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November 18, 2014

Hong Kong Revisited

Text by Aparrna Gupta

Let not the metallic futuristic façade of Hong Kong fool you, as within the structured walls of the financial capital of Asia, resides an equally quirky, artsy and chic soul, discovers Verve

At first sight Hong Kong overwhelmed me. Verdant hills with magnificent views of the sea, open skies and fluffy clouds suddenly gave way to a concrete jungle of metallic skyline and zipping flyovers. Everything happened with clockwise precision. I admired the sartorial aesthetics of men and women as they dressed impeccably in the latest trends of the season with their designer accessories in tow. As a lifestyle writer (and a self-confessed shopaholic), I couldn’t wait to visit the local markets to figure out how every local dressed like a fashionista. However, since it was my first visit that too with my four-year-old daughter, the itinerary only included the usual touristy suspects – theme parks, the Peak, the Symphony of lights, a multimedia show at the Avenue of Stars and a fleeting visit to the Ladies Market and City Gate Mall. Ocean Park and Disneyland, which brought out the inner child in me, were the highlights of my trip and I was convinced that Hong Kong is my Neverland, a metaphor for eternal childhood.

As I followed the euphoria generated by the second edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, I wondered how art fitted in this city, which looked like a sci-fi film set (no wonder, films like The Dark Knight, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Fast and Furious, Rush Hour 2 and Battleship have been shot in Hong Kong). I could find out on my second visit to Hong Kong when I attended the Hong Kong Fashion Week Spring Summer 2014, a four-day fair, organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. It’s a sourcing haven with over 1250 exhibitors participating from 19 countries, including India, and first time exhibitors from Madagascar, Morocco, Thailand, the United Emirates and the United Kingdom. This fashion week includes 40 events, 17 shows and 14 seminars and some forums on trend forecasting and discussion on emerging markets. The Runway to Realway presentation saw cosmetic brand NARS launch their key product, Dual-Intensity eye shadow and exclusive preview of 3.1 Phillip Lim for NARS nail polish by collaborating with local fashion talents to create unique Fall/Winter looks inspired by the colour cosmetic collection. That the young designers are on trend was visible through Mim Mak’s black and white collection in de-constructed silhouettes and Mountain Yam’s metallic textures. Elizabeth Lin’s pieces in abstracts and prints reflected the designer’s own childhood memories of Hong Kong.

Inspired after seeing these beautiful creations from over the world, especially Mainland China, I wanted to source fashion souvenirs indigenous to this city. The tour guide, Fred Cheung, informed me how since colonial times Hong Kong has been famed for its quality tailor-made suits and shirts. Cheung took me to Sam’s Tailor in the by-lanes of Hong Kong’s most popular shopping district, Tsim Tsha Tsui, whose glamorous streets house international luxury brands and a few local designer stores. Cheung warned me not to judge the nondescript appearance of Sam’s Tailor as this 57-year-old shop has international celebrities such as former American presidents George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, Pierce Brosnan, Richard Gere, George Michael and even members of the British Royal Family, on their client list. That one can have a perfectly tailored bespoke suit or a shirt or a pair of trousers at a fraction of the cost of designer brands within 24 hours has made Sam’s Tailor, a family run shop, a landmark in Hong Kong.

On a mission to get acquainted with local designs, my next stop was the hip PMQ in Aberdeen Street, Soho, located in the upmarket Central area. The historical compound, once quarters for married police officers, has been developed into a hub for creative entrepreneurs to promote appreciation of local creativity to the community. The central courtyard has displays and art installations that are changed frequently while the stores offer young fashion designers, graphic artists, sculptors, interior designers to showcase their wares at reasonable rents. I cherish my interaction with one such extremely talented, young fashion designer, Chailie Ho. “Despite the local population being very fashion forward, the scope of local designers is limited as it’s very expensive to rent a place in Hong Kong, and that’s why PMQ is a great idea,” she stated. Her signature style is feminine, as she works with flowy fabrics such as chiffons and georgettes in soft pastel hues. But here’s what gives an edge to her collection: her exquisite and unique prints. Being an accomplished artist, she captures the myriad facets of her city, Hong Kong, its landmarks and its myths in watercolour and then digitally transfers these to her creations. Since her art style is impressionist, you may not notice that there is a building or historical monument captured in the clothes, what takes your fancy is the sensuality of textures and colours. “When I was studying in England, structured outfits were in vogue. But I never followed the season’s trends. I feel it takes a strong woman to have the confidence to dress femininely.”  Each store’s ambience and window display is the extension of the designer’s artistic sensibilities. PMQ is a treasure trove of high street local brands, a must-visit on every fashionista’s itinerary.

For lunch I stopped by at Bibo, a newly-opened French restaurant tucked away in a basement on Hollywood Road in Central, a street famous for its antique artifacts and exquisite chinaware. Each corner of this bohemian chic restaurant exudes art. From the walls to the floor tiles and even the washrooms, everything is an artist’s canvas. I learnt that Bibo is an international first that sees a collaboration of the world’s most renowned contemporary and street artists come together in one space, a project set to open minds to a new way of eating and seeing art. And all the food that comes to the table is made in-house, right from the bread to the ice cream, and is artistically presented by Executive Chef Mutaro Balde with three Michelin star background. Satiated after my gastronomic odyssey, I planned to explore the Sun, Moon and the Star streets in the Wanchai.

Imbued with history, Wanchai’s low-rise buildings and quiet lanes are a perfect foil to Central’s urbane, suave character. This quirky neighbourhood, that was once fringed with barracks in the colonial era, became home to Hong Kong’s first electric station in 1889 and after the station’s demolition in 1922, it began its stint as a residential complex and is now a vibrant destination for passionate artists and entrepreneurs. Lined with chic galleries, trendy boutiques and cosy cafes, these wandering lanes evoke the distinct easy elegance of European streets. Cocktal Jo Jo, a quaint boutique-café, caught my attention. Brain child of designer Luke Yeung, named after his pet cat, this unique place serves as an art gallery where young local artists showcase their collections, an exhibition hall which displays knick knacks handpicked by Yeung himself on his travels abroad and a café where you could relax with a cup of European floral teas and some homemade cookies. “The stock in my shop keeps changing every week. Like a girl I like to buy beautiful things, and since I can’t keep everything in my home, I keep it here,” he said in a lighter vein. This place is a must-visit if you like things that are one-of-its-kind.

Another significant landmark on Hong Kong’s fashion map is Shanghai Tang, a Chinese label, founded by businessman David Tang, with the idea of reviving traditional Chinese fashion though with modern sensibilities. As I got a guided tour by Winnie So, chief designer-knitwear, at the posh flagship store in Central, through the men’s wear, kids’ wear, accessories, women’s wear and tailor-made sections, I couldn’t help but notice the Chinese influences and vibrant colour palette. “Colour is our signature. We play with prints, colours, traditional elements (jade, eternity knot, mandarin collar) but keep the silhouettes modern. For instance traditionally the qipao is a slim-fitted long dress with a mandarin collar. We have given it a more modern knee-length variation in contemporary prints,” she explained and added, “The modern Chinese woman is well travelled and we want to give her an option of modern silhouettes but with a subtle oriental flavour.” To mark its 20 anniversary celebrations, the brand collaborated with contemporary artist Jacky Tsai, best known for revitalising Chinese artistic traditions with a modern twist, to create a series of original artworks that inspire a limited edition range of box clutches, tableware, cashmere shawls and qipao.

To add a touch of oriental flavour to my wardrobe, I was guided to visit Sham Shui Po, an old shopping district where local designers like to source their fabrics. Situated in the northern part of the Kowloon Peninsula, lacking the glitz and glam of Tsim Tsha Tsui and Central, it pulsated with an old world charm. Small shops selling beads, threads, eternity knots, fabrics, ribbons, buttons, in-trend trimmings abounded. I felt lost as a kid in a candy shop as my eyes skimmed through rolls of satin, net, chiffon piled on the roads, and exquisite laces available at reasonable prices.

As a fitting closure to my visit, a trip was scheduled to Stanley Island, located at the south of Hong Kong Island. The one-hour ride to this erstwhile fishing village is divinely picturesque. At every road bend, the views of the sea and the hills kept getting more spectacular. “In 1941, during the invasion of Hong Kong by Japanese troops, Stanley was the last battlefield of defence,” informed Cheung. But I found it difficult to concentrate on his words as I felt transported to the South of France with luxurious villas, white sand beaches, exclusive clubs, landscaped gardens, alfresco dining spots and a distinct western ambience. The place had luxury and leisure written all over it. The Stanley Market was definitely touristy but a shopaholic’s heaven with vendors selling jade, Chinese tea sets, silk garments, panda toys, oriental art and kids’ garments. A perfect place to pick up souvenirs!

I opted for a cruise along Victoria Harbour at night. Though I had already seen the multimedia show, Symphony of Lights, once onboard the relaxed ambience of the Aqua Luna, the antique boat with wide lounge sofas and lilting music, I felt myself appreciating the sparkling skyline of Hong Kong even more than before as I soaked in its energy, diversity and spirit. Bidding farewell to this enchanting city, I felt fortunate for second chances in life. The clinical perfection of Hong Kong had fascinated me at first but as I delved into the lanes less travelled, I discovered an artistic, quirky and vintage albeit chic spirit that lies beneath that no-fuss futuristic façade!

Hong Kong Inspiration

Fashion designer to Bollywood stars Rocky S on why Hong Kong inspires him

Is he a fashion designer who loves to travel or an avid traveller who designs? He is a nomad at heart, wanting to discover different landscapes and cultures, taste varied cuisines (in spite of being a pure vegetarian) and experience different world views. He shares his insights from his recent visit to Hong Kong:

Fashion destination: Hong Kong is in sync with international trends with all the top brands available here.As much as the locals are obsessed with the brands, they have their unique style of dressing. The way they team their designer wear isn’t intimidating to the other person.They don’t let go of their traditions, whatever they may be dressed in, one element will be typically Chinese — like a belt, sling bag or scarf.

Local fashion: The local designers are very aware of international trends yet they try to incorporate a bit of their culture into their works.

Oriental inspirations: I was fascinated with the Chinese script. The lettering is so unique, so artistic. I plan to use this element somewhere in my collections.

Travelling enlightens: Travelling is my passion. The places I visit, the people I meet, all inspire me. My Hong Kong trip has been an eye opener as I loved the way people dressed up in modern silhouettes still holding on to some elements of their traditions. India is a treasure trove of heritage and culture yet we mindlessly ape European fashion. After this trip, I learnt that I want to hold on to what I have.

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