Neighborhood to watch: Hong Kong's 'PoHo'

Neighborhood to watch: Hong Kong's 'PoHo'

Our favorite places from the fast gentrifying area, including Hong Kong's best coffee, creative bread recipes and a wigmaker

Po Hing FongSun Yat-sen's revolutionary digs in the historical Po Hing Fong. It's now a bakery.There's a new funky neighborhood in Hong Kong around Po Hing Fong, in Sheung Wan District.

“We call it 'PoHo,' says designer Sirkka Hammer. "The whole area has a lot of buildings which start with ‘Po.’ It means 'treasure' [in Chinese] so we say it's like a treasure hunt because there are so many interesting shops and artists here."

Hammer was the first Western outlet in the PoHo area, which refers to Po Hing Fong and the area surrounding Blake Gardens.

With her husband Andreas Aigner, Hammer started the art and fashion exhibition space, Hammer Gallery, with an Austrian café next door called Café Loisl.

Loisl has become a big hit, bringing coffee-lovers to the old neighborhood that unfolds across a series of tree-lined terraces and staircases.

Only in the last three years, creative types such as Hammer have moved into the old "tong laus," decades-old low-rise tenement buildings, in PoHo. They have transformed it into a hub of creativity.

The area has a lot of streets which start with ‘Po.’ It means 'treasure' in Chinese.

- Sirkka Hammer, owner, Café Loisl

Once a sleepy residential area dotted with family run businesses dating back to the 1960s, PoHo is now home to bohemian cafés, boutiques and design studios.

The gentrification is snowballing, but despite the influx of young, passionate entrepreneurs, many of them non-Chinese, the area retains its quiet. It still feels hidden, like a forgotten corner.

“All the people that have businesses here seem to have a similar ethos," says Nana Chan, who runs the teahouse Teakha. "Making a lot of money is definitely not the only thing we care about. We all want to make a difference to the way people eat and live.”

Many of the independent businesses moved into the neighborhood in search of an alternative to the skyrocketing rents in Hong Kong's SoHo. Lower overheads allowed creativity to flourish.

“When I first opened the shop, the rent was so cheap, we could do whatever we liked, we didn’t have to worry,” says Ray Chan, who runs a barbershop and second-hand clothing store.

But rents inevitably climbed. According to Knight Frank, in the larger district of Sheung Wan, residential rents alone have increased by 43 percent in the last three years.

A 39-square-meter apartment on Po Hing Fong is advertised at HK$26,000 (about US$3,350) rent per month.

Po Hing FongPound Lane, one of the main arteries of the PoHo area.

Residents say several big developers have been eyeing PoHo and there have been attempts to buy out the old buildings.

The recent proposal, under consideration by the government, to construct an escalator on Pound Lane, has stirred mixed feelings. The staircase slices straight through the heart of the neighborhood.
“Many are definitely rejecting it because they’ve seen what happened with SoHo,” says Vincent Cheng of Po’s Atelier, a new bakery in the area.

SoHo in Hong Kong refers to south of Hollywood Road, an area that is now a full-blown dining and entertainment hub.

Its vibrant nightlife is credited to the escalator that was built there in 1993, making the steep hills of SoHo easier to handle.

Chan, the barbershop owner in Po Hing Fong, is struggling to preserve the original character of his neighborhood.

“I liked it better before, when there were more elderly on the street with old stalls and this really vintage noodle shop from the 1970s,” he says. “We should protect the area and not allow it to change too fast.”

And before it does transform for the worse, check out the best of PoHo below.

Café Loisl and Hammer Gallery

Po Hing FongCafé Loisl brought life back to an abandoned space."Everybody told me I was crazy," says Sirkka Hammer recalling her decision to sign a lease for a small shop space in Po Hing Fong. "It was empty for years and you had homeless people there."

Looking at the polished dark wood interior and quaint terrace of Café Loisl and Hammer Gallery, it’s hard to imagine this was once an abandoned squat.

Today when you reach the top of the staircase that leads to the café, you feel as if you’ve suddenly been transported out of Hong Kong and onto a side street in Vienna. 

“In Austria, the café is more of a social place where people meet up and discuss literature, music, poetry, everything -- we wanted to recreate that,” says Hammer.

And she was meticulous in her mission. Loisl is a perfect replica of a traditional Viennese coffee house with everything from imported antique lamps, more than 100 years old, to an art deco hat rack and custom chairs.

Adding to the authenticity is the dessert list. Hammer started off baking her own apple strudel with fresh whipped cream daily. Now she’s trained a cook.

The drinks menu features classic Austrian-style coffees and will soon include coffee cocktails. Hammer prides herself on the distinct house blend with “nutty, chocolaty” flavors. The service is impeccable and baristas are trained for at least half a year.

The connected Hammer Gallery holds monthly exhibitions featuring local and international jewelry designers.

Café Loisl, G/F, 8A Tai On Terrace, Pound Lane, 
Sheung Wan; +852 9179 0209; 

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Po’s Atelier

Po Hing FongBread flavored with soymilk, at Po's Atelier.Po's Atelier was born out of the weakness of two men: the inability to resist a good loaf of bread.

Two college buddies, Jonathan Leijonhufvud from Sweden and Hong Konger Vincent Cheng, hail from advertising and design backgrounds, but have always dreamed of opening a business together.

Before opening the shop, the friends did extensive research, flying around the world in search of the perfect loaf. After several months of traveling, they found nirvana in Japan.

“The concentration of bakeries there is insane,” says Leijonhufvud. “We started digging deeper, each time getting closer to heaven.”  

