Kowloon Rising

Kowloon Rising

Eating wet noodles with chop sticks on the seesawing deck of a Chinese junk is not easy. But it really adds to the drama while sailing in Victoria Harbour past Hong Kong Island at night­, when the world’s most awe-inspiring cityscape is lit up in neon. The endless array of towering waterfront hi-rises skirting the volcanic island, known as “Central,” is indescribable by Western standards of scale and mass. And the whole scene is punctuated with a curvy crescendo of inspired architecture: the waterfront Hong Kong Convention + Exhibition Center.

This entire Chinese metropolis is brimming over with a cataclysmic cosmo vibrancy amidst one of the planet’s highest population densities. That’s the attraction—a dizzy, worldly energy in constant motion, where very large groups of people seem to move from place to place with unerring efficiency.

This winter, the Hong Kong Tourism Board formed a new division dedicated solely to supporting the group market. The official Meetings & Exhibitions Hong Kong (MEHK) launch took place in November at The Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a converted industrial space and private venue showcasing avant garde local art.

Miss Yvonne Choi, Permanent Secretary for Economic Development, said, “Hong Kong has made its reputation bringing together people, products, services, ideas and opportunities from around the world in a compact, dynamic and business-friendly environment.”

Right now, that dynamism and those opportunities are most appreciated across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon.

Once regarded with suspicion by out-of-towners, the Kowloon side of Hong Kong is evolving into the creative future of the city, recently anointed as such with last October’s opening of the bayfront W Hong Kong. People living and working in Kowloon regard the area as the “real” Hong Kong, versus the glammed up banking behemoth across the water.

But the line is blurring. Who’s to really say what “real” means anyway, as you walk down Kowloon’s central Canton Road into Asia’s beautiful, brand new Louis Vuitton flagship. Or Chanel, Hermes or Dior’s big shops. No matter what the Dow Jones looks like, window shopping is high sport here, and the stores have become the de facto symbol of Kowloon’s rise. So it’s worth joining the giddy street parade as everyone ambles through a gauntlet of stores more stridently displayed than you’ll find in NYC, London or Paris.

“Kowloon is always full of life, it’s very vibrant with so many fun markets,” says Peggy Lau, regional gm for Pacific World DMC. Ms. Lau says she’s been promoting a Shop Like a Local activity on Cheung Sha Wan Road, known as Fashion Street, where groups can go behind the scenes to mix it up with the locals. “Fashion devotees should not neglect it. Many overseas visitors may not be familiar with this street, but it is full of beautiful dresses for sale at wholesale prices.”

Pacific World also offers a Back Garden of Hong Kong country jaunt behind Kowloon around the village of Sai Kung.

“Sai Kung is a town with a vivid clash between old and new, East and West,” says Ms. Lau. “Fishing boats are always pottering out to sea past the island golf course. We can also do a Deserted Beaches Hike on white sandy beaches and in old Hakka villages. Hakka means ‘guest.’ They’re a clan from China who first came here to settle down in the New Territories.” The hike offers unique insight into the communities these villagers left behind, just 12 miles from Kowloon.

Epicenter to everything Kowloon, The Langham Hong Kong just wrapped a $22 million room redo to 270 Grand Langham Rooms. There’s a certain classic Chinese appeal that’s entirely soothing with pale fabrics and dark mahoganies, infused with subtle floral tapestries. The lobby with its colonial-style, barrel-vaulted ceiling and orchid-tressed lobby bar is a welcome respite from all the retail therapy outside. Total meeting space is almost 12,000 sf, and the hotel is considered somewhat of a deal since it lacks water views.

“Our location and brand new rooms are our top selling points,” says Julie Jackson, director of sales/marketing. “We’re in the heart of Kowloon next to Canton Road—the Rodeo Drive of Hong Kong. Shopping and dining are usually better-valued in Kowloon with more varieties, we have everything from glitzy malls to funky street markets. There’s Christian Dior, Gucci, Prada and Chanel in Harbour City, which is a mega shopping centre with over 700 shops nearby…. Kowloon itself has undergone a fabulous facelift over the past few years, and Central is just a 15-minute ferry ride away.”

Across the street, the restaurant Aqua is packed with trendsetters almost nightly for reasons above and beyond the fashionable fusion cuisine. The top two floors of the Dubai-esque skyscraper open up into one cavernous space, with a panoramic 2-story wall of glass facing the island. The bar is perched high in the space like a loft. So at night, you feel like you’re floating vertiginously both inside the restaurant and outside over the city. Regarded as the hippest joint in town, it’s worth a ride up for the scene, the view and the tuna meatball ragu. A dinner buyout here is pricey, so go with a late afternoon post-event reception for up to 300.

