As the skyscraper-filled harbor city emerges from its pandemic-induced isolation, a longtime resident reflects on the changes—good and bad—that underlie its revival.
Early this year, not long after Hong Kong belatedly reopened its borders to the outside world, I found myself regularly spellbound by the reappearance of sights that were once mundane, but suddenly imbued with significance by their long, pandemic-induced absence. Crimson hydrofoils cutting swaths through Victoria Harbour on their way to neighboring Macau. Satiated shoppers dragging crammed suitcases along the choked streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. Tour groups milling around the frantically waved flags that shepherded them from one attraction to the next. Revelers flowing effortlessly from bar to bar in the once-again raucous Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district, unburdened of the need to line up to present staff rapid test results or the right QR codes.
Since then, many of the friends and colleagues who, like me, call the city home have remarked how absurd Hong Kong’s nearly three years of isolation appear in retrospect, like a brief bout of madness or a fever dream. The pandemic was of course tough on cities, and on tourism, everywhere. But it was particularly painful for a place once essentially defined by its openness and connectivity. Not only were Hong Kong’s Covid measures exceptionally tough—well into 2022, visitors faced weeks of mandatory quarantine and a not-insignificant prospect of being forcefully separated from family members—but they stayed in place well after the rest of the world had moved on. The pandemic also came on the heels of a period of social unrest that prompted China’s central government to impose a stringent new national security regime, all of which dissuaded many would-be visitors.
The damage inflicted on the city’s former juggernaut of a tourism industry is difficult to overstate. The number of visitors cratered from over 65 million in 2018 to less than 100,000 in 2021, and barely topped 600,000 last year. Even now, flagship airline Cathay Pacific is operating at barely 50 percent of its pre-pandemic capacity.
The Hong Kong government is working desperately to make up for lost time. In March it finally scrapped the outdoor mask mandate, essentially the last remnant of its zero-Covid policy. This came on the heels of the launch of a massive publicity campaign, “Hello Hong Kong,” aimed at enticing tourists back to the city with goodies like free air tickets and cash vouchers. Pang Yiu-kai, the chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, has promised “brand-new attractions and immersive experiences” will treat arrivals to “an epic and unforgettable journey.”
For once, the authorities may be ready to deliver. Signs of revival are emerging everywhere. Large-scale events have come roaring back, from the famously bacchanalian Rugby Sevens, to the Clockenflap music festival and the local edition of Art Basel. Crowds are finally thronging the new developments that have sprung up along the city’s iconic harbor and mountain-edged skyline. These include the reborn Regent Hong Kong, a former grande dame of the hotel scene that has returned from over two decades of InterContinental-branded exile. Its gleaming new facade, ringed with bold strokes of metal, and the shimmering glass surfaces of the lobby speak to a bold reinvention by locally born architect Chi Wing Lo. Yet many of the property’s most nostalgia-provoking features have been retained, from a magnificent white marble staircase that has been the centerpiece of many a gala, to the sumptuous buffets of the Harbourside restaurant, which still boasts some of the best views in town.
Not far away, the West Kowloon Cultural District’s flagship attraction, the M+ museum of contemporary art and design, has been joined—perhaps even eclipsed—by the Hong Kong Palace Museum, an offshoot of the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. It flares up near M+’s somber black monolith like a pair of folded golden wings, with jutting terraces overlooking the grassy expanse of the district’s Art Park and the skyscrapers of the central business district across the water. Inside, it is surprisingly airy and light, with soaring walls and ceilings shaped to evoke folding screens and upright rows of bamboo.
The Palace Museum is instantly impressive, and, on the day I visit, utterly crammed—not with locals, but tour groups from the mainland who have returned in force. Many appear to be wholeheartedly buying into the city’s promised renaissance; I spot a dozen visitors decked out in identical HELLO HONG KONG T-shirts. Exclamations in Mandarin fill the halls as people make their way through the museum’s voluminous holdings: a virtually unrivalled collection of pieces gathered locally or on loan from its Beijing parent.
There are centuries’ worth of ceramics—delicate, bulbous vases and perfectly proportioned bowls, glowing a still-vibrant turquoise, yellow, or cool jade. Entire halls are constructed to convey a sense of being in the imperial capital itself; chambers are fitted with everyday objects like hanging scrolls and intricate clocks, as well as the more ostentatious manifestations of royal authority: towering golden reliquaries, colossal gongs struck to mark a military victory, and some of the spoils of those battles, from Tibetan Buddhist art to Mongol ritual objects.
All of this speaks to dynasty, the weight and grandeur of a civilization of which Hong Kong is framed as an integral part. It almost seems a rebuttal to the edgy cosmopolitanism of neighboring M+, where ongoing exhibitions showcase Hong Kong’s unique design aesthetic and the polka dot–obsessed art of Japanese icon Yayoi Kusama. I can’t help but wonder why it is artifacts from Beijing, rather than something more explicitly local, that so many Chinese tourists have come to see. But after years of upheaval followed by suspended animation, when Hong Kong’s future as a part of China and future in general seemed to hang in the balance, perhaps the museum’s very presence is comforting for some.