Po’s Atelier serves up French-style bread with a twist. The menu was designed by Japanese celebrity chef Masami Asano whose creations include bread flavored with oolong tea.

In Hong Kong, the bread is baked using ingredients such as soymilk homemade by Vincent’s mother, goat cheese and ham, both from a farm in Yunnan. All the bread is additive-free.

Inspired by a suburban bakery hidden in a basement outside Tokyo, Po’s Atelier isn’t easy to locate.

“We wanted to find something a little bit distant from the prime location but with character,” says Cheng.

At a leafy cul-de-sac at the end of Po Hing Fong, the building is loaded with history.

“It’s crazy to think but Sun Yat-sen used to host revolutionaries in the space and also hold meetings here,” says Leijonhufvud.

Next month Leijonhufvud and Cheng will open a small café which makes use of the cozy outdoor space behind the bakery.

Appropriately named Café Deadend, it will start serving coffee and homemade sorbet. They also expect to bring in a chef for a full day menu. 

Po's Atelier, 62 Po Hing Fong, Sheung Wan; +852 6056 8005;

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Po Hing FongFind yuzu-flavored financiers and a gourmet cup of tea at Teakha.Step into this rustic café and the smell of ginger and freshly baked fig scones wafts through the air. A large communal table sits in the corner and raw bulbs hang from ropes above.

“The ambiance is very relaxing and slow,” says owner Nana Chan. “It’s a place to unwind. I like the idea of people sitting here and being able to read a book.  Hong Kong really lacks places like this.”

A former lawyer, Chan has been obsessed with tea since her teens. For her, the shop was a labor of love. She began with small pop-up tea stalls on the terrace of a restaurant in Wanchai and a farmer’s market in Taiwan before opening a permanent shop on Tai Ping Shan Street.

Chan sources her teas from her travels. Whenever she takes a trip she makes a point of visiting tea plantations and learning local brewing techniques. Of her masala chai from India, she says: “I did a trek in Darjeeling and I stayed with local people and watched how they cook and make tea.”

Alongside the teas, Chan, a self-professed epicurean, has been experimenting with unusual pastries. Her impressive menu features the likes of Roselle scones and Yuzu financiers.

Teakha has a regular following of artsy types from the surrounding galleries and design studios. A highlight of the space is the hidden outdoor terrace in the back.

Chan will soon be opening a second space in Po Hing Fong which will be an extension of Teakha. She plans to make it a retail space featuring tea and an events hub for talks, tea pairing classes and movie nights.

Teakha, Shop B, 18 Tai Ping Shan St.; 
Sheung Wan; +852 2858 9185;

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Po Hing FongZhan does vintage style, from head to toe.Tucked underneath a small staircase, Zhan is easy to miss. Look for a square red logo stamped onto a glass vitrine with a reindeer inside.

The basement shop is festooned with jewelry, shoes, vintage furniture, second-hand clothes and wigs.

Hong Kong-born hairdresser Ray Chan and his wife Ann Hung run the bohemian space. She sells her wares in the front and he coifs hair in the back.

Chan has been cutting hair since he was 14 years old. He is most famous for working on Wong Kar-wai films like "2046."

Lately he’s also become a wig-maker. Meanwhile, Ann is a stylist for fashion shoots. The clothing and accessories are all pieces she’s handpicked over the years.

“We live in Kowloon but we like to work here because it’s a special place,” says Chan. “You can feel a sense of the old Hong Kong here which is quite difficult to find.”

Chan is known by many in the neighborhood for the mini protest which he staged when he was evicted from their first shop on Sai Street. Located in the nearby Tai Ping Shan area, the building was bought out by a businessman.

Chan did a public countdown on his shop front. “I wrote down everyday what happened, my feelings, if it was raining or sunny -- when we finished it had been about 200 days,” he says.

Zhan supports local artists and fashion designers. They host art exhibitions in the space and regularly feature new work. When they opened, their first show was for photographer Wing Shya.

Zhan, Shop 1, G/F, Po Hing Court, 10-18 Po Hing Fong; +852 2559 3001; call before you visit as Chan keeps irregular hours.

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Lampe Berger

Po Hing FongLampe Berger in PoHo: old French fragrance brand attracting young creatives.The latest addition to the neighborhood is a home perfumery brand Lampe Berger.

While the French brand, headquartered in Paris, is one of the largest companies to have a shop in Po Hing Fong, it is anything but corporate. 

“We want to maintain the neighborly vibe that exists in this area,” says John Vuillerme, director of Lampe Berger Hong Kong, who lives a few streets away.

Opened in late August, the airy white space sits opposite Café Loisl. They feature 40 different scents including black pomegranate, fig and lemon flower. They also carry an anti-mosquito scent and a neutral fragrance to deodorize air.

Vuillerme says he came across the space by accident. It was formerly an artist’s studio.

“The courtyard use to have wood sculptures in it,” he recalls. “I saw the place for rent and it looked very interesting. I was keen on having an unconventional office.”

Vuillerme is passionate about the neighborhood and wants to channel its creativity into a series of events.

He says they have big plans for their courtyard area, a large outdoor space framed by exposed concrete pillars.

“We hope to turn it into a social area with a barbecue.”

Upcoming events include evening jazz sessions, flea markets, and pop-up shops.

If their recent opening party is anything to go by, we can expect intimate hipster-style gatherings with good music. Follow their Facebook page for news of their events.

Lampe Berger, 28 Pound Lane, Sheung Wan; +852 2568 1381;

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A freelance writer, Payal Uttam found her way back to Hong Kong after a prolonged stint in Chicago.

Read more about Payal Uttam