If you took a walk around Western District just a couple of years ago, you would see mostly stationery shops, bakeries, grocers and university students eating in cha chaarn tengs. For years, even with its proximity to Central, the old neighbourhood remained largely untouched, retaining its traditional characteristics and flavour.

But when three new MTR stations—Sai Ying Pun, HKU and Kennedy Town—opened in the area in late 2014, they brought with them scores of bars and high-end eateries that drew in crowds of millennials and expats. Today, Western is the new, hip neighbourhood, with cafes popular with Instagram influencers, co-working spaces branching out and young professionals increasingly hunting for flats in the area.

Sai Ying Pun Station.
Sai Ying Pun Station. Photo: MTR.

A study by CACHe, a cultural heritage resource centre, found that around 250 of the 700 or so shops in the Sai Ying Pun area had either changed hands, closed down, or been left vacant in the period from 2015 to 2017. High Street, for instance, used to be known as for its auto-repair shops and garages, boasting around 20 at its peak – but there were only nine left in March 2017. It now has the highest number of restaurants of all the streets surveyed.

Not everyone is happy with these developments. Twice last week, residents in the district took to a Facebook community group, “A Time of Change in Sai Wan,” to protest the noise levels spilling out of two bars late into the night.

In one clip posted onto the group last Wednesday, a crowd is loudly singing “Happy Birthday” on the otherwise quiet Bonham Road outside El Loco-Gringo near midnight. The police confirmed to HKFP that they received multiple complaints from residents, arrived at the scene to notify the restaurant, and the crowd dispersed shortly after.

YouTube video

This was just after the restaurant’s liquor licence was renewed, and residents vowed to lodge complaints against the eatery, as the terms stated that no alcohol should be sold or supplied for consumption between 11pm and 9am. As residents noted in a series of pictures, this was not the first time there were such scenes outside the restaurant.

western district gentrification
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“We young people can sleep at later hours, but [what about] our parents at home and the elderly in this area; it’s really rough for those who need to go to work the next day and are disturbed by the noise every couple of days,” one netizen said.

Another: “I really don’t want to see the SoHo area spread to Caine Road and Bonham Road.” A third noted that there are “two or three bars and western restaurants on streets through Sai Ying Pun to Sai Wan; since when do Western District people so need to drink?”

The debate soon turned confrontational: angry residents took to the restaurant’s Facebook page to comment on the matter, claiming that the restaurant group – Castelo Concepts – did not care about the community. El Loco-Gringo’s co-owner Persi wrote: “[W]e in fact do care for the community my businesses donates to the university for their congregations and seminars with students and professors alike the beneficiaries… they never complain about the food.”

Another, who is listed as a DJ of the restaurant on social media, stated: “This responsibility is on people. You should be blaming the HK police who can’t handle a noise complaint from people like you who have nothing better to do but complain. We’ve built a community at el Loco Gringo and thanks to complaints from people like you who’ve probably never had a fun day in their life without complaining about something we have to deal with cops.”

western district gentrification
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The restaurant’s Facebook administrator denied several requests for comment by phone or text from HKFP, insisting on meeting in person. When HKFP cited a lack of manpower and noted the public comments on the restaurant’s page, the manager accused the journalist of coercion and said he could call a lawyer over our “illegal” approach. Castelo Concepts did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Integrate with the community’

Then, just a couple of days later, a similar incident took place outside Winstons Coffee’s new Kennedy Town branch, again enraging residents. “The disastrous effects of gentrification in small neighbourhoods brought about by neoliberalism is gradually materialising,” said a comment underneath the thread on the Facebook group.

See also: West Side Story: The fight to preserve heritage and curb gentrification in Western District

The ruckus was anything but Winstons Coffee’s intention. The coffeeshop-slash-bar told HKFP that they are “always incredibly shocked to find out we have upset anyone with noise” and “we absolutely try to ask our customers to keep the noise down and respect our neighbours.”

western district gentrification
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Winstons Coffee explained that they were hosting a one-off leaving party last Saturday night, “and unfortunately they were a little over-enthusiastic a little bit too late into the evening. As soon as we were made aware that guests were upsetting people, we immediately did everything we could to stop the noise,” the cafe said.

Our business model as a whole is to integrate with the community around us. We use local laundries, local tradesmen, local food suppliers and do our best to become a friendly and useful addition to the community. In our opinion, bars and cafes that don’t do this, will struggle to build a strong and long-lasting business,” it added.

