Tag Archives: best views in Hong Kong

Pawn Again: views from The Roof Garden @ The Pawn

When I used to work in Wan Chai, my colleague and I used to dawdle about the streets until the dying seconds of our lunch hour, bemoaning the lack of pleasant public spaces in the area where we could sit and avoid returning to the office for as long as possible. Little did I know that one such place did exist and could have saved us from being harangued by strippers and grimacing over grotty tattoo parlour displays in the streets of WC.

The Roof Garden (and yes, those are real plants and they’re gorgeous), on the third floor of The Pawn restaurant, is a quiet haven from the heaving hubbub of Wan Chai. It offers spectacular views over the city, a chance to drink in the different styles of architecture and savour the fact that somehow, a little piece of old Hong Kong has been preserved. Admittedly, preserved by becoming a set of swanky restaurants, but preserved nevertheless.

Photo contrasting the old Woo Cheong Pawnshop with the new development, from HK Man’s Flickr, which you need to check out like, now. Hundreds of amazing photographs like this comparing old and new HK.

The Pawn occupies the former premises of century-old Woo Cheong Pawnshop (hence the name), a set of four tenement houses (known as “tong lau”) originally built around the turn of the 20th century. “Tong lau” were unique to Hong Kong and Southern China, balcony-type shophouses featuring a mixture of Chinese and Western architecture, where the ground floor was usually devoted to a family business whilst the upper levels were residential. These ones have four stories, with high ceilings, French windows to the balconies, verandahs facing Johnston Road and other typical Tong Lau features that you can see in some of my photos, like the balustrades and decorative urns on the roof, which have been restored and revitalised. Columns on the ground floor supported the upper levels, forming a covered pedestrian arcade – a feature more HK buildings today could do with, saving us from the beating sun and dripping air cons!

Another nice little detail – the shophouses did not have toilet provisions. Instead, the “nightsoil” was collected by government scavengers at night from the pail latrine (i.e. a bucket). How do I know all this stuff? Well, upon visiting the Roof Garden, you’re met by an attendant from the Urban Renewal Authority (who bought the building in 2003 and helped restore it), bearing a pamphlet snappily entitled “Welcome to The Pawn Roof Woo Cheong Pawnshop Building Cluster”, full of such interesting facts and photos! Apparently, this was a response to The Pawn not exactly encouraging non paying-customers to enjoy the Roof Garden but I certainly had no such problems on my visit. Sadly, the attendant didn’t speak much English so couldn’t answer any of my other questions – like whether some of the racks on the roof were actually from the Woo Cheong Pawnshop itself (they definitely looked rusty enough!).

The preserved terrazo front sign for Woo Cheong Pawn Shop

It’s easy to get frustrated with Hong Kong’s attempts (or lack of) at historical preservation. Many old buildings have ceded to anonymous modern developments already and it always seems to be an uphill battle to prevent sites of historic interest from being ripped apart and swiftly following suit. Although it isn’t exactly ideal that these century-old tenements have survived as a luxury commercial development sold to the highest bidder (with Woo Cheong shunted out elsewhere in Wan Chai to make way for them), I’d rather concentrate on being happy that it’s survived at all, that a stunning part of it is easily and freely accessible to all and that The Pawn has put real effort and thought into making the most of its setting and history (review of the restaurant itself here!).

[And what with The Press Room Group paying homage to the pawnshop, having previously done so with The Press Room itself (its name references the Overseas Chinese Daily News / Hua Qiao Daily newspaper, the 1920s residents of that building), perhaps they’re getting a taste for this kind of thing?!]

View showing the orange lift going up the side of the Hopewell Centre, which at the time of its completion (1980) was the tallest building and first circular skyscraper in Hong Kong

As for the Roof Garden – well, the pictures speak for themselves, don’t they? (As ever, click for enlargements.) It’s a spot of serenity with absolutely breathtaking views and a humbling sense of heritage. (And it would be absolutely great for a private party as well, they have a bar and everything!) There is also a small computer screen attached to one of the columns downstairs as part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail (quite how it hasn’t been carted off by some hobo yet I’m unsure) which details some of the history of the area – including jaw-dropping maps showing how much land has been reclaimed. Basically, I’d have been standing in the sea!

Whilst we were enjoying having the place to ourselves, my boyfriend wondered when Hong Kong’s legion of “helpers”, who swarm in the thousands upon HK’s various public spaces every Sunday in a sea of fried chicken, hip-hop dancing and piercing babble (making many such areas impossibly crowded and near inpenetrable to the average pedestrian… never mind the amount of debris and mess left at the end of the day – will save that rant for another day!), might discover it. So get down there before they – or anyone else for that matter – does and savour this hidden oasis set in the midst of our concrete jungle. Enjoy.

Ding-ding!

Photos showing the redevelopment and restoration

The instantly-recognisable HK pawn shop logo. Wikipedia reckons it represents a bat (signifying fortune) holding a coin (signifying benefits). The character in the middle is the symbol for pawn shop, the two upper characters the name of the family who own the shop.

Roof Garden, 3/F The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai.

