5 Cool Hunters
These designers and lifestyle aficionados offer their takes on what to eat, buy, see and do in Southeast Asia's cities.
CITY ON THE SLOW
City: Hong Kong
Guide: Kobe Ho, bookshop owner
SLOW FOOD, SMART READS
Housed in the Foo Tak Building, a vertical artists’ village, ACO (1/F, 365 Hennessy Rd., Wan Chai; +852 2893 4808; aco.hk) has an eclectic array of literature and books on social science, philosophy and history. “I don’t look for balance, I look for variety,” says Ho. Grab something to read—the selection is mainly in English—and take a seat next to the front window, where you can nosh on dishes made with locally-grown organic ingredients.
HONG KONG TASTE
After nearly dying out in the 1980s and 90s, local farming is making a comeback. Mapopo Community Farm (Ma Shi Po Village, Fanling; 852/6121-8961; mapopo.wordpress.com) grows everything from crunchy choi sum to remarkably sweet tomatoes. Visit on Wednesday and Sunday to buy fresh fruit and vegetables; there are also regular tours and farming workshops.
High above the teeming streets of Causeway Bay, Hit the Road Café (15/F, 26 Leighton Rd., Causeway Bay; +852 2882 9522) describes itself as “the slowest café in Hong Kong.” The decor is subdued, the conversation relaxed and the menu well-stocked with affordable comfort food—try the apple crumble.
You don’t have to look hard to find a shop selling the Hong Kong specialty of che zai meen, or cart noodles, where you can build your own soup with a choice of ingredients like egg noodles, beef brisket, pig intestines and plenty of others. But finding one like Sun Kee (49B Tang Lung St., Causeway Bay; +852 2573 5438) is another matter altogether. “With most cart noodles, it’s just cheap stuff to fill up your stomach, but the ingredients at Sun Kee are much better quality,” says Ho.
Ho lives on Peng Chau (Central Ferry Pier 6) where a century-old fishing community is now home to people looking for a more laid-back kind of life. “The ferry from the city is a calming-down process,” says Ho. She recommends taking a day to wander the car-free lanes, chill out by the water and indulge in some fresh seafood. “It’s only 30 minutes from Central, but the island is like another world.”
Guide: Somrak Sila, gallery owner
A promotional showcase farmers’ market, Or Tor Kor (Kamphaengphet Rd., opposite Chatuchak market) is the cleanest wet market in Bangkok and has some of the freshest, albeit not the cheapest, produce. And if you don’t cook, Sila says, “Even the ready-to-eat meals there are all delicious.”
This enormous and precariously stacked furniture store Papaya (Lad Phrao Soi 55/2; +66 2933 0661) stocks everything from 1970’s plastic chairs to Louis XIV reproductions. “They make most of their money from rentals to television shows, so if you want to buy, they throw out a ridiculous price,” Sila warns. “But if you come back, the price might be totally different.”
“I’m always tempted to have a glass of wine there,” Sila says about Gastro 1/6 (RMA Institute, Soi Sainamthip 2, Sukhumvit Soi 22; +66 80 603 6421), a tucked-away outdoor café, festooned with drooping foliage, on the premises of an art gallery. It’s a rare place in the city for quality poached eggs and Spanish tortilla.
With a name that means “mosquito’s butt,” Toot Yung Gallery (19 Prachathipathai Rd.; +66 84 914 5499) is neither commercial nor academic. “They just opened it for the community, as a place to hang out,” Sila says. “The art work tends to be quite controversial and different.” It also has a café, a library and regular live music.
“There’s a row of cool shops near Happy Monday bar,” Sila says. She’s referring to (Un)Fashion, Was v Were v Will and VTG, three second-hand stores that stock old edition, brand name boots, bags and clothes. “They’re well-curated and in good condition. It feels like you’re in Williamsburg.” Corner of Ekamai Soi 10.
City: Kuala Lumpur
Guide: Joseph Foo, design consultant
On weekends, Foo often drops by Plan B (G5, Ground Floor, Bangsar Village 1, 1, Jln. Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru; +60 3 2287 2630) for the gourmet coffees and Aussie-style big breakfasts. As the café is often packed, grab a table earlier in the morning.
For informal work meetings, Foo frequents the 84-year-old Yut Kee Restaurant (35, Jln. Dang Wangi; +60 3 2698 8108), a Hainanese coffee shop renowned for its buttered toast bread and kaya, a traditional jam made from eggs, coconut milk and caramelized sugar. Don’t miss the roti babi, a delicacy made with deep-fried white bread stuffed with sautéed onions and thin shreds of pork.
The Actors Studio (50 Jln. Sultan Ismail; +60 3 2142 2009; theactorsstudio.com.my) impresses with its dazzling rooftop garden setting. Foo is a fan of the Studio’s new location at the heart of the city, which allows more people to access the theater scene.
The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (Jln. Strachan, Sentul; +60 3 4047 9000; klpac.org) is a spot to appreciate greenery and shade offered by the trees. Foo says, “My kids love the wide expanse of space—it’s a quick and convenient getaway from the city.”
In Chinatown, if you venture from the usual tourist spots, there are quaint provision stores where you can find white Pagoda T-shirts, traditionally worn by Chinese storekeepers. “They’re ideal for lounging about,” says Foo, “and look best when matched with Japanese selvage denim—mixing old and new.”
BETTER LIVING BY DESIGN
Guide: Grace Wang, lifestyle doyenne
Famed hotel designer Ray Chen has meticulously curated the Palais de Chine Hotel (No. 3, Section 1, Chengde Rd.; +886 2 2181 9999; palaisdechinehotel.com), blending classical and modern motifs drawn from French and Asian art and design. From the lobbies to the dining rooms to the executive salon, the hotel is a patchwork of secluded
SOAK IT UP
Built around a volcanic geothermal hot spring, Villa 32 (32, Zhongshan Rd., Beitou, Taipei; +886 2 6611 8888; villa32.com) draws heavily on its natural environment to create open, invigorating spaces in the busy northern district of Beitou. For the complete relaxation experience, indulge in a full range of spa offerings—from Chinese meridian therapy to mother-to-be treatments. Don’t miss guest appearances in The Restaurant by Michelin Star-winning chefs.
Shi-Yang (7, Lane 350, Sec 3, Xi Wan Rd., XiZhi City; +886 2 2646 2266; shi-yang.com) offers one of Taipei’s best afternoon tea experiences. Nestled among the forests of Xizhi, Shi-Yang offers seasonal high mountain teas and the serenity of a mountainside haven. Minimalist, Japanese-influenced design keeps tables secluded, encouraging a commune with nature via the sweeping views of the valley below.
What started as a design studio has grown to include a magazine, a café, a clothing line and stationery. The hand-dyed textiles and heavy canvas bags at Booday (18-1, Lane 25, Nanjing W. Rd.; 886-2/2552-5552 ext.11; mogu.com.tw) are crafted using environmentally considerate techniques and materials that encourage durability and use, giving them a sturdy, handmade look and feel.
With black chandeliers and crystal fittings contrasted by walls made from the weathered doors of buildings that suffered the fate of chai (to pull down or dismantle) during the modernization old Shanghai, the feeling at Undercover (No. 40, Lane 181, Sec. 4, Zhongxiao E. Rd.; +886 2 2775 3669) is equal parts modern and classic. A flagship store of the Tuan Tuan group, the boutique features designer clothing labels while the café serves hardy noodles and earthy coffees.
FOR THE YOUNG AT HEART
City: Jakarta, Indonesia
Guide: Cipta Croft-Cusworth, toymaker
PLACES TO PLAY
“There are no really no parks in the city,” says Croft-Cusworth, “so when I have visitors I like to go to Monas (Indonesian National Monument, Merdeka Square).” Around the monument, there are bicycles for rent, nightly light shows and a small deer enclosure. Croft-Cusworth also likes Kampoeng Mainan, Toy Village (Blok M Square, level 3A). “They have slot-car and remote-controlled race tracks and videogame stations.” They also have twice-monthly toy auctions that include everything from plastic figurines to US$100 collectors’ items.
BEST IN MALLS
“I’m a mall rat. Malls are one of those places where you can just go to hang out, and this is a hangout culture. We even have a special word for it, nongkrong. Croft-Cusworth favors Pondok Indah Mall (Jln. Metro Pondok Indah) and Grand Indonesia (Jln. M. H. Thamrin No.1), the latter offering video game arcades and amusement park rides as well.
PLAYING DRESS UP
At the second-hand shops at Pasar Senen (third-floor booths near the Senen bus terminal), you can find “anything, right down to ski suits and Uggs.” Croft-Cusworth recommends either doing it “rag tag, or you can buy fabric and design your own costume.”
The Droids Cafe (Jln. Bangka Raya 5D, Kemang; +62 21 718 2356) is where the Transformers community hangs out, and it’s full of action figures. Star Wars fans can chow on Mandalorian Grilled Chicken or the Acolyte, avocado stuffed pancakes.
“Find a rooftop and enjoy views of the city skyline, which is like no other skyline in the world,” says Croft-Cusworth. Shanties huddle close to modern towers, and cranes sit perched on new structures like steel-and-wire origami in the distance. Check out Bank Mega Building, Sahid Jaya Hotel, or the top floor of Grand Hyatt.