Old Town, New TownWhat? Shatin! The boondocks far from Central and Tsim Sha Tsui? Isle of Man native Steve Carr isn’t the first one to harbour this fear. Like many of his peers, he began home-hunting last August in typical “expat enclaves” on Hong Kong Island: Kennedy Town, SoHo and Happy Valley. But none really appealed to him. “Many of these places had little ‘community’ and very little to do with the real Hong Kong.”

Getting a bit braver, Carr eventually found a home in Tai Wai, part of Shatin in the New Territories. “It has fresher air,” Carr exclaims. “It’s far more relaxed and quieter, even though it seems at times there are crowds. I find the people in Tai Wai far friendlier than those on Hong Kong Island.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s the rural agrarian community began to take off, as part of the government’s plan to develop Shatin into one of the city’s earliest new towns, designed to absorb the urban population. Now home to over 600,000 people, Shatin is a self-contained suburb somewhat devoid of attractions. But the best of necessities sit at your fingertips: libraries, hospitals, museums, wet markets, country parks and even a racecourse.

Don’t be misled by the identical rows of towering blocks in the town centre. Shatin showcases a motley collection of public housing estates, village houses and apartments at affordable rents. If you’re going to fork over premium prices for rent, you probably want to get the most value for your dollar. Carr is now a tenant in 1,010 square feet and pays $21,000 per month, an amount barely enough for 495-square feet in Causeway Bay.

Other popular choices are small to medium apartments at City One and Garden Rivera along the Shing Mun River with an average price tag of $5,500 per square foot, as opposed to Wanchai’s whopping $13,800 per square foot (according to Midland Realty). Even better is a three-storey village houses on the outskirts starting from $4,000 according to Gold Field Property, which specialises in village house sales.

On the luxury end, Kau To Shan, the Mid-Levels of Shatin, is best known for its villas, including Windsor Heights and Wesley Villa, boasting scenic views, private gardens and actual parking spaces. While the mass residential market suffered setbacks over the last year, realtors say prices on luxury homes at Kau To Shan have been resilient, hovering around $10,000 per square foot, thanks to the lack of new land supply. Just don’t be surprised by the paparazzi milling around. This part of Shatin is home to celebrities from pop singer Faye Wong to the newly elected chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s sister.

Finding a Pizza Hut or McDonald’s in Shatin is easy, but it’s definitely worth venturing from your comfort zone and eating like a local (if you have the guts). Shatin has a raft of public housing estates, where the most authentic, tastiest bites are hidden. Stop by Wo Che Estate to sample some roast goose — comparable to that of Central’s Yung Kee — from one of the city’s last true (and brilliantly shabby) dai pai dongs: Chan Kun Kee. Go to Hang Yuen Cafe at Lek Yuen Estate for its soothing milk tea, buttered pineapple buns and protein-rich egg white sandwiches for the jockeys.

Attractions may be scant but some of the best people-watching can be found in New Town Plaza above Shatin train station. With almost every chain retailer you can name as well as more mid-market goods than swish malls in Central, it’s one of the locals’ favourite hangouts and one of the city’s busiest malls. Just watch out for the weekends. “I couldn’t think of anywhere worse to be in Hong Kong than the New Town Plaza on a Sunday!” Carr emphasises.

But there’s a downside to all this character. The fact that there are few expats in the neighbourhood can be daunting. “It can be difficult going to places and try to explain what you want, whether that’s to eat or visiting a doctor,” explains Carr, pointing out the “language barrier” is more significant in Shatin. “However, the majority of Hongkongers [here] are so friendly there’s always someone willing to help or translate.”

Largely a sleeper suburb, most Shatin residents work in so-called downtown areas. “It’s very accessible to everywhere I need to go, whether that be Hong Kong Island, or where I work,” notes Carr, a teacher working near Mongkok. A journey to TST on the MTR takes around 20 minutes. Otherwise, the neighbourhood is a 10-minute drive from West Kowloon.

Looking ahead, Shatin might not be the centre of attention, but it definitely bustles at its own frenetic pace. With the long-awaited $20-billion Shatin-Central railway link to be completed in 2020, a sharp hike in values and rents of Shatin’s properties seems inevitable as travel time will be shortened to just 17 minutes from Tai Wai to Admiralty. As the saying goes: Location, location, location.

Little escapes the eyes of hungry developers. Last year, four high-end residential projects were launched: Festival City, Paramount Hill, The Great Hill and Oceanaire. The possible relocation of the noxious Shatin sewage treatment plant into a cavern (though not until 2027) is going to vacate a site 50 percent larger than Victoria Park for residential construction.

Is that an indicator of Shatin losing its competitive advantage, its affordable rent and perfect blend of the modern and vernacular? Time will tell. Nevertheless, this hyper-local town has its selling point, at least for now. “This place has all the things that would make me feel like it was home rather than a place I sleep — if that makes sense,” Carr concludes. Perfect sense.