The seaside is a variable concept. It can be wild, rocky, well-kept or paved over. Whatever form it takes, it is always an invitation to stroll, to let your mind wander, giving you a perspective on a horizon that is always just out of reach. In Hong Kong, heading to the waterfront is a portal into different experiences, from white sand beaches to industrial port cranes, from public works to picturesque hiking trails.
At the far western end of Hong Kong Island, Kennedy Town promises a particularly distinct stroll. Despite the name it shares with a certain American president, Kennedy Town has nothing to do with Hyannisport. There is no beach, no posh families getting tipsy in swanky restaurants. And yet this is a place not without charm. Named after the seventh governor of Hong Kong, Arthur Edward Kennedy, who managed the colony from 1872 to 1877, the neighbourhood has seen a frenzy of development since the MTR arrived in September 2014. It was first settled in 1886, when Governor Kennedy ordered the reclamation of new land to the west of Hong Kong’s main port, Victoria. Until then, life in the area had revolved around the Lo Pan Temple, a pretty building on Ching Lin Terrace that dates back to 1884, dedicated to the god of builders.
Despite recent development and the gentrification of neighbourhood businesses, Kennedy Town has managed to keep a distinctive character, the kind of atmosphere unique to places that find themselves at the end of the line. That’s one of the reasons why it’s best to come here by tram. First, because each journey must begin with a first step, a kind of warm-up, something that prepares you for the discovery of a new place. The peaceful rhythm of the tram is perfect for this, especially when you add the pleasure of rolling down Des Voeux Road West, appreciating its shop windows festooned with goods, its neon signs, incessant activity and intoxicating scents that waft in from the tram’s open windows.
Since nothing ever happens as it should in Kennedy Town, however, the tram terminus does not resemble a true terminal. It feels like you are left hanging when the conductor tells you it’s the last stop, here on this narrow street. Davis Street crosses Catchick Street at a right angle, like all the streets that run parallel to it, running from mountain to sea, bringing to mind the steep, straight streets of San Francisco. The ocean awaits nearby, along the New Praya Kennedy Town, a waterfront esplanade whose exotic name was borrowed from Portuguese in the colonial era as a word, praya, to describe the various waterfronts Hong Kong has known through its history. Behind a guardrail that only modestly protects passing vehicles, the sea makes its presence felt through waves that crash onto the pavement in the wake of passing boats.
A little bit further along, a few benches beckon to passersby, and dogs are out for a walk, alongside fishers who never seem impatient in front of a cinematic landscape that unfolds in a spectacular fashion around the Stonecutters Bridge, which links Kowloon with Tsing Yi. All of this makes for a rather unusual waterfront – raw, unpretentious, with the charm of something unfinished, and which takes on an entirely new appearance as night falls and the city lights flicker on.
Even if Kennedy Town is the end of the line for the tram and the MTR, it is still possible to venture a little bit further to the west, towards a seashore less well known and less obvious. Climb Victoria Road, passing shady groves of trees, taking cover when the sun is at its zenith, braving the stench of sewage outflow below, until you reach a staircase whose destination is posted only in Cantonese. This path brings you to an unexpected destination, a Hong Kong secret: the Sai Wan Swimming Shed. To get there, you need to walk down a hundred or so steps, braving numerous insects, loud as ever in the summer.
When you arrive, you’ll discover a little shed dedicated to local swimmers, built with green-painted tin in the 1950s. You can almost imagine Le Corbusier choosing this as the site for his Roquebrune Cap Martin swimming cabin, even if the blue of the Sulphur Channel is a poor rival to the Mediterranean’s azure. Here, you can change, dry your swimwear and recompose yourself in an ageing mirror, before you settle down in a worn out leather armchair. Little altars scattered here and there remind you to be respectful of this little oasis, this parenthesis in the middle of hyperactive Hong Kong, a place that brings you close to the ideal of a simple life close to nature.
But the shed is not the main attraction: look below at the wood pier built for swimmers to dive into the water, jutting out obstinately into the water, offering resistance to the waves that crash over it with captivating frequency. No wonder that photographers are now more numerous here than swimmers.
From the edge of the pier, you can contemplate the ballet of passing ferries. Let the feeling of being on the edge of the world wash over you. Time seems to be suspended – until reality sets in with the realisation that you’ll need to decide where to go next: back towards the north of the island, or to Pok Fu Lam in the south, waiting for you with open arms…
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.