Behind the veneer of skyscrapers, a design revolution is brewing in Hong Kong. Cross-disciplinary collaborations between home-grown brands and artists are elevating their Chinese heritage and immigrant stories to showcase the city’s unique DNA. By Aparna Pednekar
Call it the glitzy gateway to the Asia Pacific or a soaring paean to consumerism, but few will accuse Hong Kong of harbouring a creative design renaissance, least of all Hongkongers themselves. They’ll gamely hem and haw over the notion. Like Jillian Xin does.
Born in China and brought up in the UK, the fashion retail consultant worked in London and Shanghai before shifting base to Hong Kong to work as a buyer with the city’s iconic luxury retailer, Lane Crawford. Nibbling into a sweet-salty ice cream sandwich—we’re at the Admiralty outlet of hipster cafe chain Elephant Grounds—helps melt her initial dismissive stance. Jillian is bullish on a new breed of brands that are forging a fresh Hong Kong identity. From the gender-neutral streetwear of Ground Zero to rebelliously feminine dresses by Anaïs Mak that have broken out on global ramps and are seen on the likes of Gigi Hadid and Priyanka Chopra, she points out a new league of designers who are pushing the creative envelope. They carry forward the mantle of Hong Kong’s handcrafting talent that enchanted the West—Ascot Chang’s bespoke men’s suits and Blanc de Chine’s sequinned gowns included—while infusing a contemporary, multicultural storytelling element into their aesthetic. On weekends, you won’t find Jillian mall-hopping. Instead, she’s scoping new talents at PMQ—a design and retail hub with 100 shops and studios, located in two historic buildings on Hollywood Road—and The Mills, a business incubator and experiential retail space in Tsuen Wan. These hybrid, experimental spaces are providing a stage for new designers and brands to thrive in a cut-throat and notoriously expensive retail landscape.
The design renaissance isn’t limited to Hong Kong’s young guns only. The city’s modern design chops are collectively flexed at Hotel ICON, located in Kowloon, a few blocks away from the milling crowds at Tsim Sha Tsui. It has neither the colonial grandeur of The Peninsula—the grand dame of Asian hotels, also located in Kowloon—nor the whimsicality of Mira Moon, but ICON showcases an ambitious collaborative of the city’s most recognised artists and architects, all ‘icons’ in their own right. Rocco Yim’s architecture is a blend of sleek, sharp lines and all-glass interiors letting in plenty of sunshine, while William Lim has balanced yin-yang elements and customised a folding gate at the entrance by the last of Hong Kong’s gate makers. While luxury couturier Barney Cheng’s smart staff uniforms contribute to the hotel’s design-forward philosophy, New York-based Vivienne Tam has infused her signature urbane glamour into an eponymous suite. Even when the collaborators aren’t Hongkongers, their expertise channels home-grown inspiration. Like French botanist Patrick Blanc’s swirling Vertical Garden—Asia’s largest—over the wall in the lobby, which uses 8,500 native plants. Many collaborators are alumni of the prestigious Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which owns the hotel. Another famous PolyU alumnus, product designer Freeman Lau has curated ICON’s artworks, which reflect the local art scene and range from student works to pieces from socialite Victor Lo’s personal collection. But it’s not all big names, pomp and show. There’s a lot of functionality and innovation at play. In my room on the 23rd level, I bask in dreamy views of the Victoria Harbour, but it’s the intelligent details—a printer, power bank, wireless speaker and WiFi-hotspot-sharing Handy phone—that make a real difference to my stay. I also spot a custom-created Kowloon guide in the room, which leads me to some local gems, like the 40-year-old single-screen Lux Theatre (2J Bulkeley St, Hung Hom)—Hong Kong’s oldest cinema that still issues handwritten tickets—tucked away in Hung Hom and the postmodern Jockey Club Innovation Tower (Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon) that resembles a space-age creature.
On my second night at ICON, I dine at Above & Beyond on the 28th floor of the hotel, where stunning harbour views fade in the background as the smoked egg with oolong tea leaves and black truffles and wok-fried Wagyu with soy-marinated goose liver take centre-stage. The contemporary Cantonese food lives up to its Michelin-Plate status and the vibe—closely-placed tables, plush sofas, a private dining room and buzzing bar—evokes the glamour of the 1920s. It’s the sort of space that’s characteristic of the city’s modern luxury scene—a zingy mix of multicultural influences strung together by a strong Hong Kong DNA.
