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Wontonmeen owner Patricia Choi
Wontonmeen owner Patricia Choi I Photograph: TA

Sham Shui Po creatives fostering community and resilience through art

Meet the people behind Sham Shui Po’s art scene proactively promoting the creative community and serving the neighbourhood by supporting the underprivileged.

By Tatum Ancheta
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Sham Shui Po (SSP), one of the oldest districts in Hong Kong, is being revitalised into one of  the coolest spots in the city where new creative hubs have joined the working-class neighbourhood. Drop by over the weekend, and you'll be met by a cacophony of textures and sounds, from vintage and contemporary, to artsy and kitsch, all mixing and mingling together. Even with the current climate, we've seen various cafes and art hubs opening up in the district and businesses have stayed busy especially during weekends when city explorers venture to the area to get coffee or hobnob with the artists performing and exhibiting in the neighbourhood. There is a sense of inclusivity among the old and new, with the new creative residents nurturing a community while extending a helping hand to those in need. 

Wontonmeen
Wontonmeen
Photograph: TA

Wontonmeen

"SSP is always changing like the rest of Hong Kong," shares Patricia Choi, founder of Wontonmeen, a hostel and creative hub on Lai Chi Kok Road, one of the instrumental institutions that helped bring in artists and musicians in the area. "15 years ago, the neighbourhood was like a jewel waiting to be discovered and was only known by people in the fashion and garment industry," she adds. "We set up one of the first Italian roast cafes in the 'hood, Urban Coffee Roaster (now replaced by Runners' Foods), to complement the hostel. Now there are so many cafes opening every month!"  

Patricia was an interior designer, and for a decade, was working on corporate interiors and branding before she inherited the building from her grandfather, the place where Wontonmeen now stands. "Wontonmeen has allowed me to find my roots as my grandfather had his first tailor shop in Sham Shui Po too," she shares. "The more I find out about the stories, the more I want to keep searching, it never stopped fascinating me as the neighbourhood has such a long history and so many people have started here." Patricia named the building Wontonmeen, which means 'wonton noodles' in Cantonese, a well-loved iconic Hong Kong staple and something that she thinks represents her love for the city. She renovated the building and leased around 20 flats for more permanent residents, and created a dormitory type hostel frequented by touring artists and tourists visiting the creative side of SSP.

Wontonmeen’s receiving area

Downstairs, a public area that looks like a historical archive displaying old artefacts and knick-knacks she found all over the district resides, along with a coffee shop by the entrance which is now managed by Runners' Foods. Wontonmeen hostel captured the raw side of Hong Kong and brought a vibrant community of creatives to Sham Shui Po and in a sense, has influenced the start of transformation in the neighbourhood. 

Runners' Foods

Since the pandemic restricted travellers, the dormitory was temporarily turned into a studio which allows musicians to record and film videos, activate online gigs, and workshops. "We have closed the hostel dormitory for safety, and also [because] basically there are no travellers," she explains. "We took the time to record different music videos with our musician friends and periodically publish them on our social media. After that, we were approached by different groups to do online gigs or workshops, filming etc." 

Wontonmeen

Wontonmeen has also opened a Youtube channel, WM Live, to promote local hip hop bands and help them rearrange their songs with support from the city's top studio musicians. "Hip hop artists don't necessarily have the resources to hire studio musicians. These musicians could inspire a new generation of artists and not be bound by any commercial constraints to focus on their creative expression," Patricia explains. 

In April, Christian Concern For The Homeless Association rented Wontonmeen and parts of the hostel were opened as shelters for the homeless. "The pandemic has created a lot of homeless around Hong Kong, now we have been hosting them, and it's opened a lot of opportunities to understand and serve them," she shares. Runners' Foods cafe also does their bit for the community by cooking for the homeless in the nearby park and sending out rations twice a week. "We also initiated a coffee compost program with the nearby local city farm to let others understand more about our roles in the community," Patricia adds. 

Currently, Wontonmeen is preparing an event for Design District Hong Kong (#ddHK) on community building, which will take place in December. "We can't wait to have our bi-weekly Friday concerts again, but fortunately we recorded a live performance with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and this is something that we hope to introduce in the ‘hood – free classical music concerts," Patricia enthuses. 
Phvlo Hatch
Phvlo Hatch
Photograph: Courtesy Phvlo Hatch

Phvlo Hatch

"Sham Shui Po has always held a special and iconic place in my heart," shares British-Chinese fashion designer and Phvlo (a fashion design platform promoting sustainability through upcycling) founder Johanna Ho. "It is one of the poorest areas in HK, yet the energy and vibrancy of its community are also what makes it a unique part of the city that you simply cannot find elsewhere," she adds. 

Johanna Ho

"In a way, Sham Shui Po kind of chose us," explains Johanna. "I was just really going to put up a tiny studio, like more on design and sustainability, but then one thing led to another, Hatch (a local NGO dedicated to training underprivileged women and youth from the local community) called us up and introduced us to the owner of the building," she adds. Then Phvlo Hatch was born, a three-level renovated old textile shop housing a sustainable coffee shop on the ground floor called Colour Brown, and an upstairs space dedicated to an exhibition, atelier, and workshop area for Phvlo and Hatch. The upstairs' creative space holds regular exhibits, workshops, events, and is frequented by creative minds interested in fashion, film, music, as well as art and design.

Phvlo Hatch's workstation

They opened in June 2019 during the start of the protests in the city, and it proved very challenging, but they were able to weather the storm and are still managing the challenges of the pandemic. "The pandemic has stalled many of our initial plans, especially our physical events and workshops," Johanna explains. "Some of them have moved online, like our education and mentorship programmes, but nonetheless, it has not deterred us from moving forward, in fact it has given us more of a boost in what we have always been striving for – a change in how we want to live our lives and, our beliefs, not only in sustainability but to slow down, reset our values and rebuild the world around us," she adds. 

Phvlo’s exhibition space

“In terms of education, we choose to do things that are a bit more on the taboo subject." Their exhibition and workshops aim to be a platform to create dialogue and break through barriers. Last September they collaborated with Happeriod, another Hong Kong-based NGO founded in 2014 by Zoe Chan with a mission to destigmatise menstruation through education, awareness workshops and alternative products that promote body autonomy. Together with Phvlo they held workshops tackling eco-friendly feminine products and an exhibition that features art installations that poke fun at menstrual taboos, and aim to confront and subvert stigma around menstruation. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, Phvlo collaborated with NuDD (Nude, Drink & Draw) for a seven-hour life drawing marathon featuring live nude models posing for artists. The event also held an exhibition of the artists’ works and an educational session about the experience with the artists and models.  

Happeriod's pop-up and exhibition at Pvhlo Hatch

Phvlo x NuDD – seven-hour life drawing marathon

"In Sham Shui Po, there have been talks of urban renewal, and many niche cafes, small restaurants and shops have since opened, yet for those of us who are born and raised in HK and the neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, we feel protective over its historical backgrounds," says Johanna. "We believe that urbanisation and modernisation do not need to wipe out the old, we need to teach the next generations to embrace history and traditions, as without them, we are not what we are now," she ends. 

Follow Wontonmeen and Phvlo Hatch on Facebook to get updates on events and other current activities.

Visit Sham Shui Po

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