For more information and photographs about the restoration and preservation of 60-66 Johnston Road, check out the Urban Renewal Authority’s website here.

The Peak Lookout restaurant review – peak-a-boo!

Ask me my favourite restaurant in Hong Kong and The Peak Lookout comes close to the top of my list. It’s not so much the food – though delicious, it’s nothing to get excited about – more the location, the ambience and the heritage of place. It has an unhurried old-time elegance, plus obligatory stunning views, that make it the perfect place to while a way a few hours on the Peak.

The Peak Lookout Hong Kong

In a place where restaurants come and go practically before you’ve finished your starter, The Peak Lookout is actually a site with history. Back in the day, it was a resting shelter for the poor sods that had to cart about rich expats on sedan chairs whilst the building we know became an eaterie, called The Old Peak Café, in 1947. This was before the days of the two giant malls that now hold fort at The Peak and it was practically the only (decent) place to eat there for a good fifty years. The Old Peak Café was listed as a Grade II Historic Building in 1981 following a petition against its demolition and Café Deco lost the lease of it in 1989, whereupon it was renovated and re-opened as  The Peak Lookout in 2001. Oddly enough, Café Deco’s eponymous flagship restaurant now sits in The Peak Galleria nearby (with a near identical menu), whilst their Peak Café resides near Central’s Mid-Level Escalators.

Peak Café, in the 1960s, from Gwulo.com

The Peak Lookout is now owned by the Epicurean Group, who also own that other famous long-standing Western restaurant, Jimmy’s Kitchen. The building itself is still recognisable from its 50s and 60s heyday and has been faithfully restored with a faintly colonial décor. It’s all rattan chairs, timbered high ceilings and sepia photos… I say this and I don’t even think there were rattan chairs but that’s the vibe they’re going for and it definitely works. Floor-to-ceiling windows look onto the terrace outside, complete with stone walls, shrubs and stunning vistas over the rest of Hong Kong. The suited-up staff come from the more reverential age of dining and the ambience is pleasant, genteel and relaxed. I particularly love the building lit-up at night, where they somehow manage to turn what are essentially fairy lights into the first word in sophistication.

The menu itself “takes inspiration from” various cuisines i.e. is a bit all over the place. It basically does classic dishes and does them very well, even if it’s at premium prices. However, The Peak Lookout, or whoever is the chef there, will forever hold a place in my heart for knowing what gravy is. I have been at supposed steakhouses and had requests for ‘gravy’ met with blank stares and no, I do not mean mushroom jus or garlic sauce or black pepper. I mean gravy. It’s on the menu here, as ‘gravy’, and that makes me very happy indeed.

I find it very difficult to not order the 8oz filet steak from their ‘garden charcoal barbeque’ when I’m here ($328, plus potato, side, sauce of your choice and coleslaw). This is because, in addition to knowing what gravy is, the chef knows how to cook a steak. I don’t even want to think about the number of cows that have died in vain when, on requesting a medium-rare steak, I’ve been met with a bloody blue mess or a dry tasteless brick. Here, it’s always been cooked superbly – perfectly pink in the middle, juicy, beefy and not oozing so much liquid that you just know it hasn’t been rested.

I’m also a big fan of the risotto balls ($108), something a little different that I’ve not seen on many other menus in Hong Kong. Crispy breadcrumb-coated balls of creamy, rich risotto in a tangy tomato sauce, these are absolutely divine but definitely too filling for one or even two people. I’ve also had the nachos, which are probably the nicest I’ve had in Hong Kong thus far (and at $108, they bloody well should be!). For me, the key to good nachos is to cover them in as much cheese, guacamole and sour cream as their little tortilla bodies can take without burning them – it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many places get it wrong. The chicken quesadillas ($98) are also amongst the tastiest I’ve tried.

I had high hopes for the escargots ($98), as the soft garlicky buttery ones at Jimmy’s Kitchen are divine, but these were buried under far too much mashed potato and not served in their shell, which always means they’re going to be the wrong side of rubbery. And a Caesar Salad ($126 – and that’s without chicken!) will always essentially be a Caesar Salad.

As I never stray from my steak, I can’t comment first-hand on any of the other mains. My boyfriend had the chicken vindaloo ($166) and gave it 7.5 out of 10, saying it was infinitely better than Jimmy’s Kitchen’s famed curry (which he likened to the boil-in-a-bag English variety). My mum had the vegetable curry ($152), my auntie stir-fried mixed vegetables ($146) and whilst had no complaints about the taste, they had plenty to say about the inflated prices. Whilst I think you can justify paying a few hundred for quality pieces of meat (especially as these are usually imported cuts), I’m not sure you can charge that much for well-dressed vegetables.

But in the end, you know you’re not actually paying for the food itself (sorry, I’ve not once managed to have enough room for dessert). You’re paying for the ambience, the environment and the views – and they’re totally worth it. With the birds twittering, the sun shining and HK’s harbour just being its usual beautiful self, it takes some beating. And if you face that way, you can pretend the two ugly malls on The Peak don’t exist either.

The Peak Lookout, 121 The Peak, Hong Kong, 2849 1000