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Urban Walks - Kennedy Town, Hong Kong

Early at the shop

Oranges on vibrant display

Kennedy Town waterfront
by Nick Walton

[Part of a recurring series on urban walking - From Winter 2010] - My favourite time to explore Kennedy Town is always Sunday mornings. Unlike many expats in Hong Kong, I like to rise early so I can see my adopted neighbourhood of Kennedy Town - a neighbourhood perched on the western end of Hong Kong Island, at the base of Mount Davis - wake for the new day, something I share with the local Chinese.

This particular Sunday I wake early and wrap up warm. Despite Hong Kong’s reputation as a steaming Asian hot spot, it has its winter too, all be it a brief one. My neighbours, as usual, have beaten me to the rising and the shining; in the stairwell of my seemingly ancient low-rise "Chinese-styled" apartment building on Catchick Street, there is already the tang of incense in the air and I pass smoking incense sticks poking out from tiny doorway shrines.

The fruit shop across the street is already doing a roaring trade. Its owner, Mei Mei, seems to love saying my name out loud and always has a smile on her face, no matter the hour. Despite having four supermarkets within one minute’s walk of my apartment, Kennedy Town’s tiny shops survive. People in the older areas of the city, like Kennedy Town, love the haggle, freshness and authenticity of buying live fish, warm bread and individually polished apples.

I dodge one of the lumbering, iconic trams which clutter and clang their way across the northern face of Hong Kong Island, and make my way north, towards Belcher’s Bay Park, a hub of activity at this early hour.

Kennedy Town was named after the city’s seventh governor, Arthur Edward Kennedy, and was part of the old Victoria City, the first British urban settlement in Hong Kong. But it remains a thoroughly Chinese neighbourhood, where English is definitely a second language, and where the smells, sounds and sights are always exotic to my western eye.

In the park, brightly coloured Chinese New Year decorations have already been hoisted. The first few people I pass are not Chinese, or western, but Filipino and Indonesian; Sunday is the day off for the city’s "domestic helpers" and they enjoy every minute of it they can, rising early and meeting their friends for picnics in the park. The sound of them gossiping and laughing echoes through the trees.

Beyond, the high-pitched notes of Cantonese opera – the ultimate acquired taste – can be heard, and in a central oval ringed by palm trees, a group of two dozen elderly women, dressed in oversized white t-shirts over jackets and scarves, perform a traditional dance, their bright pink fans swaying delicately to the music. It’s like aerobics in Asia. Beyond, more women, some a little younger, perform tai qi with plastic swords, balancing on their back foot while arching forward for the final "killing blow."

Behind them, I can see the tips of cranes working on the new Mass Transit Rail (MTR) station. Kennedy Town has been allowed to develop the way it has because of its inaccessibility. Sure, there are trams, mini buses and towering double-deckers, but having an MTR station nearby makes all the difference to Hong Kongers. When the station opens in 2012, it’s expected to change Kennedy Town considerably. More people will choose to live there, rents will increase and developers will be on the look out for plots like my old Chinese walk-up.

I circle around the back of the park and head back south, towards Kennedy Town’s centre. Container barges nudge against the docks, and further down, firemen play volleyball outside their station, a towering peach-coloured building where they all live with their families. Hopeful anglers lean against the harbour-side railing (though I’ve never seen anyone catch anything) and out in the harbour, high speed ferries from Macau weave between massive container ships.

At the base of the Merton, one of the newer luxury apartment buildings facing the water, families walk toy poodles dressed in designer coats. Across the street, where a line of quirky new night spots have opened, an espresso joint does a busy trade – it’s the only one in town. Further east, on Smithfield, locals, many of them elderly wrapped in cardigans and woolly hats, trudge towards one of the local cafes for a breakfast of fresh bread with condensed milk, bright yellow egg tarts and steaming cups of yuan yang, a mix of tea and instant coffee, or to the many medicinal tea shops.

Back on my street, a woman yells out the various dishes coming off the outdoor steamers of her dim sum restaurant. There are fluffy white char siu pork buns, translucent shrimp dumplings and bundles of glutinous rice steamed in banana leaf, supposedly the perfect cure for hangovers. I ask her what she thinks will happen when the MTR arrives.

"It won’t make too much difference," she says, waving away the billowing steam from the cooking benches. "Kennedy Town is too old to change in a hurry, and you never know, it might be good. People still need to eat!"

Guide to Points of Interest in Kennedy Town:
Belcher’s Park is bordered by Catchick Street and Kennedy Praya. For great views over Kennedy Town, follow Victoria Road south to find the Mt. Davis path.

The Place Coffee is the only espresso in Kennedy Town and turns into a bar at night.
The Pier Bar is a popular spot for locals looking for a sundowner. G/F, 1C Davis St., Tel: +852 2865-1181
La Baguette is an intimate restaurant at night and café during the day. G/F, Sincere Western House, 42 Davis St, Tel: +852 2889 8999

Photographs by Nick Walton

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