Everyone seemed to think the end was near when the mega mall Langham Place opened in Mong Kok in 2005. But the property market in the city’s beating heart is picking up fast, thanks to a new wave of gentrification that is transforming the district. In Hong Kong, where space is far from sufficient, urban redevelopment simply equates to money, money and lots of money.
Literary meaning “busy corner” in Cantonese, bustling Mong Kok has among the highest population densities on earth: an average of 130,000 in one square kilometre according to Guinness World Records. That dwarfs the 8,000 in each square kilometre in downtown Sydney and 10,600 in New York City.
Taking a stroll in Mong Kok amid the jostling crowds, you’ll be amazed by how much a street can hold. It’s a packed area of gritty 1970s Chinese-style walk-ups with washing hanging from windows, rowdy street markets, jam-packed pedestrian pavements, angry drivers and frenetic traffic (that often scares away expats). Chic malls, boutiques, gadget stores, Chinese medicine pharmacies, mahjong parlours and pubs all sit at your fingertips.
Foodies have a good reason to love the district. “Good and inexpensive food is all around the place, and you have plenty of choices,” says Tsui Wing-kit, 23, a registered nurse and long-time resident from Tai Kok Tsui, part of Mong Kok. Potent smells of mouth-watering street snacks — fish balls, egg waffles and the notorious stinky tofu — linger in the streets of Mong Kok. Tim Ho Wun, one of the world’s cheapest Michelinstarred dim sum joints is located here.
And there’s no shortage of things to do in 24/7 Mong Kok after dark, be it karaoke, rooftop barbecue or grabbing drinks. It’s the time when the streets throb with the vibrancy of neon lights, street performances, energetic crowds and strings of incandescent light bulbs that illuminate the market stalls.
But there’s a downside to all this character. As one of the city’s earliest settlements, the area developed quickly as millions of refugees swarmed in after the Second World War, thanks to its downtown location. Now a major transport hub linked to every part of the city through MTR and buses, the area’s home prices and rentals are skyrocketing. In the heart of Kowloon, space, any space, is special. Urban planners and hungry developers are eyeing the steak out there.
At least four redevelopment projects are underway. The Urban Renewal Authority (URA), which works to regenerate rundown neighbourhoods, plans a 1.8-billion project to redevelop a cluster of old tenement buildings near Reclamation Street. Some 3,500 residents squeezed into 147 subdivided flats will be relocated to give way to redevelopment.
Even the popular shopping area is facing a major facelift, with the URA spending $100 million to turn it into a shopping theme park. The renewal project targeting the flower market, ladies’ market, goldfish market street and sneaker street, is going to incorporate features you’d find at Disneyland — “special directional signage, decorative pavements and themed street furniture,” the URA’s website reported.
So what comes next? In addition to more severe noise and air pollution, the wave of extensive redevelopment simply means a sea of investment opportunities. “I don’t like the pollution [that will be] created, but these projects renew and refresh [the area],” Tsui says. Gone are the older walk-ups and factories. Mong Kok now is spruced up with towering branded hotels, chic apartments and trendy malls rebuilt from older residential buildings.
Brand-new flats at The Hermitage by Sino Land in Tai Kok Tsui are fetching monthly rents of $40 per square foot, versus $43 at Mid-Levels. The average price for a flat at Gardenia by Kowloon Development is around $9,000 per square foot, compared to the area’s average $6,400 in July, according to Property Info, an online real estate portal.
Then there is Sai Yee Street, where the sneakers are located. The area, again, is slated to become a commercial and residential complex providing about 290 flats. Although half of them will be sized less than 500 square feet, independent surveyor Pang Siu-kei forecasts the rare supply of residential flats in the city centre is pushing prices up to $8,000 per square foot.
Will the crazy heart of Hong Kong ever be the same? “I’ll say there’s quite a rapid change going on, but not too rapid,” says Tsui, who describes the area as “friendly” and “simple.” While land acquisition can be a timeconsuming process, the vibrant and colourful street life has yet to be invaded, or eroded, entirely. At least for now.
“Compared to Causeway Bay and Wanchai, I find [the area] less commercial. I can meet familiar faces, and they’re all nice to others,” Tsui adds. How can anyone forget the singular dichotomy found nowhere else: middleaged women selling stinky tofu opposite to a swish hotel café and sweaty hawkers flashing knockoff Rolexes outside a chic mall? Welcome to Mong Kok.