More than Meets the EyeIt wasn’t long ago when the city’s transport and housing chief Anthony Cheung Bingleung jokingly said he couldn’t afford a house in the “urban area,” prompting the man earning $3.5 million per year to find a new home in mid-levels — of Tai Po. (Fair enough, Cheung’s new property is a 2,000-square foot villa.)

Less urbanised than Shatin though more accessible than Sheung Shui, Tai Po is not so much a hot spot for investors. Yet the simple village town, fast shedding its laidback label, is metamorphosing into a back garden for city dwellers that loathe the urban crowd, polluted air and exorbitant rents.

With a population of about 320,000, Tai Po is among the least densely populated suburbs around town. Developed slowly along the reclaimed banks of the Lam Tsuen and Tai Po Rivers since the 1970s, the new town has an interesting mix of old and modern, colloquial and luxury, public housing to sprawling villas.

Walking in the heart of old Tai Po Market, don’t be surprised to see fluttering laundry from any of the five- to six-storey shop houses built in the 1950s. High-rise apartments, including Uptown Plaza and Tai Po Centre, occupy the prime location right above Tai Po train station and bus terminal. Otherwise, 2,100-square foot, three-storey village houses, priced at around $5,500 per square foot, are scattered around Lam Tsuen and Ting Kok.

The space residents get here for the money is far better than what is available on Hong Kong Island, property analysts say. Costing about one-third the prices of Wanchai, apartments in Tai Po has reasonable rates of approximately $5,600 per square foot, compared to Shatin’s $6,400, according to Midland Realty.

Tai Po might not be a shoppers’ paradise, but the cheap finds at local shops can come as a surprise. For a nostalgic walk, visit boisterous Fu Shin Street Market, one of the city’s last traditional street bazaars, crammed with bargaining grannies, stalls selling fresh veggies, overrun fashion and knickknacks. The Tai Po Mega Mall and Uptown Plaza might not be perfect, but cover all the dayto- day basics. And locating a Starbucks or McDonald’s is effortless, though small boutiques can be hard to find.

Looking for watering holes in Tai Po? Don’t expect SoHo luxury. The nightlife is all on Kwong Fuk Road. The street is dotted with pub-style local bars with an unpretentious working class vibe. For late night munchies, head to the food vendors at Tung Sau Square just off Kwong Fuk Road.

Unfortunately commuting between Tai Po and the urban area can be tedious. “I hate the long travelling time for work. You know Tai Po is so remote,” says Minnie Li, 23, a Tai Po resident who works in Quarry Bay. Tai Po is just about a 10-minute drive away from Shatin. The MTR East Rail line allows convenient commuting to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, though a journey to Central takes about 45 minutes.

But people move all the way to Tai Po for a reason. Surrounded by rolling green hills and the peaceful Tolo Harbour, Tai Po boasts many green areas and biking and hiking trails. The Tai Po Kau Reserve and Waterfront Park near the Tai Po industrial estate are great hangouts for hikers and sun worshippers. The suburb is home to Ma Shi Chau, one of Hong Kong’s geo parks and Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve, a 42-hectare habitat for 170 species of indigenous butterflies.

Yet the quiet town is not immune to the kind of gentrification happening in other parts of the city. Its village-y vibe is not only tempting for homebuyers, but also for developers. Even the government is eyeing a stake in it, although its plan to turn the site into a tourist spot and build a $200-million artificial beach at Lung Mei Beach, along the shore in Tai Po, has sparked public outcry.

In recent years, luxury developments have mushroomed along the outskirts of Tai Po. Townhouses and low-rises have sprung up along the Tolo Highway for an exclusive harbour view. Developments with fancy names like Parc Versailles and Grand Dynasty View to more recent Beverly Hills provide units as large as 11,000 square feet, all with pools and clubhouses. Detached houses at Hong Lok Yuen, a gated community with full clubhouse facilities, form an expat enclave in the New Territories.

The second phase of Providence Bay, lowdensity residences jointly developed by four developers, could be called the district’s rising star. Situated near Tai Po’s Science Park, a 1,467-square foot flat recently sold for $14 million ($9,500 per square foot), barely enough for 700 square feet at The Arch in West Kowloon.

In the same way buildings go up in the blink of an eye all across Hong Kong, Tai Po is seeing a remarkable facelift. “Small shops move out and [big brands] take over,” notes Li. But to the long-time resident whose apartment is just off a waterfront park boasting a 1.2-kilometre promenade, “[Tai Po] is still a very good place to live.” Indeed. Who doesn’t dream of that rarest of Hong Kong luxuries: lush green pastures at one’s doorstep?