“Why did you come to Hong Kong?” my friend asked me as we sat contained in a shoebox apartment 12 stories up.
Typhoon Mangkhut was hurtling through the city like a bull in a China shop. With nothing but each other’s company, a few slabs of Belgium Dark Chocolate, two boxes of cookies and some too-strong plum wine stored in the door of the dinky bar fridge we spent my third day in the city watching Blade Runner 2049.
Midway through absorbing the colour co-ordinated futuristic world of cyber-punk aesthetics and grunge minimalism on his laptop screen I whispered across; “I came here for this.”
A couple of weeks earlier I’d booked a cheap room in the heart of Kowloon with little to no idea what to expect. Hong Kong had been my main transit stop until now. It was time to explore. (Tip: HK should never be treated as a transit city. ALWAYS pick the flight with a longer layover. Leave the airport. Get out! Learn from my previous rookie errors).
It’s 2pm; I’m stuck in the awkward hurry-up-and-wait-to-disembark moment, aboard the plane.
The city greets you with a wave of humidity and an air of intensity. Pastel towers grounded in grunge reach up to the sky, cherry red cabs curve through the concrete and tufts of tropical trees breathe in and out of the back streets. A 45 minute bus ride between it all and I check into my match box home for the weekend. Certainly not the most glamorous of sleep spots but adequate for housing bags, resting heads and providing protection from the unanticipated natural disaster.
It’s my first night to really explore the city rather than being holed up in a too-expensive hotel because SAA faked a delay. Solo, camera in hand and eager for a sensory overload. My instagram research and a chat here and there pointed me in the direction of Nathan Road, the home of good shots and hallucinatory visual experiences. In-between the bustling markets, step-and-repeat style apartments and an array of neon lights I found myself stopping to check that I was indeed not wearing a virtual reality headset and that this was in fact reality. The streets reflecting kaleidoscopic light and breathing the scent of Chinese cuisine, counterfeit clothes stalls interlaced with tropical fruit stands, foot massage parlours and apartment blocks dripping in vivid neons. Nope, no virtual reality headset. No lucid dream. No acid seasoned inflight meal. This was it and this was real. My countless 2D mood-boards had been realised.
I continued to walk in the direction of the 1 Michelin Star dumpling restaurant I’d been advised to visit. It was about 4kms away from my room and directly through the areas I’d been wanting to shoot. The restaurant was crowded and seats weren’t left spare, which meant sharing a tiny corner table with a couple who seemed to be just as focused on their meal as I was on mine. The awkward proximity was worth the bill which was indirectly proportional to the exceptional steamed buns, green vegetables and warm tea.
I headed back to the guesthouse just before midnight, stopping along the way to wrap my head around the tangibility of this dreamlike place. I still haven’t quite grasped the fact that the photos I’d referenced represented reality and not a photoshopped world I had assumed they presented. The neon signs, mass of orangey-red taxis and yellow busses, the crowded fluorescent markets and the chaotic-brash energy. It was all as real as the pictures had made it out to be.
Juxtaposing Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland lives just across the bay. It’s is a world apart from Kowloon. No shoving in queues or pungent streets; minimal weather worn signage (at first glance) and less edge. Instead, a maze of sophisticated skyscrapers connected by an elevated walkway and a web of trains, busses and trams. My friend (read:experienced HK traveler) had caught up with me before heading on to the mainland. We took the ferry from Kowloon – an inexpensive experience that totally elevated thirty minutes that could have been spent rushing around underground in a subway cart. For 3 dollars (2 on weekdays) the ferry takes you across the bay providing you with a most spectacular 360° day and night view of the city. By day a tropical metropolis. By night, Blade Runner’s domain. Typhoon Mangkhut was set to start at midnight that night so we spent the day making the most of the sunshine. Sunset at Victoria Peak would be the pinnacle of the day which included taking the world’s largest escalator between the central and mid-districts, stops for street stall dragon fruits and balloon sized grapes and a lot of general weaving between streets on foot and by Ding Ding (the tram). I could easily have spent the entire afternoon riding on various trams around the city. Seeing the city from four-or-so meters up while moving through it is nothing short of mesmerising – the asphalt jungle and its core of daily errands and intricacies up close and alive. Our brief encounter with the Ding Ding was followed by a trip up to the Peak where we watched the city transform at dusk. The day’s cool breeze was hinting at a gust and the air began to moisten. It was time to return to the safety of the matchbox until my flight home on Monday.
Typhoon Manghkut was the strongest typhoon to hit Hong Kong since 1983. For ten hours Hong Kong was under high alert with a level ten warning issued with gusts blowing up to 170 kilometres and 210 kilometres per hour. Giant trees were up-routed, busses and trains were cancelled, streets were decorated with debris. But as is the norm the day after a typhoon, everything remained calm and people continued about their business sweeping up the misplaced leaves and fragments of their surrounds. This was nothing new and they were prepared.
Fortunately I was still able to get to the airport and board my delayed flight without a hint of regret. Sure, a typhoon mid getaway isn’t ideal but it certainly added to my already rich adventure.
Until next time, Hong Kong.
Take the essentials – passport, phone, money (actual cash and a card), power bank. Halve what you think you want to take, unless you’re going to a gala event you probably won’t need the high heels, nor the extra sunnies or your entire collection of peak caps. Honestly, wearing Muji sliders three days in a row is worth the breeze that is customs with seven kilograms.
Data – HK data sim-cards are available on Amazon, they’re cheap and easy to use. My current phone is locked so I just walked around using the wifi where I could find it. If you’re in the same boat download the google maps map onto your phone for data free access to directions. Pocket wifi is really expensive so unless your budget allows, I wouldn’t suggest that option.
Octopus Card – (pretty well sign posted near the customs exit), pop some HK dollar on to that and grab the bus to wherever you need to go. The train is quicker but it’s about triple the price of a bus which allows you beautiful views of the city. It can be used for the Ding Ding (the Tram) and the Star Ferry, too. They’re also handy at SevenElevens and certain shops in the Airport itself.
Eat Cheap – Hong Kong can be (read:is) expensive but eating from local restaurants in and around Kowloon can both be affordable and a great experience. I’m no foodie but nothing beats the atmosphere of a humid bright yellow room, Chinese television talking above soundtrack of a droning aircon and a tick-tick-tick metal fan, capped with primary colour plates and too-tasty noodles and tea.
This series of images lives in my collection of “travel” imagery. If you’d like to see more of my work with neon and night, look here.