Monday, September 29, 2008

Soho, Hong Kong

The Soho district in Hong Kong is an entertainment zone located in Mid-levels and bordering Sheung Wan, within the Central and Western district. The name is derived from its location: South of , and it arguably extends up to and including .

One of the easiest ways of getting to Soho is through the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, which was built in 1993. It is said that the very existence of now vibrant Soho is attributed to the creation of the escalator system, which at the time was the longest escalator system in the world, and in fact prior to the escalator the area was populated by many elderley locals, old go-downs and porcelain shops.

The area now consists of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, art galleries and antique stores of Staunton Street and Elgin Street. Soho also is home to the first fulltime comedy club in Asia, The TakeOut Comedy Club Hong Kong. Hong Kong taxi drivers usually regard "Soho" to mean either Staunton Street or . It's easier to say "Soho" than "Standon gai", or "Elay gan gai."

Buildings in the Soho area are a mix of commercial/residential, with the commercial businesses on the lower floors, and residential above the First Floors. Around the same time the Mid Levels Escalator was built, a few foreigners started to move into the area, taking up both commercial premises and renting flats. At the time the flats were cheaper than other expat areas in Hong Kong, and only a few minutes walk from the business district.

The name Soho was first mentioned in a 1996 article in the South China Morning Post newspaper attributed to Elgin Street restaurant owner, Thomas Goetz, who came up with the acronym. Goetz was also instrumental in forming Soho's first business group, and The Soho Association Limited was established in 1998 to represent it's members in relation to difficulties they were experiencing with the local government departments in relation to licencing, and to collectively promote the area. The first Chairman was Jean-Paul Gauci, who had opened many businesses in the area.

However, in 2000, Democratic Party member Kam Nai-wai wanted to see Soho formally re-named the "Elgin/Staunton Street Themed Dining Area", and Kam and some Long-term residents associated the name Soho with being a place of disrepute, with red light district associations. The irony is Elgin Street was known in the 1860s as "Hung Mo Giu Gai," or "Foreign Girls Street," due to the vast number of European-staffed brothels. It was renamed after Lord Elgin, British envoy to China, during the Second Opium War .For several years the Democratic Party fought an ongoing battle against the new bars and restairants in the area, and also against formal adoption of the name "Soho", preferring instead the descriptive "Staunton/Elgin Street Themd Dinning Area", despite the fact that there were more non restaurants businesses than restaurants! The apprehension is that use of the name "Soho" will cause association with the London area of the same name.

Old and New

Like much of Hong Kong, this district treads a precarious balance between preserving the Chinese and colonial culture that shaped it, and recent modern developments. The escalator is a quintessential symbol of modernity which has encroached on the residential neighbourhood, bringing with it expats and the bars, cafes and boutiques which help cocoon some from Cantonese traditions.

The contrast between the past and present enriches the area and makes for great sightseeing on foot. The newly signposted ''Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail'' guides visitors along 16 points of historical interest from The University of Hong Kong to Central, taking in century old steps and leafy residential lanes. Unfortunately, most of the sites from Dr Sun's past have long been razed, replaced by concrete skyscrapers that are characteristic of 21st century Hong Kong. Even the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum's grandiose facade off Caine Road is easy to miss, perched as it is upon Castle Road which turns up through Mid-levels, surrounded by modern blocks.

Nowhere is the contrast more apparent than on the northern edge of Soho, on Hollywood Road itself where the brand new multistorey Centre Stage upscale residential complex towers alongside the historic Man Mo Temple.

When following Staunton Street west from the escalator, what was once a single block of conspicuously expat hangouts has migrated beyond. As property developers and entrepreneurs spread their reach into Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, it's not hard to imagine what will become of the old neighbourhood.

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