The ambition and scale of venues like the Palace Museum are undeniable. But I’ve taken more heart in smaller-scale indicators of revitalization and endurance, which arguably have every bit as much to offer visitors. Some of the best examples are emerging in Hong Kong’s beleaguered dining and nightlife scene. Once among the world’s best, it was shaken to its core by months of regulatory pivots and stop-start shutdowns. Navigating the outdoor escalators that link the harbor front to the SoHo entertainment district, I’ve watched more and more venues change hands, and boarded-up spaces replaced with stylish open-fronted bars and cafés that have an uncannily quick ability to draw crowds—among them, Bar Leone, the first solo venture by veteran Italian mixologist Lorenzo Antinori.
This is happening not just in SoHo, but all over the city, and often in daring fashion. Up-and-coming hospitality group Singular Concepts has followed up its much-feted contemporary Filipino restaurant Barkada (developed in partnership with foodie influencer Jen Balisi) with Yurakucho, an industrial-themed izakaya that seeks to replicate the back alleys of Tokyo in the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district. Better known for its shopping, the Causeway Bay area has recently welcomed Vivere, an adventurous Italian bistro–cum-nightclub launched by local drag celebrity Jay Venn; and Calle Ocho, a colossal tapas restaurant and bar where blue-and-white porcelain tiles and carefully sourced seafood evoke the Mediterranean.
An even bolder venture is Forty-Five, perched high up in the Landmark complex’s Gloucester Tower. Opened in April, the multi-concept space comprises Japanese steakhouse Kaen Teppanyaki, classic Shanghainese restaurant The Merchants, rooftop cocktail bar Cardinal Point, and a private members’ club. An elegant French dining room helmed by none other than Anne-Sophie Pic, one of the world’s most decorated chefs, is slated to join the lineup in September.
Bets like these are remarkably brave given what Hong Kong has recently been through. But the entire industry seems to be striking a hopeful note. One afternoon I pay a visit to one of the city’s best-loved fixtures, Michelin-recommended Chilli Fagara, which has occupied its current premises on Old Bailey Street for just over a decade.
“We were all waiting for this,” Tracy Wong, the daughter half of the powerhouse mother-daughter duo behind the Sichuan restaurant, tells me as we tuck into a plate of Chilli Fagara’s signature dumplings, their taut skins slathered in lip-numbing spice and stuffed to bursting. “You can just feel that everyone is happier, eating out and enjoying their time again. We may not be completely back to normal, but we’re getting there.”
Chilli Fagara has always attracted a high volume of tourists, both due to its international renown and because it is one of the only restaurants of its kind to offer vegetarian and vegan versions of dishes like a perfectly executed mapo tofu. It also likely benefited from the restoration of the former colonial police compound across the road, which was reborn in 2018 as Tai Kwun, a popular arts and culture hub.
So when the tourists disappeared and dining out dried up, “we had to turn the entire business around,” Wong recalls. There was a quick pivot to takeout and delivery, including the birth of a delivery-only noodle brand, Hot n’ Meen, that came full circle recently with the opening of a dine-in outlet in BaseHall, an upmarket food court that somehow sprung up in the staid Jardine House office tower. Wong is now poised to launch a new venue centered on northern Vietnamese cuisine.
I ask her why, after all that has happened, she remains confident in the prospects for this new venture, and the city as a whole. She hesitates, and a flicker of confusion crosses her face, as if the question itself doesn’t make sense. When her answer comes, it is simple: “Because it’s Hong Kong, isn’t it?”
A couple of days later, I do something that I haven’t done since I first moved here: board the Peak Tram. Having emerged from an extensive refurbishment last year, a few things about the 135-year-old funicular railway are different. The Central terminus seems slicker and better organized, and is also now home to the Eye of Infinity, a striking oval sculpture by Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee intended to evoke the relentless upward thrust of the city’s skyscrapers and soaring peaks. The sixth-generation tramcars are painted a historic green rather than the jaunty red I remember, and their windows have been stretched to broaden the vistas on the climb up Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island.
But some things haven’t changed: the jerky, chugging motion as the tram huffs its way up a slope that in places approaches near-vertical angles; office blocks quickly giving way to lush forest, interrupted occasionally by some of the most exclusive properties on the planet and toytown stations that bear the names of British governors and commanders past. Then there’s the arrival at the upper terminus, where passengers are disgorged into the once-again perennial crowds and sensory overload of the Peak Galleria shopping complex. Sidestepping the throngs, I make my way to Lugard Road, one of a network of paths that crowns the mountain.
