Between Prince Edward and Shamshui po MTR stations, an old building on Lai Chi Kok Road stands out with an eye-catching logo consisting of a “W” stacked on top of an “M”, as if mirroring one another.
The symbol represents Wontonmeen, which means “wonton noodles” in Cantonese. It is the name of the tenement building, as well as the hostel within it.
Every morning in the ground-floor speciality coffee shop, 39-year-old Patricia Choi – who took over management of the building from her family – sips her favourite morning brew while planning the day’s activities for her tenants and guests.
“This building was built by my grandfather in the early ’70s and named Hong Mei Building after my uncle and aunt. When I moved in here 15 years ago, I wanted to start something uniquely Hong Kong,” she recalls.
“I felt we should have a proper name for it. That's why I called it Wontonmeen, something that reminds one about your home in Hong Kong. We want to preserve the Cantonese aspect of our Hong Kong, and the importance of having this dialect that is still the major language of Hong Kong.”
Building a home for the creative industry
An ex-interior designer, Choi decided to renovate the units and lease them to her friends in the creative industry. She then added a hostel and the coffee shop, making the Wontonmeen something of a lifestyle hub.
“We have around 20 to 30 studio apartments with which I'm trying to create a platform for individuals or creative to exchange ideas, or where they can focus on making their artwork, and the public area downstairs could be somewhere they could show their work,” Choi says.
“But mainly the upstairs or the homes would be somewhere more private.”
Locally born and raised, Choi wants to make the building into a living museum of the neighbourhood, which is regarded as one of the city’s poorest.
“I try to build a community here, rather than something that just makes money, which I see no purpose,” she says.
“I have the advantage of running this place, so I can select tenants that can not only engage with people inside the building but also, hopefully, the people in this neighbourhood.”
Choi has organised Chinese tenement model-making workshops with the locals, and she is also documenting the changes in the business makeup of the neighbourhood.
“We can get a demographic of what sort of shops constitute the whole central part of this area, to understand if gentrification is happening, and what can we do about this development,” she explains.
My home is an art hub
One of the distinct features of the building is the communal area for tenants and guests, which looks like a curio shop filled with old items collected from around the neighbourhood. On one wall, a neon sign of the word “Sing” hangs, lighting up the room.
“It was originally a neon sign for the sewing machine brand Singer, and I turned it into ‘Sing’ as we sometimes have live bands playing music in this space,” Choi says.
The space, equipped with a pantry and small patio, is available for hostel guests to use throughout the day.
“Anyone upstairs who would want to have a private meeting or even play ping pong or play darts, or have a kitchen party, they could come down anytime. It's open 24 hours internally.”
On some days, the room turns into a performance venue.
“When we host events, we would encourage other guests or tenants to come down. We have a WhatsApp group with everyone in the building included, so we will share information and also invite each other to whatever events that someone is organising.”
Entertainment can also be provided by the tenants. On the 11th floor, a family of musicians opens the door of their home and offers Chinese orchestra performances to neighbours.
“Anyone can just walk in and sing a song that they know how to play. I was invited to sing some songs at some point,” she says.
“There are so many interesting things happening, that you just need to be very humble and respectful to observe and to engage.”
Choi tries to make use of every part of the building to entertain her guests and tenants, including the rooftop where she organises barbecues. Other activities include movie nights and watching football matches.
Creating a Hong Kong experience
The coffee shop on the ground floor was hand-picked by Choi.
“They are roasters, so sometimes they will start very early, like six o'clock in the morning just roasting beans, and then the whole street will be filled with this aroma of roasted coffee,” she says.
The business is run by two young local men Choi met four years ago at a weekend market where they set up a pop-up shop. At the time, they were just learning about the art of coffee roasting.
She offered the building’s ground floor space to them as a temporary setup to test the water.
“We realised there was a demand for Italian roasted coffee here, so that's why they're still here serving the community.”
For the hostel, Choi has picked a rather controversial theme: cage houses. These living units were once very prevalent in the neighbourhood, mostly occupied by single men who could not afford the high rents in the city. A flat could contain a dozen of these units made of barbed wire.
“It was a very smart design in my opinion, because a lot of single male workers were looking for accommodation that made them feel safe, and where they could rest,” she says.
“When you close the cage with a padlock, the whole thing is secure. I think it's a very authentic and smart Hong Kong design to me.”
To Choi, the hostel offers travellers an experience that is part of the city’s history.
“We have books and pictures about this side of Hong Kong that they would otherwise never know or see. I think it's quite interesting to show them this history of Hong Kong, too.”
Unlike actual cage houses, however, the hostel comes with air-conditioning and there is also a communal area with a hammock. At night, the space is lit up by a neon sign that says “Hong Kong” in traditional Chinese characters.
Like the neighbourhood in which it is located, Wontonmeen is always evolving.
Choi recently received inquiries about female-only accommodation for travellers, and she plans to add one floor to the hostel to meet that demand. The new hostel space will be decorated with pictures left behind by a Danish model and photographer who once lived in the building.
Together with her two-year-old son, Wontonmeen motivates Choi to get out of bed every day. It is not just a business, but her mission, to keep the neighbourhood alive.
“The history, the stories, the importance and the connections of the neighbourhood provide a special perspective of what Hong Kong is today, and I can't do it anywhere else in the world, and I don't want to do it anywhere else in the world.”