LED façade, great restaurants, sweeping harbor views, and a gift shop that you’ll actually want to visit.
If you appreciate design, cinema and thought-provoking installations, you could easily spend a day here working through the exhibitions. They run Conserving Neon Culture, which unpacks the creation, typography and design of the disappearing city street signs, and Hong Kong: Here and Beyond, tracing the metamorphosis of the city since the 1960s.
Brought to life by Herzog & de Meuron, the industrial architecture is as notable as the collections. A dark, upside-down T simultaneously guides the eye upwards and outward, while multiple outdoor spaces ensure there are plenty of spots for performances, dining and relaxation.
If M+ feels angular and brutalist, the Xiqu Centre ventures in the opposite direction with a curved, wave-like façade that seems to ripple under the subtropical sun. Designed to look like a pair of opening stage curtains, this dramatic building is the perfect place to experience one of the most ancient city traditions: Chinese opera. The intimate Tea House Theatre is designed to ease new audiences into Cantonese opera. Or visit the 1,000-seat Grand Theatre, which marries state-of-the-art technology with the traditional art form.
The name says it all: Rest Coffee Gin promises a relaxed setting where you can unwind day or night. Set on the banks of Victoria Harbour within the Cultural District, the two-in-one address has become synonymous with single-origin coffees, matcha lattes and upscale cafe food (think uni orzo, fried oysters and wagyu sandwiches). The fun continues into the evening, when the industrial-chic cafe transforms into a jazz bar, serving more than 80 types of gin and an array of sophisticated drinks designed by Wallace Lau, one of the top mixologists in the city. Don’t miss the signature tea cocktails, which tap into the city’s affection for the beverage.
Playful cabaret. Classical music. Boundary-defying choreography. Local bands. Freespace, the Cultural District’s dedicated hub for contemporary performances, is where it’s at. Within this harbor-front facility, you’ll discover year-round events thanks to the largest black box theater in the city, plus workshop studios and a ground-floor bar for al fresco concerts.
Trace the lush pathways of the Cultural District to the western edge and you’ll come across the Competition Pavilion, a grand timber structure titled Growing Up. Designed by Paul Tse and Evelyn Ting, the winners of Hong Kong’s inaugural Young Architects & Designers Competition in 2017, the contemporary structure borrows inspiration from the narrow alleyways, traditional roof tiles and bamboo scaffolding of Hong Kong, while framing the crown jewel of the city: Victoria Harbour. It also happens to be an ideal place to catch a concert or watch the sun dip behind the outlying islands.
The artistic energy continues throughout the Yau Ma Tei and Jordan districts, just northeast of the West Kowloon Cultural District. Known for their mom-and-pop stores, 1950s diners, hidden temples and neon signage, these low-key neighbourhoods are an excellent showcase of the modern twists on old Hong Kong. They’re also a treasure trove of contemporary culture, evidenced by the street art murals and mosaics.
Start on Shanghai Street, where you’ll discover a surrealist mural by Italian artist Pixel Pancho stretching up an old tong lau (tenement-style residential building), right across the street from the historic Red Brick Building (the service facilities of a former pumping station).
Next, walk northwest to Ferry Street to visit the Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market (founded in 1913), where a colorful, ceramic-tile mural runs for nearly a block, then head a few minutes north to Vision Signage Production. Not only has this humble store produced signboards, billboards and props for many a Hong Kong film, but it also showcases a mural of the friendly owner, Mr Sin, at work on the metal door shutter. Continue north to find a few more shutter murals along Reclamation and Shanghai streets.
Showing arthouse indie movies, plus more mainstream flicks, Broadway Cinematheque is an established feature in West Kowloon, having been founded in 1996. The cinema hosts movie festivals, retrospectives and events all year round, plus documentaries and anime. An independent cafe within the complex doubles as a bookstore and triples as an events space, so there’s always something exciting going on.
As one of the most ancient crafts in Chinese culture, calligraphy remains a revered art form. You can learn all about the techniques and traditions at the local arts and crafts supply store Yau Sang Cheong, which carries beautiful hand-painted scrolls, high-quality paper, professional brushes, silk fans, ink stones, art books and a wide variety of drawing tools. The only obstacle? Finding this nondescript spot, hidden away in a commercial building.
You can’t visit Hong Kong without a trip to the Temple Street Night Market. Long a gathering place for local vendors and artisans, the al fresco bazaar has expanded and evolved since its founding years in the 1920s. Dine on wok-fried noodles, clay pot rice, and garlic chili crab at a quintessential dai pai dong (outdoor cafe), then swim through the sea of modern trinkets and phone accessories to find beautiful ceramics, paintings, jade and antiques. Maybe even sit down to have your fortune told while you’re at it.