As somebody who lives in the quiet, sleepy countryside, I find the biggest kick to my creative muscles starts by getting out of my comfort zone and into situations that are the opposite of what I know; intense, loud and very, very busy.
On a grey, foggy morning in February, I landed in Hong Kong airport after a lovely 12 and half hour flight from Heathrow. I came for a short, condensed and very hectic 4 days in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. Going in, I heard that Hong Kong was a straight up fusion of East meets West. And this was certainly true in so many ways, that it left me a little dumfounded and lingering sense of awe for weeks after.
My only reference for Asia to this point had been Japan, namely Tokyo; an equally sprawling metropolis filled with character and so much awesome stuff todo. I couldn’t help but make comparisons, as I walked the miles and miles of streets, side alleys and metro stations between the main island of Hong Kong and the northern Kowloon Peninsula.
Imagine convenience stores where you can find cadbury chocolate next to hello kitty pocky and bottles green tea. The MTR (metro) lines in HK had the same carriages, layout and English announcer as the tube in London, I kid you not. Road signs could have been copy and pasted from London, if it wasn’t for the Cantonese scripted underneath. But the feeling and pace of the city was much older and more Eastern than any of it’s westernised trimmings would tell you. It was loud, busy and constantly grabbing your attention.
To me, Hong Kong felt like a city of contradictions, as a shopping destination it’s one of the best in the world. In certain parts like Central and Tsim Sha Tsui you can find mega sized malls filled with Gucci, Prada and every designer brand you can think of. In just 3 days, I saw 7, yes 7 dedicated Leica stores (plus one in the airport). If opulence and luxury is why you come to Kong Kong, you will absolutely find it here, and maybe even be consumed by it.
But then just a few short walks or a ferry ride from the bright lights and skyscrapers, you find other parts of the city like Mong Kok and Hung Hom; which feel much more older and eclectic. From mile long streets dedicated to small stalls selling everything from hand arranged flowers and live caged birds; to the busy, noisy night markets selling…well, basically everything. All the while, you are dodging carts being pushed by old women, chanting loudly in Cantonese as they collect waste cardboard and transport stock up and down the narrow streets.
This stark contrast between old and new Hong Kong became no more apparent than on my last day on the island, when I took the 25mins glass floored Ngong Ping cable car to the peak of Lantau Mountain Range, where you can find a mix of historical sights like the giant Tian Tian Buddha and Po Lin Monastery, while being no further than 2mins from a Starbucks and a dozen gift shops. By now, this was the closest I had actually got to any kind of history in HK, and if I’m honest, it felt very shiny, shallow and commercial.
One very packed bus ride though the mountains later, I found myself in the fishing village of Tai O, on the far west cost of Lantau Island. What the photos can’t tell you is how this place smelt; a mix of fish, salt and sulphur; both appetising and unpleasant at the same time. It was quite surreal, but not as surreal as knowing you are still a few miles from the centre of one of the biggest, busiest cities on earth. It was a place unlike I’ve ever been, but I couldn’t lose the nagging feeling that this village was just for show, another tourist trap rather than a genuine part of the area’s history.
Which is where my final impressions of Hong Kong lie I think. It’s a wonderful city, full of amazing food and with a unique, intense atmosphere, while being incredibly easy too navigate and explore on your own, and of course it’s street photographers dream. (I shot 9 rolls of film 48 hours). Hong Kong is a perfect middle ground between the familiarity of western cities like London, with the bustle and noise and influence of Asia. It’s an interesting, modern city full of so much to-do and see. I’d totally recommend visiting if you find yourself in that part of the world, if you really want to go on a monster shopping spree or simply eat some of the best food you’ve ever had.
Hong Kong Travel Photography Tips
- Give yourself a bit of breathing time before jumping off the plane and getting out your camera. I was so grumpy from jet lag on my first day, I could’ve chucked my camera out of the window of my 27th story hotel room.
- Michelin star restaurants don’t have to be expensive, I ate at three of them while HK, and they were all utterly amazing. In fact the food in HK is a reason to go on it’s own. It’s just so damn good.
- Travel on the Star Ferry as much as you can, it’s only HK$2 (18 pence) and the short journey offers awesome views of Victoria Harbour.
- I wouldn’t recommend going in the winter (February) when I did. Yes it’s much cheaper, but the unpredictable winds also make the smog/fog pretty bad, and you won’t get the epic colourful landscapes you see on travel guides.
All images shot on Nikon D750 with Nikon 20mm f1.8 or Sigma 35mm 1.4