EAT: Turning Chaiwanese, and musings on ‘hipstervilles’

Save for New Cross in London, can’t say I’ve ever lived anywhere remotely trendy. Ladywell? As tame as it sounds. Croydon? Oh dear. Back in Hong Kong, the peaceful family hub that is South Horizons is more paisley than plaid, and while Hung Hom has the required population of studenty types (nearly always a prerequisite to the formation of hipstervilles proper) thanks to the nearby Polytechnic, it’s not exactly the Shoreditch of the East.

One of the most amusing things to happen since coming back to Hong Kong has been the realisation that one of my best friends, an adorable anti-hipster-mentality kind of girl (catchphrase: “This is so pretentious.”), lives just around the corner from Tai Ping Shan Street – one of the city’s trendiest strips of concrete at the moment.

The immediate area surrounding TPSS houses a smattering of independent galleries, fancy florists, boutiques (hello Aesop!), cafés, and even a sleek serviced apartment, which stand in stark contrast to the fast food shacks, dusty hardware stores and car repair shops still operating here. And while I adore, say, sitting at the adorable Teakha and sipping a properly spiced masala chai, or enjoying an osmanthus latte from Homei, I am always aware of the creeping signs of gentrification here and what it might mean. One afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the look of bemused wonder on the face of an elderly granny with her grandson in tow, as they made their way past braying young Hong Kongers with shrill international accents (*raises hand sheepishly*) into their tiny apartment right next door. To be honest, I’m already worried about the entire lot of them (shops and dwellers alike) being priced out of the area within a year’s time as the street becomes more and more desirable.

But I digress, because I have to say: I do take small pleasures in at once celebrating and deriding what I term ‘hipster enclaves’, because while at times I can’t stand the smugness that drips off the young and beautiful in some of these areas, I do appreciate that these are places that offer something more interesting than the glossy multi-chains that have taken over the city. Most independent operations seem to have a limited life expectancy in Hong Kong, with a few exceptions; meanwhile, most neighbourhoods offer the same selection of shops: a Maxim’s, Fairwood or Cafe de Coral. A Starbucks, PCC or Caffe Habitu. Hong Kong doesn’t do café culture well – how could it, with a deadly combination of precious land and high rents that naturally demand swift turnovers? The economics and physicalities of the city means we haven’t really managed to develop or sustain a slow café culture like that in the Antipodes, or even those of our neighbours in Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Good decent local cha chaan tengs are the one saving grace, but these are useless if you crave a quiet spot for a relaxed cup of tea or a chill out weekend brunch. Which is why I envy those who live near little hubs of creative energy, such as Sheung Wan or Tai Hang, where solace can be sought amidst concrete and chaos.

Funnily, sometimes the best things can be right under your nose.

My family lives rather near a mini industrial city on the east side of the island, and the arrival of a little place called Chaiwanese in one of the non-descript buildings is a wonderful surprise.  The appeal of the area may not be immediately apparent, but this part of the island has long been a honey pot for cash-strapped creatives keen on the low rents and generous studio spaces. Their very presence lends Chaiwanese its own raison d’etre.

Declaring itself as a ‘warehouse café and lounge’, and it confidently embodies both the spirit and utilitarianism of a worker’s canteen (counter service and the addition of a solid communal table sees to this) while remaining creative at heart. Here, photographers, Ming Pao reporters and salesmen rub elbows with curious Chai Wan locals in a space that hits the right note between industry and hospitality. High ceilings and cool grey concrete floors are balanced with buckets of natural light, vibrant flowers and rustic wooden furniture; a wee little budgie tweets in its cage in the corner just as visiting hipsters Tweet about and Instagram the place. (And I am guilty as charged.)

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I had a read of the menu prior to visiting and didn’t feel particularly tempted by the sandwiches and salad combos, nor the desserts – obviously I’ve been spoiled by all the cafés in London and beyond. I miss the simple but brilliant and always perfect quiches and vegetable medleys at the Rose Bakery in Paris, the pretty salads at Lantana and Ottolenghi, the hearty stews and inspired sandwiches at Salt. I experienced a little bit of that London flavour at the recently relaunched Library Café in Lane Crawford TST, but that’s a post for another time.

I settled down at the heavy wooden communal table one misty, wet afternoon and warmed up with a gooey brownie and a cappuccino. For the latter, they use beans by local roasters Coffee Assembly. The barista, Daniel, crafted up a lovely cup. Very mild in flavour, it was perhaps overwhelmed by the sticky sweetness of the brownie – you’re going to need something with more punch to stand up to it. A flat white I ordered the day after (it’s not on the menu, but they can pretty much whip you up anything you like – they’ve also got a siphon back there for brewed coffee) would fare much better. No pretty latte art yet, but I’m pretty happy with the flavours and textures of the coffee here. A little more body in the milk for the flattie and it’d be spot on.

I’ll go on and admit that sandwiches don’t get me very hot under the collar. I mean, I’ll have one if it sounds especially interesting, but I’d much rather have a stonking big plate of rice or noodles over a fridge-cold sarnie (can you tell I’m reminiscing about lunch choices back in London?). However, that day I wasn’t feeling hungry enough for a bowl of pasta, nor full enough to settle for a salad; turns out the Mumbai curry chicken on rye was just what I needed. Good bread with decent chunks of chicken (not dry – wonder if it had come out of owner Jehan’s makeshift ‘sous vide’ machine aka beer cooler hack?) and a spiced mayonnaise that was nicely cut through with the fresh crunch of finely-chopped celery. A daily-changing soup is always on offer, and on another lunch visit a lovely, thick mushroom soup was the ideal remedy for another foggy, grim day in Hong Kong.

I’ve heard some pretty sweet things about their bagel with home-cured salmon and cream cheese, and with any luck it will be verified and given the thumbs up by a proper Noo Yawker in due course. Watch this space.

So my conclusion? In a city where luxury brands are continually swarming over every last inch of concrete, when beloved independents are being priced out of their neighbourhoods, and where a space – a real space, and not a shoebox – to eat, drink, and contemplate is more often fable than reality, I’m inspired by Chaiwanese. I love that it’s here, and that I can have a decent flat white in a place where there is room to breathe. If this is hipsterville, then I’m all for it.

Unit 1307, Phase 1, Chai Wan Industrial City
60 Wing Tai Road
Chai Wan, Hong Kong

3698 0935


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