The crowded and dizzying array of shoe shops sandwiched into a few blocks on Nelson Street figure into almost every tourist guide map of Hong Kong.
Known as Sneakers Street and located in Mong Kok on the Kowloon peninsula side, it’s a part of town known for its cluster of themed shopping streets–Ladies Street, Goldfish Market, Bird Market–and as the hang out of the city’s youngsters.
Come mid next year though, those few blocks of barely controlled chaos will have been replaced by a serene-looking three-story mall called The Forest by New World Development. In a nod to the heritage of the street and right on trend for the meteoric global rise of ath-leisure, the 50,000-square-foot retail project will be dedicated to sports retail.
The loss of a shopping street prototypical to the city is a turning point for gentrification but the project also mirrors a wider shift to Kowloon as the retail sector refocuses on local customers after years of catering to Mainland Chinese tourists. That the force behind this development is none other than the Cheng family, who rode the first wave of Mainland Chinese money with their jewelry business Chow Tai Fook, is even more indicative.
When asked, Adrian Cheng, executive vice chairman of New World Development, sidesteps around the fact that The Forest will give a drastically different look and feel to the neighborhood.
“I would not say that we are changing the Sneakers Street, in fact we are regenerating it by giving it a new and fresh look,” Cheng said. “Our main desire is to balance heritage and contemporary, merge urban and natural elements while blending in modern architecture and local culture for this new shopping destination.”
The site is a joint project with the city’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA), who says the greenery–plans include a large tree at the complex’s center–and breezeway the project adds will improve the micro-climate as well as bring visual relief to the busy surroundings. Its architects say the idea is to emulate the hipster Tokyo neighborhood of Daikanyama.
But those plans are being met by the public warily as previous urban renewal endeavors have been accused of erasing local culture.
When the redevelopment of Lee Tung Avenue in Wanchai, once home to Wedding Card Street, was finally unveiled this year, its critics bemoaned the pastiche, pseudo-European design and how foreign F&B concepts like Le Pain Quotidien, Omotesando Koffee, and nightclub Ophelia replaced what was something uniquely and recognizably Hong Kong.
Eugene Kan, the former editorial director of Hypebeast, said Sneakers Street was a shoe hub that other big cities couldn’t replicate.
“By virtue of having a place that’s aggregated in two or three blocks, that was always an opportunity to see things in a rapid succession. It was an opportunity to see things for the first time that you had heard about on the internet or even before it was on the internet. Most parts of New York or Los Angeles, which are major streetwear hubs, it’s still one shop every few blocks as opposed to one store back to back to back,” he said.
According to the URA website, the project affected 14 buildings and 498 people in total. Out of the 38 retail stores in the project area, 19 were sports shops.
Cheng said New World has made efforts to keep the original shopkeepers by offering them priority to rent in the mall, though he declined to say how many vendors have taken up that arrangement.
At the same time, the city’s cultural arbiters observed that true sneakerheads had long stopped shopping on the street. While it once was an exciting place to discover cool kicks, more lately it had been awash in bland inventory.
“They have all the key big box brands Nike, Adidas and New Balance but any really special colorway or special collaboration, most likely you’re not going to find it on that street. You’d find it in specialty retailers like Nike Lab in Causeway Bay or even Juice,” said Lindsay Jang, the founder of street culture, fashion and fitness website MissBish.
She continued: “People go there because it’s a tourist attraction they read about somewhere, not because they’re super into sneaker culture.”
The first big move to modernize Mong Kok retail from its hawker style environment started when Langham Place was built in 2004, CBRE Hong Kong’s executive director for retail Joe Lin said. The mall was a pioneer and for more than a decade, it was the sole place where international brands with a younger demographic like Monki first landed. But lately, corporate interest has picked up in the neighborhood, also dispersing to other parts of Kowloon, traditionally viewed as the poor country cousin to Hong Kong Island.
“In Mong Kok on traditional shopping streets like Sai Yeung Choi Street, we are seeing some new international brands coming in. Hennes & Mauritz, Forever 21 are all opening stores there,” Lin said. “Especially for lifestyle retail, people have more choices. People are now going to Tsuen Wan, Lai Chi Kok, and Kwun Tong. It’s a good sign to the whole market. It’s growing the pie bigger.”
For instance, Lifestyle International, which operates Sogo department stores, picked up a plot of land in Kwun Tong last week. Expected to yield over 1 million square feet in commercial space, a third Sogo store is part of the plans.
Cynthia Ng, director of retail services at Colliers Hong Kong said, “tourist spending has dropped and with local consumers, they are willing to travel out to Mongkok and Kwun Tong, which have always been accessible to the local consumer. They don’t mind to shop in this area and the fact that the millennial shoppers are pretty strong at the moment, we see a lot of gadgets and lifestyle brands.”
With Mong Kok, long a haven for youth culture, getting a bit more sheen, Kan believes nearby neighborhoods of Sham Shui Po and Tai Kok Tsui will take up the mantle for driving the city’s underground urban fashion aesthetic.
“I think Sneakers Street was probably the most iconic part of the retail experience in Mongkok…As much as we want to preserve history, it is not so much in Hong Kong’s character,” Kan said. “It’s not about preservation, it’s about being dynamic. Change is more indicative of Hong Kong’s culture and society.”