Present-day Hong Kong glamour is best represented by Mott 32, the flagship restaurant and crown jewel in Maximal Concepts’ global empire. Even as it sees new outposts in Dubai, Bangkok and Vancouver, Mott 32 has set the bar high in Hong Kong with multiple design awards, including the ‘World Interior of the Year Design Award’ in 2015 in collaboration with Joyce Wang Studio. Having reserved a table for a dimsum lunch, I hurry to the Standard Chartered Bank building on Des Voeux Road and am directed down a dazzling, gold mirror-embellished spiral staircase to the restaurant, where an underground party is in full swing. Wang has spun a fascinating immigrant story across a 111-square metre sunlight-starved space, weaving in elements from the city’s heritage, history and myths. The name, Mott 32, is a homage to the New York street that housed America’s first Chinese convenience store in 1851. Seductive dark wood, copper and leather interiors look like they could belong to any global metropolis, but as I take in the ambience, an intriguing Hong Kong story emerges from the silk-embroidered walls bearing Chinese calligraphy brushes, traditional terrazzo flooring with gold coins inset, Shanghai-style brick work, a portrait of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and the bar modelled on a Chinese apothecary. The restaurant’s signature dishes—pork siu mai stuffed with quail egg and caviar, Shanghai soup dumplings and barbecue Pluma Iberico pork slathered with yellow mountain honey—are stylish spins on Cantonese classics. My tip: avoid skimping on the teas, which will eventually lead you to the most atmospheric vintage restrooms in the city.
A brisk walk away from Mott 32, the James Christie Room is on the other end of the design spectrum—all white and clean lines. Besides high-profile auctions and exhibits, Christie’s education wing, headquartered in Hong Kong, offers invaluable insight into the world of art and luxury. I happen to be in the city in time to sign up for a Masterclass in Modern and Contemporary Jewellery Design with Wallace Chan. This special opportunity coincides with Shapeshifter–The Multiverse of Wallace Chan, which showcases the city-based, globally renowned sculptor, designer and innovator’s most important works over the past 40 years. A brisk walk through the exhibit leaves me breathless at the fantastical, flamboyant gardens—dazzling butterflies are a recurring motif—of daringly large gemstones set in lightweight titanium. Chan’s relentless research and innovation with gemstone cutting techniques and avant-garde material studio harness memories of an underprivileged childhood fuelled by imagination—his inventions include a technology that enhances the luminosity of jade and a patented unbreakable porcelain. His daring, dreamlike world is a result of curiosity and years of challenges and experimenting at his famously guarded Stanley Street studio. Post Chan’s masterclass, where he encourages us to “change constantly,” “fight habits,” and “embrace failures,” while always staying “empathetic,” I get a chance to interview the 62-year-old who’s as much a philosopher as he’s a globe-trotting inventor. “I can travel the world in Hong Kong. It’s a window to the biggest tech advancements, art and innovation,” he says of the city that became his home when he was five.
It’s a quiet testament to Hong Kong’s surprising ability to fuel its stories into an avant-garde design aesthetic that’s at once, at home anywhere in the world yet all its own.
Cathay Pacific Airways operates non-stop flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Hong Kong.
Book the Club 65 Studio Suite at Hotel ICON (from INR 11,828), with a living room, walk-in closet, access to the Timeless Lounge (for early check-ins and check-outs), one of the city’s best brunches at The Market and free airport transfers. For an island option, Mira Moon (from INR 14,815) offers Cantonese-inspired interiors and a tapas bar.
The Hong Kong Space Museum on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront offers astronomy exhibits and sky shows. Browse the works of contemporary Asian artists at Massimo De Carlo, the renowned Italian art dealer’s third international outpost. Sign up for day-long courses on specialised art curation and high jewellery provenance at Christie’s, conducted by globally-feted masters of the trade. Spend an afternoon learning to create exquisite dim sum at the InterContinental’s ‘Cooking with the Culinary Stars’ programme. For the classic red-sail cruising experience, book the luxurious Aqua Luna with a 10-course dinner.