How to get to grips with the buzzing East Asian city that never seems to sleep

HOW DOES HONG KONG MEASURE UP AGAINST THE MOST FASHIONABLE CITIES IN THE WEST? Even at its lowest ebb, there’s always been money in Hong Kong, with its privileged community of lightlytaxed expatriates and its energetic, career-driven middle class. But there’s little point in having spending power if there’s nothing very interesting to buy, so thecity has hungrily devoured the most stylish, fashionable elements of western life – and embellished them. Since shopping narrowly outranks horse racing as the national sport, this is most evident in the glossy new malls (and refurbished old ones) sprouting up in both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Every western-style mall of any standing boasts the familiar line-up of Gucci, Prada and the rest, sometimes handbag-tohandbag with the most fashionable labels from Japan. Harvey Nichols and Agnés B have arrived in town. Armani has taken things to a new level by colonising a suitably elegant skyscraper that might easily be renamed “Armani World”.

WHAT HAS ARMANI DONE THERE? The company has brought the entire designer experience under one roof: the Armani/Bar HK (11 Chater Road, Central; 00 852 2532 7777; www.armani.com) is its largest retail space outside Milan. Apart from the full range of branded clothes, accessories, jewellery and cosmetics, the complex contains an Italianstyled 40-seater restaurant, lounge, wine bar and coffee bar. In the coffee bar, you sip your espresso while peering through glass walls at a giant video projection of catwalk models parading the designer’s latest creations. In another space, the newly-restyled wine bar has an oval-shaped “island” in the centre done out in gold resin, where you’re invited to start the evening with cocktails and appetisers, before the establishment reinvents itself around 10pm and turns into a noisy nightclub with live DJs.

HOW DO THEY DO THAT? Largely by turning up the volume and altering the lighting, but the Armani/Bar is by no means unique in changing character midway through the evening to attract an entirely different clientele. Another place that does it is FINDS, located in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong, the Central district where most western visitors seek their night-time entertainment, spilling out of the bars on to the buzzing streets. FINDS (33 Wyndham Street; 00 852 2522 9318; www.finds.com.hk) is a combination of restaurant, bar and nightclub. The name is an acronym of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and its design, food and general vibe aims to reproduce Scandinavian cool.

The décor is all crystal curtains, white granite blocks and ice chandeliers; the menu features Scapas (Scandinavian tapas) and a variety of cocktails with a blueberry base. It also has a rarity in central Hong Kong – a breezy, upper-floor terrace. Around 11pm, hidden buttons are pressed and the sofas and tables, set on rails, magically slide off to the sidelines to create a central area for dancing. And then the music starts...

OTHER FASHIONABLE MUSIC VENUES? Visiting celebrity/footballers from the likes of AC Milan and Manchester Utd, who tour Hong Kong during the European close season, dive into Dragon-i (Centrium Building, 60 Wyndham Street, near Lan Kwai Fong; 00 852 3110 1222; www.Dragon-i.com.hk), which is also a hang-out for models and artists. The cultural mix can be combustible, and smarter dress is required after 11pm when the club rules dictate that “the door policy toughens up”. The funkiest house music is played at Drop (39-43 Hollywood Road, Central; 00 852 2543 8856; www.drophk.com), still basking in the memory of the night when Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay spectacularly took to the floor after his Hong Kong concert.

The city doesn’t receive as many world-touring rock stars as it would like, and moments like that live long in local legend. Other style-meets-music venues in the district are Volar, He-He and Club No 9. All varieties of dance music are offered, from techno to hip-hop, trance to R&B, and on Friday and Saturday nights the beat can go on until 7am. Temporary membership is sometimes required, but it can still represent a remarkably inexpensive night out. Over the harbour, in the music clubs at Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island, the admission charge is typically around HK$250 (£16), but in return for that there are free drinks all evening. According to Steve Bruce, a leading local DJ and club promoter: “The beauty of this city is that it’s sharp, up to the minute, and about a year ahead of anywhere else.”