It’s a walk I must have done hundreds of times. And yet it never gets tiring, and arguably remains the city’s premier free attraction. Lugard Road is a journey through Hong Kong in miniature; at times crowded, at others sheltered and serene. It winds past posh new compounds and dilapidated mansions; hovers vertiginously over Central’s tallest office towers and dives under the arching limbs of centuries-old banyan trees. It presents an unfurling panorama of the city’s defining features: the always-busy harbor, the dense urban thicket of Kowloon beyond, and the undulating backdrop of mountains that give that peninsula its name. Standing in the middle of the range is the jutting face of Lion Rock, overlooking it all like a granite guardian spirit.
It would be naive to think that Hong Kong has not been essentially changed by the pandemic, or by recent political headwinds. Masks are still remarkably prevalent, at least relative to the rest of the world. Restaurants and retailers, even the airport, contend with staff shortages and teething problems. Even as Art Basel was in full swing, a film featuring a slasher version of Winnie the Pooh was pulled from theaters, likely because wags on social media often draw comparisons between the dozy bear and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In Causeway Bay, a digital billboard artwork on the side of a department store was taken down after it was revealed that it incorporated names and dates connected to the 2019 protest movement.
Instances like these prove this is not the place I moved to—in my mind, for good—well over a decade ago. They also show what a delicate path many of the city’s promising new venues, and the creators who make it so vibrant, will have to tread.
Instances like these are also one reason I recently made the difficult decision to move on. But I feel like I am leaving on a relative high note after three years in which the city well and truly lost its way. And just as so many visitors are now doing, I know I will come back, because of all the things about Hong Kong that have endured—the capacity for constant reinvention; the density of cultural, culinary and recreational experiences, and barely contained energy, concentrated in a single place; the abundance and accessibility of mountains and sea. Most of all, because of the fundamental confidence exhibited by people like Chilli Fagara’s Wong; the deep faith in the future of a place that has tragically never been free to decide on its own terms what that future should be. I will miss all these things dearly, and can only hope they will be here when I return.
A New Dawn for Hong Kong
WHERE TO STAY
Regent Hong Kong
With a prime location on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, the former InterContinental Hong Kong has returned to its Regent roots following an impressive three-year renovation. The hotel is now filled with new artworks and serenely transformed guest rooms, most of which look out to Victoria Harbour and the always spectacular skyline of Hong Kong Island (doubles from US$842).
Rosewood Hong Kong
Just east of the Regent, the Rosewood continues to dazzle four and a half years after its debut on the Kowloon waterfront. There are 413 beautifully appointed rooms, an impressive art collection, and 10 dining concepts, including relative newcomer The Dining Room by BluHouse for fine Italian cuisine (doubles from US$1,152).
The St. Regis Hong Kong
The St. Regis injected a serious dose of luxury into Wan Chai when it opened in 2019. Discreet interiors by André Fu are matched by polished service, a small but sensational spa, and other top-notch facilities (doubles from US$665).
The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong
For a change of scenery, this luxury leisure resort in Hong Kong Island’s Southside area boasts a prime waterfront position overlooking Aberdeen Channel. There are rooftop pool suites, a vast infinity pool, excellent restaurants, and numerous family-friendly features (fullertonhotels.com; doubles from US$340).
WHERE TO DINE AND DRINK
A longtime fixture of Hong Kong’s bar scene, Lorenzo Antinori has seen his first solo venture garner an immediate following for its focus on craft mixology and seasonal ingredients. It’s a little bit of Rome in Sheung Wan.
Modern Filipino dining in a convivial space in Central; try the “spicy funky” coconut noodles and adobo popcorn chicken.
A temple to tapas in Causeway Bay.
This Szechuan institution opposite Tai Kwun remains a perennial favorite for Chongqing-born chef Chan Kai Ying’s well-spiced cooking.
Perched high above the streets of Central, this multi-venue space encompasses high-end restaurants and a rooftop cocktail bar.
An Italian restaurant by day, Vivere morphs into a sassy club by night, with Sunday brunches accompanied by a drag show.
This oversize Wyndham Street izakaya is inspired by the gado-shita watering holes found underneath Tokyo’s elevated train tracks.
WHAT TO SEE
West Kowloon Cultural District
Home to M+, the Hong Kong Palace Museum, and the Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera, this 40-hectare harbor-side development is a must-visit for art aficionados.
Done it before? Do it again—the historic funicular’s latest-gen tramcars are better than ever, while walking around the heights of Victoria Peak never gets old.
Reborn in 2018 as an arts and culture hub, this former colonial-era police station compound remains as popular as ever for its heritage tours, art programs, retail boutiques, and food-and-beverage offerings.
TeamLab Future Park
On show at Kowloon Bay’s MegaBox mall until January 14, 2024, the local outpost of Japan’s famous digital art attraction features six immersive, interactive installations like Light Ball Orchestra, in which glowing orbs shift colors and release sounds in response to touch and movement.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Hong Kong at the Crossroads”).