Considering its fairly central location, Happy Valley feels surprisingly suburban. It’s quiet (for the congested northern part of Hong Kong Island) with plenty of fairly traffic-free streets intersecting with its major thoroughfares. It has lots of desirable housing, most of it in the area’s numerous high-rise luxury developments, including Highcliff, The Summit and The Leighton Hill. And it has more of a community feel than most parts of inner-city Hong Kong. The result: it’s home to a lot of rich people, and quite a few famous people. It’s popular with expats and families, but also with young single people, for both its location and its generally pleasant housing stock.
It wasn’t always the pleasant slice of not-quite-suburbia that it is today, however. Happy Valley’s low-lying situation and marshy environment meant that in the early days of British settlement, the area was a petri dish for various nasty diseases, not least among them malaria, that were responsible for a lot of deaths. A number of cemeteries were built in the area – it still plays host to six of them today, of various denominations – and the name Happy Valley, a common euphemism for cemeteries at the time, took over from the previous name, Wong Nai Chung (these days the Chinese name has changed to Pau Ma Dei, but the old name is preserved in one of the area’s major roads).
Since not long after that, the area has been dominated, as it still is today, by Happy Valley Racecourse. Built in 1846, just four years after the British took over – which says a great deal about the colonial administrators’ priorities – the racecourse sits at the bottom of the valley. Part of the district runs up the racecourse’s east side, but most of it spills up the valley to the south-east of it. Wong Nai Chung Road surrounds most of the racecourse, with Blue Pool Road, Sing Woo Road and Shan Kwong Road the major roads up the hill through the main residential area. Carry on up the hill at the top and you head towards Wong Nai Chung gap and the south side of Hong Kong Island. Facing Happy Valley to the south and east respectively are the two mountains that form either side of the valley itself, Mount Nicholson and Jardine’s Lookout.
Happpy Valley is set back from the coast, and therefore slightly shielded from the morass of population along it, but the neighbouring districts of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, focused on shopping and entertainment respectively but both also residential, are right in the thick of it. To the east of lower Happy Valley is another low-lying area, So Kon Po, which is dominated by various sports and leisure facilities, biggest among them Hong Kong Stadium, home to numerous sporting events including the famed Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament. To the east of upper Happy Valley lies the ultra-exclusive enclave of Jardine’s Lookout, the area closest to rivalling The Peak as Hong Kong’s most desirable address.
There’s no shortage of private doctors in Happy Valley, and the area is also close to a number of excellent hospitals. Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital, one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most renowned private establishments, is in the district, while the equally excellent Hong Kong Adventist Hospital is just up the hill on Stubbs Road. The high-quality, charity-funded Tung Wah Eastern Hospital is just around the corner in So Kon Po, and sought-after private St Paul’s Hospital isn’t far away in Causeway Bay.
In line with its reputation as a family-friendly area, there’s a plethora of schools in and around Happy Valley. Within the district itself, Catholic girls’ Marymount Secondary School is on Blue Pool Road, with its primary counterpart not far away in Tai Hang Road; St Paul’s School, also a Catholic girls’ school, is on Ventris Road; and the private, French-language French International School is on Blue Pool Road. Not much further afield, up the hill along leafy, exclusive Stubbs Road, you’ll find a whole string of educational establishments: Catholic co-educational Rosaryhill School, which caters to all age groups; the junior Bradbury School, part of Hong Kong’s international-standard, subsidized but expensive English Schools Foundation; Lingnan Primary School and Kindergarten; and Hillside International Kindergarten. Also not a million miles away, in Braemar Hill, North Point, is the prestigious Chinese International School.
Unlike most of the residential districts of northern Hong Kong Island, which are mostly strung along the coast, Happy Valley’s position slightly inland means that it doesn’t have a station on Hong Kong’s extremely efficient and useful MTR subway system (there were plans to build one as part of the proposed South Island Line, but they were shelved in 2009).
