Wan Chai remains famed as Hong Kong's red light district and it’s a reputation that’s well earned, but there is more here than mamasans and saunas.
Wan Chai is second only to swanky Central for skyscrapers, with the Hopewell Centre and The Centre as two of the tallest buildings in the city. It’s also one of Hong Kong’s premium nightlife districts, and its bars, pubs, and clubs offer a less pretentious alternative to Lan Kwai Fong. Throw in some markets, some historical sights, including the spot that hosted the Hong Kong Handover, as well as a handful of bargain dining options, and it’s a district that should be on everyone’s visit list.
Squeezed between Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour, Wan Chai’s reputation as one of Asia’s most dedicated red light districts was earned during the Vietnam War and cemented by the city's starring role in the film and novel The World of Suzie Wong. American troops on leave from the front piled in here and a string of notorious brothels sprang up around them.
Today the area has shed some of its seedier reputation, although the intersection around Lockhart and Johnson Road is still bursting with girlie bars and stalked by mama-sans looking for customers. Thankfully, the red light clubs are restricted to this area.
More likely to bring you to the streets of Wan Chai is the district’s raucous nightlife. It's a more down-to-earth and affordable rival to Lan Kwai Fong in Central. Wan Chai is home to British pubs, karaoke bars, and most of the city’s oldest drinking establishments as well as dozens of modest western restaurants. A night out on the town in Wan Chai can be loud and late, and several pubs stay open around the clock.
For something more upmarket, Star Street has gained a reputation for hosting some of the city’s edgier fine dining destinations.
Wan Chai is home to a couple of worthwhile shopping destinations. The Wan Chai computer center is the best place on Hong Kong Island to pick up cheap iPhones, laptops, and anything else electronic. Packed floor to ceiling with cables and computers, it’s a great place to snag a bargain. There are also a couple of worthwhile street markets set around Tai Yuen street. The markets run from late afternoon to early evening and sell everything from clothes to knock-off DVDs. They are also a great place to rub shoulders with local shoppers and hear them haggling in full voice.
The area’s flagship building is the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. This monumental piece of engineering was built on reclaimed land specifically for the Hong Kong Handover. It was here that Prince Charles and Chinese President Jiang Zemin grimaced at each other as the city returned to Chinese rule. Commemorating the handover is the Bauhinia statue in Golden Bauhinia Square in front of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Each day, there is a flag-raising ceremony at 7:50 a.m., where police units in regimental dress play the national anthem, although the police pipe band display at the same time on the first of each month is the better show.
Elsewhere, Wan Chai’s rich heritage means there is a number of historical sights worth seeing, most of which are on the Wan Chai Heritage Trail. The highlights include the century-old Hung Shing Temple and the Old Wan Chai Post Office on Queen’s Road East, one of the few remaining examples of small-scale colonial architecture. Another architectural star is the Blue House at 72 Stone Nullah Lane, named after the brilliant blue paint on its facade. This is one of the last remaining tenement buildings in Hong Kong to survive both World War II and greedy developers.
Its wooden balconies and staircases are a superb example of the Tong Lau style that was once popular in Hong Kong.
Wan Chai is well connected to local transport, with subway, trams, ferries, and buses all on offer. The most useful transport connection is the MTR, which has a Wan Chai stop on the Island Line. More relaxing is the tram, which winds its way through the whole neighborhood and is a great way to get a bird's-eye view of street life. You can also hop on the Star Ferry at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and watch the Wan Chai skyline unravel behind you.