Hong Kong Asia's World City

Southern District

By LUXE City Guides; images by Harold de Puymorin

Surf & Culture

Few destinations pack as much variety and terrain into as compact a place as Hong Kong Island. You can go from pulsating metropolis to lush and leafy peaks to sparkling surf in just a few kilometres. And one district, Southern, lets you experience all three in a day, should you wish.

With the opening of the MTR South Island line in December 2016, getting from Central to the golden sands of Southern District is easier than ever. The first stop, Ocean Park, is a mere six minutes from Admiralty Station. From there it’s a short taxi or bus ride to some of Hong Kong’s finest beaches, stretching from Deepwater Bay in the south-west to Big Wave Bay in the south-east.

Each has its own character and demographic: Repulse Bay, with its prime real estate inhabited by affluent Hongkongers and expat families; the buffed, tanned and flamboyant at Middle Bay; and boho young things and surfers at Big Wave Bay and Shek O villages.

Don’t fancy sand between your toes? Southern District’s Wong Chuk Hang neighbourhood is a thriving contemporary arts hub, with a slew of top-notch galleries and independent artists’ studios secreted away in the area’s many converted warehouses and office buildings. Keep an eye out for names like De Sarthe, Rossi and Rossi, Pekin Fine Arts, Blindspot and Alisan Fine Arts, the last of which is in Aberdeen, where sampans and fishing boats still moor in the typhoon shelter and the fish market hums with activity.

Highlights
  • Rent a surfboard and catch a few waves at Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island’s prettiest beach.
  • Hang out at Ben’s Bar in Shek O, or feast on simple Thai fare at the Chinese & Thai Restaurant.
  • Take your pick of dining options, such as Limewood and Tri at beachfront The Pulse.
  • Pack a picnic and get away from the crowds at secluded Chung Hom Kok.
  • Visit the South Island Cultural District website to check out art happenings in the area.
  • Visit one of the many excellent galleries in Wong Chuk Hang, Southern District’s contemporary art hub.

Insider’s Favourites

The Verandah

Take afternoon tea at The Verandah and you’re cast into another era; its whirring ceiling fans, potted palms and Art Deco flourishes hark to a bygone age of leisurely dining. With views over the ocean, this sophisticated restaurant is part of the Repulse Bay Hotel, Hong Kong’s original recreational stay, built on the site of the iconic 20th century hotel bearing the same name. While The Verandah is a reproduction of the original interior, its grand, 1920s decor and elegance offer a nostalgic dip into the past.

Sin Sin Atelier

Owned by cultivated artist, curator and adventurer Sin Sin Man, this diminutive studio shelves a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind stash of artisan-made jewellery, silver, apparel and accessories inspired by her travels across Asia. Having fostered a decades-long relationship with Indonesia, much of the collection is handpicked from the archipelago — don’t miss the beautifully printed fabrics and Southeast Asian artworks.

Limewood, Repulse Bay

It’s bikinis and boardshorts a go-go at this upscale beach shack overlooking Repulse Bay. Limewood abounds with the buff and the beautiful sipping Aperol spritzes as they graze on wholesome Cali-meets-Asia fare, but you can leave them to stare at their selfies as you tuck in. Seafood is the speciality, from zesty ceviche to line-caught seabass flavoured with chimichurri and tamarind, while the jerked coconut corn and smoky coleslaw are delish. Servings are small, so order plenty to share and book ahead or be prepared to wait, especially on sunny days.

Aberdeen Fish Market & Promenade

Get a sense of Hong Kong’s seafaring origins at the Aberdeen fish market and promenade. Rock up early and head to the wide, pedestrianised boardwalk, where you’ll encounter fisherfolk selling the day’s catch straight from their brightly coloured boats. Jostle with elderly folk snapping up the best specimens then dive into the market itself, Hong Kong’s only wholesale fish depot. When hunger strikes, Yee Hope Restaurant is the local canteen for flip-fresh seafood and other HK staples. Open from 4am to cater for fisherman and market workers, it's zero frills, there’s no menu and no English spoken, so be prepared to gesticulate — you won’t find fresher fish.

  • Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market, 102 Shek Pai Wan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)
  • +852 2177 7872
Faux

Don’t let the name fool you, everything at this style spot hidden away in an old industrial building is genuinely chic, from the handsome throws and rugs in eco furs to the leather, hide, silk and wool soft furnishings made to order. The exclusive artist editions of fine-bone china and ceramics, from a Happy Valley-inspired porcelain platter to an entire tea set named after Sai Ying Pun, make for souvenirs you’ll actually want to keep.

