Live the Life: Big City Meets Beach Living

Kenneth Howe isn't a sit-still-and-relax kind of guy. So when the 39-year-old New Jerseyan moved to Hong Kong Island in 1999 to be a journalist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, he wasn't looking for a beach to lie on. Instead, he took one look at the stunning sunsets from his new ocean-side home and saw a business opportunity: beach cafés. We talked to Kenneth to find out how he has since combined a fast-paced career as a restaurateur with slow-paced island living -- and why most tropical paradises are not for him.

Before you moved, what did you know about Hong Kong? I knew nothing of the place, other than the fact that it was a former British colony and had the population of a major city. I remember when the plane first reached Hong Kong. The city looked so mountainous; building space is limited, so everything is built up. They call it the vertical city. Still, 40 percent of the Hong Kong SAR [the Special Administrative Region that includes Hong Kong Island] is parks.

A mix of city and nature. That's what inspired you to go into the restaurant business, right? I live on Big Wave Bay on the island, and as a journalist here I used to notice that beach restaurants served fish balls and instant noodles, and they had plastic seats and tables and toilet paper for napkins. I thought, "If I build it better, they will come." I ended up leaving my job in journalism to go into the restaurant business full-time. I took over a café on Big Wave Bay and then opened another at South Bay Beach, both on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

What did people back home think when you told them you were making such a drastic career switch? Everyone definitely thought I was crazy. It's a pretty big leap to know nothing about restaurants and jump in the deep end by becoming the sole owner of two. I told them, "I'm betting on nature, 'hippie capitalism' and the fact that the locations are too unique and beautiful not to succeed."

What gave you the confidence to dive in like that?When you're the boss, and you have a 200-yard, barefoot commute, life's not bad. At the end of the day, Hong Kong is known for its refugee city, and that spirit still thrives: entrepreneurial, risk-taking, hungry. It's palpable. My restaurants are located on my two favorite beaches, and they were both severely underdeveloped commercial opportunities. And what better "office" than the beach? Nature had created the masterpiece here, so then I just needed to frame it with the good food, the decoration and the ambience.

What's a typical day like for you? On a typical day, I'm up at 8 a.m. I eat at home or walk over to Big Wave Bay Café. I'll answer my e-mails in the morning and then run errands around town in the daytime. I run or swim or surf most evenings. On weekdays, I am in CEO mode, dealing with things such as our promotions, our marketing campaigns, lowering food and drink costs, human-resource issues. Then the weekends are very hands-on operational because that's when we do 80 percent of our business. I suppose I like doing this and living here in part because there is no such thing as a "typical day."

Besides a new career with your restaurants, what other things have you discovered in Hong Kong?Another Big Wave Bay, north of the island. It has clean water year-round and what I think are the best surfing waves. I also met my fiancée in Hong Kong. She always lived on and grew up on the south side of the island, where there are many beaches. So she's less urban-oriented than most people here. She's a city girl in the sense that she is cosmopolitan and enjoys shopping and all that the city has to offer, but she prefers living on the beach side. On Hong Kong Island, beach and city are so close that you really don't have to choose between them. That's what makes living here so enjoyable.

Which kind of life are you living more of: the island life or the city life?My lifestyle is certainly "island living," as my perspective is from two of the nicest beaches on Hong Kong Island: Big Wave Bay for surf, South Bay for sunsets. My beach bar, South Bay Beach Club, without question, has the best sun- set view of any restaurant on Hong Kong Island. I live in a throw-back village on Big Wave Bay. I love getting away from downtown to cleaner air and hiking trails right out our front door. Neighbors still use "night soil" on their veggies -- as I'm reminded during offshore winds. There's one central parking lot, and everyone walks down twisty paths to their houses. It's what I envision as an eco-village.

But the city is still within reach. Is that what you love about Hong Kong Island? I love the fact that I can live on a beach in a village with old-world charms and still jet downtown on a motorbike in just 20 minutes to the Blade Runner world of this dynamic metropolitan area. So yes, I do have my yin and my yang here in Hong Kong. If I did live in a truly remote tropical paradise, I think I would get cabin fever.

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Subtropical
  • Population of island: 1.3 million
  • House starting price: Flats available through a government-subsidized program: about $125,000.
  • Main hospital: Queen Mary
  • Price of local beer: $2 for a bottle of Hong Kong Dragon's Back.
  • Languages: Cantonese and English
  • Ease of immigration: Depends whether you have the right skills or capital to pass either the Quality Migrant Admission Test or the Capital Investment Entrant Test.
  • Ease of buying a home: Easy, with a property agent.
  • Website: discoverhongkong.com