COOL VENUES WITH A BIT LESS NOISE? The Peninsula, arguably Hong Kong’s premier hotel, once had a rather stuffy reputation, but no longer. Even the grandest establishments have to move with the times, especially in a young, vigorous community like this one. To that end, you might want to check out the Peninsula (Salisbury Road, Kowloon; hongkong.peninsula.com) Felix (00 852 2315 3188), a seriously chic and exclusive restaurant and bar on the 28th floor, blessed with eye-popping views across the harbour to Hong Kong island. The edgy, avant-garde interiors – notably the enormous “island” bar – were designed by Philippe Starck, and the place comes glamorously to life at the cocktail hour in readiness for the nightly sound-andlight show across the water. You might also want to check out Aqua Spirit, (00 852 3427 2288) which is on the top floor of 1 Peking Street, near Harbour City in Kowloon. This has amazing views, possibly trumping even the Felix, and is one of Hong Kong’s must-see bars.

THE BEST DISTRICT FOR EATING OUT IN STYLE? Hong Kong is a crossroads city, at its best when it achieves a harmonious fusion of Chinese, Japanese and European influences. This can work as well with food as it does with fashion, music and dance. The up-and-coming SoHo district, a ramshackle arrangement of narrow streets in the mid-levels of the city, has a host of indigenous restaurants with a Western twist. SoHo is easily reached from ground level along a series of covered escalators that are reputed to form the longest moving staircase in the world.

An unusual example of fusion cuisine is offered at Yun Fu (43-55 Wyndham Street, Central; 00 852 2116 8855; www.aqua.com.hk) which opened early this year and pays homage to the ethnic communities of northern China, including Tibet. You enter down a staircase lined with Buddhas into a dungeon filled with red lanterns, antique furniture, ethnic baskets and exotic silks. A curved projection screen on the wall of the bar shows silent scenes from vintage Chinese martial arts movies. In a city estimated to have the one of the greatest number of bars and restaurants per capita in the world, I hesitate to call it unique, but the food, décor and atmosphere are memorable.

The Japanese restaurant group, Zuma, well established in London, opened a branch in Central (15 Queens Road; 00 852 3657 6388; www.zumarestaurant.com) three months ago that’s made an immediate impact. The food is prepared in an enormous open kitchen, with 20 or more chefs and their assistants beavering away in full view of the diners, who can pull up a chair to watch their creations take shape at close quarters. Two deliveries of fresh fish are flown in from Tokyo every day, and both the fish and meat are charcoal-smoked in a style unique to Hong Kong. There’s loud, ambient music, and the upstairs bar serves wickedly more-ish cocktails, such as rubabu – a rhubarb-based sake shaken with vodka and fresh passion fruit.

ANY SIGN OF THE CELEBRITY CHEF CULTURE COMING TO THE CITY? They’re working on it. One of the local stars intent on making an impact in London is Alvin Leung, who’s been hailed as Hong Kong’s most innovative chef. At Bo Innovation (32-38 Ice House Street, Central; 00 852 2850 8371; www.boinnovation.com) he serves what he calls “X-treme Chinese”, exploring new combinations of taste and texture. Everything contrasts: sweet and sour, hot and cold, crunchy and chewy. “I want to take Chinese cooking to the next level,” he says, “and bury the takeaway mentality.”

A typical tasting menu consists of 10 small, colourful and intensely flavoured dishes, each prepared with theatrical dash. Among the dishes on the night I visited were single oyster in sorbet sauce; crab soufflé with Chinese vinegar; Caesar salad in a cone, and boiled chicken breast wrapped in a lotus leaf: all original, and distinctly risqué. A glass door leads to the kitchen, where, for an extra charge, a handful of diners can sit at the chef’s table, enjoying an exclusive audience as he hurtles between hob and oven with much flamboyant arm-waving.

Chef’s tables are a long-standing Hong Kong tradition, and for their money the occupants are allowed to pass criticism if they wish. “In London,” says Alvin, “the food critics are harsher, the clients milder; in Hong Kong, the clients are harsher, the critics milder.” He’d be a natural on TV.

OVERALL, A HIP PLACE TO VISIT? “Hong Kong has got to be the coolest place in Asia,” said a designer-clad reveller, raising his voice above the music as he eyed the equally smart clientele in a throbbing nightclub. “What have you got in London that we don’t have here?” Off the top of my head I struggled to find an answer, and by the time I’d thought of one my challenger had disappeared into the teeming streets of Central, where the partying would continue for many hours to come. This is a city that truly never sleeps, and for style and originality it has few rivals anywhere on earth.

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