Dragon’s Back Hike

Dragon’s Back offers an accessible 90-minute to two-hour jaunt with sensational panoramas of beaches and mansions, distant mountains and across the South China Sea. It’s also one of the best known, hence busiest treks, so head out early or go late afternoon to avoid the hordes. To get there, take a bus from Shau Kei Wan or cab to To Tei Wan on Shek O Road. After a steep 15 to 20-minute climb, you’ll spy signposts to the main trail, which undulates across several hills, ending at the Correctional Institute on Shek O Road. If time permits, carry onto Big Wave Bay for a well-deserved burger and craft beer on the beach.

  • Starting point: To Tei Wan village, Shek O Road, Shek O, Hong Kong Island (View on Map)

Insider’s Experiences

Beach Culture in Hong Kong

Suitable for maximisers, family

Hong Kong Island packs a lot of beach into a little bit of land. While the north-side districts of Central and Western, Wan Chai and Eastern are crammed with glass and steel skyscrapers and towering apartment blocks, Southern district boasts bay after bay of golden sand and calm waters that are safe for a splash and swim with family and friends year-round. Whether you want to dive in for some water sports, dine by the seaside, or simply find a patch of sand to chill out, the Island’s southern coastline has a beach for everyone. Running from south-east to south-west there are: surfy Big Wave Bay; village-y Shek O; touristy Stanley; secluded Chung Hom Kok; chilled South Bay; flamboyant Middle Bay; glitzy Repulse Bay; and leafy Deepwater Bay. Below is a rundown of a few of our favourites.

Big Wave Bay

Big Wave Bay is the most reliable spot on the island to catch a wave, though name notwithstanding, the swell is modest by international standards. Nonetheless, this comely cove, sheltered between mountains and rocky outcrops, is arguably the most beautiful on the island, and a favourite among the city’s small surfing community. “Even when they don’t reach great heights, the waves are ideal for beginners — I originally learned to surf at Big Wave Bay”, says Nicole Pabello, a regular at the beach. 

A 30-minute drive from Central, Big Wave Bay exudes a relaxed, boho vibe, and is less crowded than neighbouring Shek O beach. There are several surfboard- and umbrella-hire stalls and no-frills eateries on hand, and come sundown, the beach kiosk is a top spot for a post-surf pizza washed down with a fresh Thai coconut or craft ale.

Shek O

One of Hong Kong’s most popular beaches, Shek O is favoured by French expat families and laid back, eclectic locals. It can sometimes feel like half the city is there with you, especially on summer weekends, but is well serviced with changing rooms, showers, playground and barbecue area.

While there is rarely a swell, it’s a good place for windsurfing, or a wander through the charming village. There are plenty of beachside eateries to sate your appetite, including no-frills Chinese & Thai Restaurant for generous servings of Thai-Chinese food and Cococabana, for Mediterranean eats and chilled wine on its terrace overlooking the sea. If you want to mix with the locals, seek out divey Ben’s Back Beach Bar on the sand.

Repulse Bay

Despite the name, Repulse Bay is the glitziest of Hong Kong’s beaches, boasting an idyllic, palm-fringed swathe of sand and shallow waters ideal for family frolics. It has great facilities, with changing rooms and showers, and a beach-front mall The Pulse, housing breezy diners Limewood, Classified and Balinese Tri, as well as a seasonal weekend sunset beach club and plenty of smart lifestyle and children’s boutiques.

Its location in one of Hong Kong’s most affluent neighbourhoods means Repulse Bay attracts a well-heeled crowd. Expect to share the sand with bankers, tai tais, mums and mums-to-be, expat kids and a heap of day-trippers.

Patty Tam, who visits regularly with the tots-in-tow, loves the beach, “it’s easily accessible, and there are plenty of restaurants for after swimming. It’s my son’s favourite beach and he always asks to go there,” she says.

Middle Bay Beach

Middle Bay Beach is Hong Kong’s unofficial gay beach. A half-hour walk from Repulse Bay, this serene strip of sand is also the go-to for those looking to avoid the hordes. Max, a regular in the summer, says that “while Repulse Bay offers amazing views at sunset, you can still get the same ones from Middle Bay Beach, but without the crowds. It’s a great place to enjoy sundowners with friends.” Be sure to bring your own drinks and snacks however, as there are no food and beverage outlets at this beach.

Chung Hom Kok

Athena Yeung, recommends the lesser-known Chung Hom Kok because “the water is clean, the beach is comfortable and relaxing, and there are fewer people around.” And visitors seeking peace and quiet should make a beeline to this under-the-radar alcove for low-key beach lounging. Chung Hom Kok might not have the same repertoire of bars and restaurants of busier bays — with only a few barbeque pits and a simple kiosk to its name — but that’s part of its charm, with quieter and calmer waters that make it ideal for swimming.

Stanley

People love Stanley for its bustling village atmosphere, reminiscent of an English seaside town with lovely alfresco eating, drinking and people-watching opportunities, rather than as a swimming beach. Away from the promenade, there’s shopping at Stanley Plaza and the labyrinthine Stanley Market, which is touristy but fun for a browse for art, souvenirs, clothing and linen. Every June, the beachfront transforms into one of the most popular places in Hong Kong to watch the Dragon Boat Festival races, which take on a party vibe as large crowds drink and get merry.

Wong Chuk Hang Art District

Suitable for cultural explorers, trend hunters

Situated between the fishing port of Aberdeen and the Southern District’s beaches, Wong Chuk Hang’s distressed warehouses and drab office buildings bisected by a flyover belie the neighbourhood’s creative spirit. This is Hong Kong at its most urban and edgy; venture beyond the grimy loading bays and car-mechanic workshops and you’ll discover a flourishing art scene spanning big-name galleries, maker studios and street art.

For Dominique Perregaux, longtime Hongkonger, owner of Art Statements and founder of the South Island Cultural District (SICD), Wong Chuk Hang’s appeal lies in its location, ample-sized spaces and relatively affordable rents: “it’s an industrial, alternative neighbourhood close to affluent districts that’s only 10 minutes from Admiralty by MTR,” he says.

Dominique, who represents 20th-century big guns from Cézanne and Renoir to Basquiat and Fang Lijun, relocated from Central in 2012, when there were but a handful of galleries in Wong Chuk Hang, Ap Lei Chau and Tin Wan combined. Today SICD has 23 members and Dominique is bullish about the future of the area: “there is no doubt that it will become Hong Kong’s main art district by 2019,” he says.

Location and space were also major factors in driving Parisian-born de Sarthe Gallery from Central, “it’s a huge plus,” says Director Willem Molesworth. A major benefit of being in the area is that “when people come out to look at art in the neighbourhood, they’re really out there and stay for quite a while. They enjoy the art in a much more intense and thorough way versus just coming on their coffee break in Central,” he adds.

Unlike most of the galleries in the neighbourhood, de Sarthe is in a new building on Wong Chuk Hang Road. Venture inside the sleek lobby with its smartly dressed security staff and the space is more resonant of a slick CBD building. The gallery itself is a spacious, high-ceilinged backdrop for de Sarthe’s diverse spectrum of contemporary exhibitions, which range from abstract painting to interactive installations that use the entire room.

Both Art Statements and de Sarthe and indeed most of the galleries in Wong Chuk Hang operate in the private sector; while their exhibitions are open to all, the priority is business, and in Hong Kong art is big business. What about public venues? Hong Kong still lacks a public-funded art gallery, but one space that championed the idea of art for the wider community, Spring Workshop, sadly closed in late-2017 at the end of its five-year cycle.

Flying the flag for performance and interactive art, Charbon combines public exhibitions with a roster of thought-provoking artist talks, film screenings, dance and drama performances, and they have a library of art books in Chinese, English and French plus workstations for students, or simply the curious, to use while browsing. Also not to be missed is heavy hitter Rossi & Rossi and Blindspot, which specialises in photography.

Part of SICD’s mission is to engage with the public, which it aims to do through the bi-annual South Island Art Days, held in March and September. All the galleries open their doors, and artist talks, guided tours and kids’ activities are offered free throughout the day, creating a lively buzz. SICD also runs an outreach program connecting with schools and universities, and some of its members offer educational programs.

Art in Wong Chuk Hang isn’t limited to the professionals; the area is also a hotbed of street art. Visitors won’t miss the vivid murals adorning warehouse walls, shutters and doors — from the snaking purple dragon reflected in the mirrored glass of One Island South, to the ethereal woman gracing the corner of Yip Fat Street, or the motto-like Wong Chuk Hang sign outside the teeny sitting-out area on Heung Yip Road.

Non-profit collective HK Walls held their fourth annual neighbourhood takeover in Wong Chuk Hang in March 2017 for which 30 Hong Kong and global artists were let loose on the outdoor canvases, resulting in eye-catching scenes that surprise and enthrall. Taking their cues from the neighbourhood’s industrial roots, these expressions epitomise the creative spirit that infiltrates Wong Chuk Hang.

Dominique and Willem both believe Wong Chuk Hang art district has yet to live up to its potential, “I think the area is going to continue to grow and evolve,” says Willem. “More and more galleries and art spaces continue to open up. I don’t think that will stop for quite some time.” And like Chelsea in New York and London’s Shoreditch, where art starts, so others follow — Wong Chuk Hang has a burgeoning creative scene that encapsulates street art, fashion, architecture, interior design and gastronomy.

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