One week after Mongkok was ablaze with fires on the street and police firing warning shots towards rioters, the streets were crowded as usual with MK boys and girls, in their unique style, shopping, eating, and looking around. Although Hong Kong’s Finance Secretary John Tsang Chun warned tourists could be scared away from Hong Kong due to the riots, locals don’t seem phased one bit.
Maybe they’re used to it. In 2014, protesters here fought with triad members during the early days of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, and later in early 2015, they went “shopping” at night, filling the sidewalks in defiance of Chief Executive CY Leung.
Leung said in 2014, “Mongkok is not exactly the most genteel part of Hong Kong,” but if it’s known for being gritty and tough, residents take it as a badge of honor. In fact, Mongkok’s reputation as a former industrial area and a center of gang activity and prostitution, as portrayed in films like One Nite in Mongkok, is really an attraction force for youths who want to see a different kind of culture—free-spirited, thrill-seeking, cheap and accessible, in contrast to what one might consider stilted and unaffordable in Central district of Hong Kong island.
In recent years, Mongkok has also started to develop some “high culture” to complement its cheap markets, KTV parlors and fishball vendors. Modern and higher-end pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants are opening where mechanic shops used to be. Hak Po Street (Hei Bu, in Mandarin) now has an award-winning ramen restaurant, a dedicated coffee bar, a craft brew pub, and a dessert place side-by-side-by-side.
I discovered Hak Po Street for the first time after searching for Hong Kong’s best cafes. Number 1 on a list produced by A Foodie World.com is Knockbox, located at 21 Hak Po Street. It also rated mentions in lists by HK Magazine, Lady Iron Chef.com and Spurge.com. And for good reason. It has premium coffees available in different varieties and different presses for selection to satisfy your tastes, with recommendations available by baristas who know their stuff. The narrow shop has room for just one bar platform and a line of tables, giving it an intimate feel, and it has classic music playing. Every Friday night, Knockbox hosts coffee sampling starting at 6:30 pm for HK$80 (67 yuan).
If beer is your drug of choice, you will find it in close proximity—down the street from Knockbox is TAP (The Ale Project), a cozy and delicious craft brew pub. TAP, which was opened in 2014 by Chris Wong, who has also opened HK Brewcraft and Beer & Fish, offers an extensive list of beers from local companies like Young Master Ales and HK Beer Co., along with some Australian and European brews. I enjoyed Young Master’s seasonal Celebration Ale, which had a sweet hazelnut and vanilla kick to it. Besides beers, TAP also serves delicious Hong Kong-style fusion sandwiches, like a version of the Cubano with roasted pork and Chinese pickles, made with bread by famous baker Gregorie Michaud, who operates Bread Elements.
Many dessert places like Next Station Dessert and Joyful Dessert line Hak Po Street further along, and Ramen Kureha, with an interior covered with retro Japanese posters, is next to Knockbox on the other side. Next Station has a 97.5% satisfaction rating on Open Rice.com.
MK hipsters have already known about Hak Po Street for half a decade. Knockbox opened in 2011, Next Station in 2012, and TAP in 2014. But Hak Po Street is a little bit off the radar of tourists, since it is in the southeast side of the Mongkok streets, a small street that is intersected by a soccer field. In particular, the section with these trendy restaurants is just south of Shantung Street (Shandong Street), where much of the rioting took place.
While some people across the harbor seem to be scared of Mongkok, the district continues to bustle just like it did before. Throngs of people walk on the streets, bumping into and trying to get around each other. Performers do tricks and shows on the pedestrian street, West Yangcai South Street. Mongkok actually is one of the most popular places for independent travelers to stay, with cheap guesthouses inside the Sincere House on Argyle Street and elsewhere. So, too, in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Chungking Mansions, made famous by the film Chungking Express, have a reputation for being gritty and exciting while also serving tourists with cheap guesthouses. These are the kinds of places that add color to the bright international city of Hong Kong.