The same company owns Aqualuna, the aforementioned sailboat and the most unique dinner buyout in the city. During the week, the traditional, handcrafted wooden junk motors around the harbor and the gargantuan port. Weekend sailings navigate to the quiet, impossibly quaint Stanley Market on the far side of the island. Seats 100, comfortably.

A short walk from Aqua, Hong Kong’s movers/shakers are thronging at NOBU restaurant perched over the water inside InterContinental Hong Kong. Or they’re right below at starchef Alain Ducasse’s SPOON. Insist your group visits for the sassy sashimi tacos. They should follow that with a walk along the Avenue of Stars boardwalk for the best views of Central’s nightly 8pm laser light show. The hotel itself is a favorite for American groups, due to the brand and James Taylor-style cover bands in the big waterfront glass lobby. Seriously great views. The ballroom is Hong Kong’s largest at 9,500 sf, as is the prez suite coming in around 7,000.

During the day, take the whole group to the nearby Jade Market for a full frontal lesson in bargaining like no other. Happily it’s not all touristy. The market is the real deal in and around the 400 stalls since this is where commercial buyers come to do business, too. The Temple Street Night Market is the tourist fave for inexpensive goods, but the Flower Market and Yuen Po Bird Market feel more like a slice of normal Hong Kong life, just north in Mongkok.

This is where Hong Kong starts to look like China. Mongkok is a community in Kowloon jammed with small local businesses and markets, a short 7-minute taxi ride to Victoria Harbour. Anchoring the district since opening in 2005, Langham Place Mongkok is a sleek glass and steel hotel tower adjacent to a monster of a shopping mall with a towering 50-foot video screen showing MTV videos. Britney and Beyonce seem to be popular in China. Love the facial expression of the 8 year-old boy with big black spiky hair staring in awe skyward at Womanizer. Suddenly the world seems smaller.

“When Langham Place was built as part of an urban renewal project, our motto was to change the face of Mongkok forever,” says David Fung, director of sales. “We’re really proud of what Mongkok is today. The destination has evolved to offer a slice of real Hong Kong with an eclectic mix of wet markets mixed with modern malls, and street food mixed with international fine dining. There’s something for everybody and it’s certainly without any pretension.”

Of the 665 rooms in the 42-story hotel, the upper six levels are Club Rooms featuring every imaginable electronic goody, oversized bathtubs with separate rain showers, and views of half of China. Guests have access to the Club lounge and library for long respites with some dim-sum and Möet. One whole floor is dedicated to private group check-in. And it was difficult to leave breakfast on the penthouse pool deck/function space, the highest in mainland Hong Kong, with a Veuve mimosa in one hand and steamed Cantonese lobster dumpling in the other. Total meeting space tops 19,000 sf.

So what do you do for fun around here, Mr. Fung?

“Market tours provide great group teambuilding,” he says. “They’re a fun joint experience for people who aren’t used to market environments. We also get a lot of feedback from some of our groups that the authentic Cantonese hot pot restaurants nearby are valuable for bonding…. Taking the tram to The Peak is always popular. We have tea tasting classes, night and jade markets, and of course world-class shopping.”

Affectionately dubbed “The Flying Wok,” The Peak Tower is a post-mod building with a curved underbelly perched atop Victoria Peak summit, offering killer views across Central and the China Sea. Recommend the tram from Central to the Peak on Saturdays for free Tai Chi lessons. Joining 25 other souls in the morning air, we’re all stretching our bodies in fluid choreography together. Everyone should do this every day.

Down inside Central, the afternoon begins with a walk up the world’s longest covered escalator to the SoHo district for Thai spring rolls at Café Anna and then Graham Street Market to browse the wild orchids, Vietnamese dragonfruit and Japanese Fuji apples. We tried some chicken brains for the first time. Not sure about that. Do make sure to stop by the 119 year-old, Victorian-style Jamia Masjid Mosque, though. It’s tucked away on a quiet side street, and for 20 minutes all is strangely silent in one of the world’s busiest places.

For evening get-togethers, we like Conrad Hong Kong—dark and moody with a crisp, Asian residential vibe and lots of James Bond Girl types. And end the night with aplomb back in Kowloon for dessert at Felix. The Philippe Starck-designed restaurant crowns the top of The Peninsula Hong Kong, the mothership of Hong Kong hospitality, which sashays well with Starck’s sexy Euro-élan.