Travel, even as it is has been repeatedly romanticized and commodified in the age of Instagram, demands a sense of adventure. It demands that you explore and experience new people and places firsthand; and that you don't stay too long in the kind of fancy hotels with upscale comforts that conform to the whims and sensibilities of their guests. Truly traveling would more likely demand that you stay in a place like Wontonmeen Hostel in the Sham Shui Po District of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Sham Shui Po is one of Hong Kong's older, and also poorer neighborhoods, but it's quickly becoming a popular destination for travelers in search of an authentic experience: bustling markets, classic Hong Kong street food, and pockets of youth culture. Think Escolta and downtown Manila—old school, but slowly being gentrified and now newly vibrant.
Of course, people seeking these authentic experiences need a place to stay. They'd find it along Lai Chi Kok Road, inside and above a small coffee shop marked with the letters W and M. That coffee shop is the entrance of a building with eleven residential floors housing artists, journalists, musicians, designers, comedians, and curators. Another floor on that building serves as a hostel that can accommodate up to 14 guests. This is Wontonmeen, a creative enclave and an artistic hotbed that offers visitors a chance to be a part of the action.
Undeniably, the first thing you will notice about Wontonmeen is how utterly Instagrammable everything is. The coffee shop up front has the requisite bare concrete and bleached wooden fixtures that make every third-wave joint look cool. And inside, there's a common area that's incredibly stylish, like an eccentric collage, beautifully unkempt in every corner. This is Wontonmeen's face on Instagram, and it almost begs you to whip your phone out and snap a photo. But stay a while longer and you'll understand that there's much more to it than just this pretty first floor.
The real face of Wontonmeen is that of its founder, Patricia Choi. She's been running the place for 12 years now, which doesn't seem to add up at first, until you learn that she's 38 years old (we all continued to doubt this even as we heard it from Choi herself, because she looks nothing like 38). Choi is an interior designer, and back in 2006, she moved into this building that her grandfather built. She started by sprucing up her own place. Then gradually, she began renting spaces out to her friends in the creative industry, until she managed to turn one floor into a hostel.
"I wanted to accommodate more friends and interesting people from around the world," says Choi, who herself spent time backpacking in her twenties. "I wanted Hong Kong to have a nice hostel, because it's either super expensive or it’s like super dodgy. I wanted to have something alternative." Eventually, by bringing creatives together, Wontonmeen blossomed into a dynamic community: artsy residents and visitors alike, who get to take part in gigs, indie movie screenings, workshops, and even seminars on a regular basis. Here, it feels like there are always cool things to do and cool people to meet.
Choi likes to keep it that way. One of the doorways in the hostel floor of Wontonmeen has a "No McDonald's" sticker, and Choi says it's because one of her guests once brought fast food inside. It's a testament to her attitude about travelers and her expectations of her guests.
"Travel is always been an experience that, I think, money can’t buy," she says. "That’s one of the reasons that I set up a hostel. I just don’t think that the more you pay, the more experience you can get. It’s actually not the materialistic things that relate to a very unique experience."
And despite the mostly young and creative population of Wontonmeen, Choi does occasionally get guests who don't understand that concept of travel. "Some people, when they arrive here, they would just [ask], 'Oh, so, what is it like? Give it to me!' They expect people to feed it to them. And that’s the most annoying part for me."
Instead, she expects her guests to travel for real—to eat real Hong Kong food out there, not McDonald's in the room. "We emphasize this a lot. We say, try to be more than just a tourist. If you’re a tourist, people just feed you with information. You join a tour, a cruise, you don’t need to think, you don’t need to plan, you don’t need to explore. But a traveler is different—you try to understand, you open yourself up. I think that is very important to me, to get that kind of guests."
And her insistence on keeping a small, intimate, and carefully curated operation is what makes Wontonmeen what it is. The creative energy thrives and flows here because of the expectations that Choi has of her guests and of the residents. "Tourism is not my specialty anyway. I just want to continue to be myself—someone who likes history, culture, design. Hopefully that can [connect] with guests of similar interests. That’s the idea of the hostel. And that’s why it’s still relatively small. People are more respectful when they stay here. They understand that this is my passion, my life, rather than something that I set up to make money and don’t care about." It's a sentiment that anyone who truly travels would appreciate and feel right at home with.