Winstons Coffee also said that, at its Sai Ying Pun branch, it has helped neighbours countless times — whether it be to host them when they are locked out of their homes, call ambulances when people collapse or have an accident, or simply provide an always filled bowl of water for dog walkers.” It hoped to do the same with Kennedy Town, it said, if the community could give them a chance, and it could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And indeed, the coffeeshop has received countless glowing reviews on their Facebook page. One customer called the shop “our favourite neighbourhood coffee place” and another said: “It is small but very friendly and warm.”

western district gentrification
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

But Austin Wong Kai-chiu from “Support Kennedy,” the community group which first posted the incident onto social media, told HKFP he believes that the coffeeshop/bar served the middle class residents or foreigners in the district — rather than its grassroots population.

“The coffeeshops and bars pushed up the living costs and for the community it brings a lot of inconvenience… they have fewer choices,” Wong said, adding that many local eateries and congee places have closed down. “There’s not much [residents] feel they can do about it — they can only hope that the ones which are still here will stay.”

Wong also said that many families are unable to afford a meal at the new expensive restaurants and therefore eat out less, meaning that they feel less close to the area than they did before.

Community takes action

Wong stressed that he was not targeting Winstons Coffee. The group, along with other residents in the community, had earlier allied over Butcher & Baker Cafe (like El Loco-Gringo, also of Castelo Concepts group) on Cadogan Street, Kennedy Town. Wong said the restaurant never properly obtained a food licence due to the old building’s failure to comply with fire safety rules.

butcher & baker
Butcher & Baker Cafe. Photo: Austin Wong.

Wong added that customers of the restaurant would sometimes illegally park outside the eatery. Once, he said, a vehicle had blocked the road and a bus was unable to swerve into it, and as a result, it became stuck and caused a huge traffic jam. He also said residents have also complained of regular rackets every weekend. And, as there was an elderly centre upstairs from the restaurant, many were concerned about the quality of sleep enjoyed by the senior citizens.

Ultimately, the group alerted more residents and the media to the restaurant’s licensing problems, and it was subjected to repeated fines by authorities. It is “currently closed for licensing renovations,” according to its website. The cafe told HKFP that “[w]e never encourage people to park illegally in front of the restaurant and we always follow the rules and regulations.”

Wong said that this was a mini-victory for the residents, though noted that some may criticise the community for making the restaurant cease operations. But Wong believes bars should not be allowed to operate too late in a old residential neighbourhood in the first place, as it will inevitably cause noise, public order and hygiene problems. This was not, he said, Lan Kwai Fong – where bars and restaurants fill every floor of a building.

In a free market, he added, if the rents were at a certain level and a tenant could pay the amount, there was nothing one could do to stop them from doing doing business.

Still, Wong said the government’s licencing mechanism should be stricter: he has learned of cases where the court accepts restaurant’s defence that they have discharged their duty simply by posting a sign on the wall asking customers to keep the noise down.

Not all residents are adverse to the introduction of bars in the area. Shawn Tan, an organiser of Nerd Nite – a drinking/lecture event in Hong Kong – told HKFP that he frequents bars in Kennedy Town as he lives in the area. He said prefers them to those in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho “because it tends to be quieter and less partying type of crowd.” “It really is a nicer environment to have a conversation over drinks,” he said.

He added that he was surprised to hear about the noise-related complaints because “the crowd tends to be less rowdy in Kennedy Town.” “I mean of course there’s going to be noise given that people are out socializing, but I don’t think it would be that much more compared to having food places around opening late,” he said.

He also said he does not think that banning bars in residential districts or putting a cap on operating hours would solve the problem. “Food places that open late generate as much noise as bars and are opened late, and with a relatively large student population there due to HKU residences around, it will be noisy up till late regardless. Secondly, closing the bars early would not stop people from drinking, it will just move them out to the streets or the pier, which might in turn create more issues.”

k town
Kennedy Town at night in 2012. Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen via Flickr.

DJ Enso’s now-closed club, XXX, faced similar issues with noise complaints and liquor licencing when it was located in nearby Shek Tong Tsui. He told HKFP: “Of course community concerns are relevant. However the Not-In-My-Backyard-ism needs to be checked if we ever [are] to have a vibrant and diverse [neighbourhood.]”

Wong said that, at the very least, bars have a responsibility to abide by the rules stipulated in their liquor licences, and exercise self-discipline so as to keep disturbance to neighbours to the minimum.

“If you want there to be fewer conflicts in this community, you need to be restrained, and you need to educate and remind your customers,” he said. This includes telling them off for any illegal parking outside the restaurants that might affect the traffic, as well as keeping noise levels down.

“We can’t stop the world from developing, but there has to be a balance,” he said.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.