The streets are seedy, ragged and flooded with dim red, yellow, and orange neon lights. In between tiny food stalls and convenience stores, dozens of young filipino and thai women in short leather miniskirts loiter outside modest club entrances.
Sometimes they call out offers for free cover charges or beseech pedestrians to come inside for just one drink. Sometimes they sit quietly, poised and complacently staring off into the distance, taking a drag from a freshly lit cigarette.
An electric sign on the street depicts a yellow sun traced by a multi-colored rainbow. Beneath the rainbow a kitsch, outdated eighties typeface spells out “Wan Chai” in English. However tacky the sign may be, it’s an appropriate ambassador for the district – a place that’s equally well-worn and colorful. A patchwork of individuals from all walks of life and professions.
Down the street, young men in business attire mingle outside of Carnegies, a loud pub famed for late-night dancing atop it’s central bar. Inside, mixture of ethnicities and ages sing along to the YMCA song – while a handful of people on the bar recklessly clutch a long brass railing for support.
A few more steps down the road, a group of high school students celebrating graduation stumble out of a 7-11 holding Smirnoff’s with straws. They hold a spontaneous competition on the sidewalk to see who can drain theirs the fastest. It’s permitted to carry open alcoholic beverages on the streets in Hong Kong, and a much cheaper option for those that would rather not pay the standard $6 or $7 USD for a drink inside the bars.
Many places in the area feature live 80’s and 90’s cover bands that perform songs by bands such as Eagle Eye Cherry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and of course… Michael Jackson. One of the most popular spots is a small place called Dusk ‘Till Dawn, and certainly lives up to it’s name – it’s not uncommon to see revelers spilling out on to the streets at sunrise, wearily hailing a cab. Others trek to the MTR station to catch the first morning train at 6.30am or catch the minibus routes that are run 24 hours a day.
The establishment of the district stemmed from the growth of the British administration in Hong Kong. It was once the central landing point for the British Royal Navy and other incoming foreign ships. Wan Chai became legendary for its nightlife and prostitution circles, especially in the 1960’s with US servicemen resting there during the Vietnam war. Stories from this era were featured in Richard Mason’s book The World of Suzie Wong, which was then turned into a feature film in 1960.
While Wan Chai is notorious for it’s nightlife, there’s no lack of activity in the district during daylight hours. A HK$4.8 billion extension was added to the waterfront Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in 1997, providing a total exhibition area of 65,000 m². Book fairs, art conventions, film festivals, technology expositions, and cosplay competitions all frequent the space – there’s a good chance that something interesting will be happening if you’re visiting on a weekend, so check out their schedule of events.
The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and Hong Kong Arts Centre are also situated near the waterfront, making Wan Chai one of the few areas in the city to take in a selection of musicals, plays, and concert performances. For dining, there are restaurants of every price range and nationality – Thai stalls, Vietnamese cafés, Irish taverns, Mexican cantinas and of course Chinese Dim Sum or dai pai dong.
For bargain shoppers, there are plenty of small shops that specialize in clothing, shoes, sportswear and cheap domestic appliances. It’s not the high-end shopping found in Central, but there are plenty of great bargains that have found their way over from the mainland. Wan Chai also offers a few wet markets, with one of the busiest being on the fringe of neighboring district, Causeway Bay – near the Times Square MTR stop.
It’s safe to say that the face of Wan Chai is changing – especially from it’s heyday of infamy in the 50’s and 60’s. But it’s attraction to night owls will stay the same – which for many is a cheaper, grittier and more adventurous alternative to the steep streets of Lan Kwai Fong.
If you only have a few days in Hong Kong, don’t hesitate to include Wan Chai on your agenda.