Fear not, though, because there’s an MTR station not all that far away in Causeway Bay – although from the nearest entrance, at the giant Times Square shopping mall, you sometimes feel like you’ve walked halfway to your destination by the time you reach the platform.
And then there’s the tram. There’s a tram terminus at the uphill end of the racecourse, at the corner of Wong Nai Chung, Blue Pool and Sing Woo Roads, and an awful lot of trams, travelling in both directions most of the way along the north side of Hong Kong Island, pass through it. Hong Kong’s trams don’t necessarily go very fast, certainly stop a lot and aren’t air conditioned, but they’re extremely regular, efficient and, at HKD2 (25 US cents) for any journey, a complete steal.
The area is also fairly well served for buses. Routes serving the area include the 1 and 10S to Kennedy Town, the 5S between Causeway Bay and Sai Ying Pun via lower Happy Valley, the 8S and 8X to Sui Sai Wan and the 19 to North Point or Shau Kei Wan.
By road, it takes about 10 minutes to get to Central, and there’s also a tunnel from Happy Valley directly to Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island’s south side, as well as Wong Nai Chung Gap Road over the hills in the same direction; taxis are as plentiful in Happy Valley as they are more or less everywhere in the city. Central plays host to Hong Kong Airport Express Station, 25 minutes from the airport. For the border with mainland China, there are direct buses from Wan Chai.
Shops and Services
Happy Valley’s a pretty good area for shopping. Sing Woo Road is lined with a diverse range of stores both independent and chain, while the shops along Wong Nai Chung Road mostly sell homeware, dividing roughly 50-50 into trendy-modern-minimalist and traditional-Chinese-maximalist.
But the important thing to remember is that at its northern end, Happy Valley segues pretty seamlessly into Causeway Bay, one of the most varied and frenzied cornucopias of consumer delight on the planet. Anywhere in Happy Valley, you’re a few minutes by road from more stores of every description than you could visit in a year.
Just to the northwest is entertainment-focused Wan Chai; formerly a red-light district, it retains some of that flavour, but also contains a huge number of excellent restaurants and some classy bars along with the seedy ones. There are also plenty of places to eat and a few bars in Happy Valley itself, mostly along Sing Woo Road. Wan Chai is also host to some of Hong Kong’s leading cultural venues, in the form of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, plus the massive Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Considering it’s a predominantly high-rise area, like most in Hong Kong, Happy Valley residents are also well served for greenery. Walk up the hill in any direction and the residential suburb soon gives way to mountainside, while lower Happy Valley is completely dominated by the massive racecourse. Not only is it one of the city’s only two racecourses, playing host to regular race meetings that are very enthusiastically attended, but the central infield area hosts a whole range of sports pitches, and is home to several sports teams, including Happy Valley Football Club, consistently one of the leading contenders in Hong Kong’s first division (which admittedly is of somewhat modest standard).
Overlooking the racecourse is the private Hong Kong Football Club, popular especially with families for its restaurants and outdoor swimming pool as well as its excellent sports facilities, and just around the corner is Craigengower Cricket Club, which despite its name these days is mainly a social club with its primary sporting focus on lawn bowls.
The surrounding districts are packed with sports and leisure facilities. The indoor Queen Elizabeth Stadium is nearby in Morrison Hill (where there’s no hill); neighbouring So Kon Po contains the massive Hong Kong Stadium; Causeway Bay is home to the big-by-Hong-Hong-standards Victoria Park, which houses a stadium, and the multi-sport South China Athletic Association; Wan Chai features Lockhart Road Sports Centre, Wan Chai Sports Ground, Southorn Playground and Harbour Road Sports Centre; and up the hill towards Wong Nai Chung Gap are the public Hong Kong Tennis Centre and the private Hong Kong Cricket Club. Morrison Hill, Wan Chai and Victoria Park all have swimming pools, and there’s also Wong Nai Chung Sports Centre in the heart of Happy Valley itself.