Hong Kong is one of my favourite places in the world. I love everything about it. Its bustle, business, crowds, lack of space and the curious mix of vintage with dizzying modernism. The city seems to be divided into unique blocks – one for the residents, one for the expats, a face for the tourists and then there is the curious dividing line between tremendously cosmopolitan and charmingly traditional. I love Kowloon’s garish neon brazeness, Mongok’s hole in the wall traditional eateries, Wan Chai’s lovely winding lanes which are full of World War stories and urban legends and the stiff odours of Western and Central District’s Chinese medicine shops. There’s something about Hong Kong, which makes the city very addictive and most of the visitors and expats fall in love with it warts and all. My favourite Hong Kong moments have been spent at various places of different kinds and from the glittering Tsim Tsa Tsui, awesome bird’s eye views from the historic Peak, the cute Disneyland, lovely Ocean Park to the tranquil Tai O fishing village, HK has never failed to mesmerize me. So, presenting some of my favourite sights of Hong Kong, the face of real Asia.
Hong Kong is a great place to shop and quirky souvenirs are its best buys. Since, I had spent a substantial amount of time, staying at Western District, some of my most leisurely moments had included wandering around the antique shops at Cat Street. Although formally named as Upper Lascar Row, Hong Kong’s famous antique market is known to the locals and antique dealers as Cat Street. It is a great place to hunt for antique and “not so authentic antique” treasures and the market is lined with interesting store fronts of curio merchants and art galleries. The best buys are jade, silk products, embroideries and wooden handicraft items. Apart from shopping, it is a picturesque place which makes beautiful photos and Cat Street’s formal name has an Indian connection. The native Indian soldiers in the British military were referred to as ‘lascars’ and during early colonial days, many lascars were transferred to Hong Kong to work in the police force. Thus a small community of indians had grown around Upper Lascar Row, where the police headquarters was located. By 1920s, the neighbourhood had evolved into a bazaar for antiques and second-hand items and many stolen items were sold too. In Cantonese, stolen stuff are known as ‘rat goods’ and their buyers are casually referred to as cats, thus coining the famous nickname ‘Cat Street’.
Many of HK’s traditional markets had been my favourite haunt for evening walks and photographs. The Temple Street Night Market, Ladies’ Market had been very entertaining and they had provided some of the best cheap eats I had enjoyed in HK. Kowloon however had the best spots and its flower market had been an exotic jungle of scents. Retailers and wholesalers display a staggering amount of auspicious blossoms and good fortune inducing houseplants and Chinese New Year draws enthusiastic crowd from all over the city. Plants and flowers play a major role in Feng Shui, a belief which is enthusiastically followed by most of HK residents and as a new lunar cycle begins, they flock to the Flower Market during Chinese New Year to shop for blooms that attract good luck and fortune.
Within walking distance of the Flower Market are HK’s (in)famous Goldfish and Bird Garden. Since Feng Shui considers goldfish bowl to be an auspicious home decor item, this strain of pet trade booms in Hong Kong. Thus the Tung Choi Street North, which is better known as the Goldfish Market is crammed on either side with shops dedicated to sale of fishes, many of which come at whopping price tags. From humble gold silver fishes to many exotic species, aquatic colours come alive at this market after sunset and sadly many are stuffed in small plastic bags. Often, exotic amphibians and reptiles are found to be on sale too and though drop dead photogenic, rows of fishes gasping in small plastic bags is a pretty heartbreaking sight.
The Bird Garden is yet another photogenic, yet heartbreaking sight of HK. Designed on the lines of a traditional Chinese garden, the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is a park which has stalls selling all kinds of birds and aviary products. Exotic birds like macaws, cuckatoos etc peer pitifully from stacked wire boxes and beautifully crafted bamboo cages, porcelain feeding bowls, faux grasshoppers etc swing in the breeze. Keeping a birdsong is an ancient Chinese hobby and wrinkled old men feeding their feathered pets in cages with grasshoppers stuck on chopsticks is a common sight at this park.
Of all the bizarre markets pockmarking the urban space of Hong Kong, nothing beat the odorous Dried Seafood Street and Tonic Food Street. Dried seafood and exotic ingredients like stag antlers, hairy crabs, abalone etc are generously used in both Chinese cuisine and traditional medicines. In Hong Kong, this trade is clustered around the Des Voeux Road West in Sheung Wan and the busy Dried Seafood Street is one smelly place. Historically, this area had dealt with salted fish stores for more than 50 years and during those days, the store owners used to dry their products on rooftops. Their shops downstairs would sell the dried goods and families had inhabited the intermediate floors. Over the years, the area had become an interesting mix of residential and commercial real estate and many great seafood restaurants can be found here. Despite the streets assaulting the nostrils at every step, I had loved wandering about the Dried Seafood Street and gawking at glass bell jars filled with exotic fare had been my favourite thing to do.
Some of the things on sale had been pretty shocking to my foreign eyes and mornings would bring busy local housewives bargaining for black moss, dried snake skin, fermented seahorse etc straight from the loading trucks. Chinese New Year is the most crowded time around that area when sky high priced abalones sell like potatoes. The nearby streets of Wing Lok and Ko Shing are pretty unique too and ancient Chinese medicinal products like boxes of special teas, dried ginseng, bird’s nest and shark fins line the shop fronts.
While Hong Kong is an exciting place to be, its Outlying Islands offer a bigger plethora of interesting activities and sights. The Lantau Island is undoubtedly the most popular among them and the reason is the larger than life Big Buddha. I have always found the iconic monastery to be a bit Disneyland garish and the cable car offers exquisite 360 degrees views of the bay. On clear days, the gorgeous hiking trails across the dragon backed mountains can be clearly seen and small pockets of hidden coves emerge amidst the thick greenery. My favourite place on Lantau is the Tai O village and in my eyes, it is Hong Kong, the way the mega city had been at least a 100 years ago. Home to the Tanka community of fishing folk, Tai O is a village of stilted houses, blooming gardens, wooden bridges and timeless charm. The old community had built the village on stilts to avoid the incoming tidal flats and the buildings are interconnected across the water via boardwalks. A manually operated drawbridge spanning over a creek also exists there and the rope drawn ferry had been functional for more than 85 years. Needless to say, it is a photographer’s paradise.
The last but not the least HK favourite sights are stacks of dumpling bamboo boxes. My HK days had always started with me making a bee line for breakfast at the neighbourhood dumpling place and I find the smell of steaming buns in well worn baskets to be very comforting. HK is a place to indulge in dumplings and they can be found all over the city. The style of wrapping, ingredient and popularity among the locals influence the price list and the mornings are the best time to sample these delicious treats. This is a purely local fun, which is not indulged by many high end travelers and the best dumplings are found at countless hole in the wall shops scattered across HK. Among the touristy pleasures, Ocean Park and Disneyland pull my heartstrings and I have spent some really good times there with my family. This brings me to an end of my Hong Kong photo series and as promised before, this is a presentation of Asia’s truly global city seen solely through my eyes.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE