Hong Kong is packed with skyscrapers, the hallmarks of the clamour and pace of a busy global financial centre. Thankfully for those looking for a bit of respite, there’s a pocket that retains the leisurely vibe of village life and allows you pause to rest for a moment.
That pocket is none other than Stanley, which is well known among locals for its perpetually relaxed holiday feeling. Located in Hong Kong’s traditionally luxurious Island South, Stanley feels distinct from the surrounding city, with its sumptuous villas, low-rise residences, and low-density population. It’s truly a world away from the crowds, hustle and bustle on the other side of the island. Stanley is such a world apart you’d hardly believe it was part of Hong Kong.
Stanley is a spot for letting go of everyday pressures, relaxing and enjoying the finer things in life. Situated on Hong Kong’s southernmost tip, Stanley is a seaside village with low building density that has managed to hold on to its small European town aesthetic. Stanley Market is the district’s liveliest spot, but completely different compared with the shiny, big-ticket shopping centres of Causeway Bay and the dense foot traffic that defines Tsim Sha Tsui’s Canton Road. The order of the day is small individual stores and stalls selling leather and silk goods, woollen and cotton clothing, as well as Chinese handicrafts and souvenirs, small items full of big surprises. It’s highly recommended visitors (and residents) pull up a chair at one of the outdoor bars or eateries on the waterfront just past the market. It’s the easiest and most pleasant way to get a first-hand taste of the unhurried and enchanting local life.
Unlike one of the city’s new towns, Stanley is a place all its own; a unique enclave that maintains its atmosphere of a haven of peace and quiet. As far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the prominent local historian Yuet Tai Kei already made mention of a place called Stanley (or its local Cantonese name, Chek Chue) and it was one of the earliest inhabited places on Hong Kong Island. During the British colonial period, the events depicted on the lower half of the seal and insignia of the territory of Hong Kong unfolded in Stanley. What was this seal all about? It is said that the year the British took control of Hong Kong following the Opium War, British forces landed and disembarked at Stanley and asked a local fisherwoman named Chan Kwun to lead the way inland. She led them from Aberdeen’s Yue Mountain along Repulse Bay, Island, Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen Main, Shek Pai Wan and Pok Fu Lam Roads all the way to Sai Ying Pun and present-day Sheung Wan. When passing through Hong Kong village, the British troops enquired as to the name of the place, to which Chan, in her local dialect, replied “Hong Kong.” The British immediately echoed this fisherwoman’s pronunciation, and from that moment forth it became a generic term for the land that ultimately came to be known as Hong Kong Island. It was therefore at Stanley where British rule of the territory took shape.
For this reason, Stanley’s village demeanour is not something that has been carefully managed — on the contrary, it has maintained its personality over all these years organically and has avoided being swallowed up by office towers and shopping centres. There are still plenty of historical buildings standing proudly, among them Old Stanley Police Station, Stanley Military Cemetery, Stanley Tin Hau Temple, St Stephen's College Heritage Trail and the Pat Kan Uk terraced houses as a few. Embellished by over one hundred years of history, Stanley has cultivated a singular, leisure-first cultural atmosphere that is now a true balm for the soul.
According to historical records, the local name for Stanley, Chek Chue, matches its real-world beauty: it is said that it was once home to a great many kapok trees, which, when in full bloom, displayed beautiful red flowers. When viewed from afar, the flowers resembled many rows of red pillars, giving the area’s name its literal meaning in Chinese. That you can still enjoy Stanley today from an aesthetic point of view just enhances its feeling of romance.
Decades of growth and development have made it easy for Hong Kong people to see only wide streets, glittering towers and bright lights and forget hidden gems like Stanley which the city has to offer — the enchanting villages behind the skyscrapers. At some point, everyone should take a stroll through this small village, beloved by locals and foreigners alike, and disconnect momentarily from the pressures of work and modern life, feel the romance of its kapok trees and take in the lightness of its gentle sea breezes. And at just over 30 minutes from the comforts and conveniences of Central, it’s an effortless break for day trippers — and a relatively economical one for those looking to make a lifestyle change. Second hand house prices average roughly $35,000 per square foot for more living space, and luxury in Stanley rivals anything in Mid-Levels — with the exception of including multiple levels, gardens and sitting a stone’s throw from the beach. A short time in tranquil Stanley will send you back home utterly refreshed. Unless you make it home for good.