Hong Kong – Friday, November 1 – How the other 9/10ths live

I took advantage of my free hotel buffet breakfast – something that only occurs in my life once in a decade – to get repeated glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. I flipped idly through my tourist magazine next to tall, hirsute older Germans who apparently took this sort of luxury for granted, because they seemed blase about the whole ‘free breakfast’ thing.

After checking out, I trundled my suitcase through the dry, 27 degree, sunny weather to get my ‘special deal’: Dr Dre Beats headphones for $60 at a nearby electronics shop. I know what you’re thinking: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And I would have been suspicious if they’d been in a bag. But these came in a huge, official-looking box. The shopkeeper opened them for me and they had a plastic case, a Dr Dre booklet and everything. However, I was saved from a bad purchase by trying them on, and discovering they were so tight they gave me a headache. Later, I tried out the real thing at an electronics store: sure enough, they were comfortable and 3 times as expensive. The counterfeiters have mastered packaging inside and out; they have not mastered fit.

One of the many shopping streets surrounding the giant shopping street that is Nathan St:

Every colony needs one!

I took the subway to my airbnb hosts, who lived in the most crowded district of Hong Kong. I took some photos to orient myself in case I got lost, but they give a good picture of vertical life in Hong Kong. This is the view out the window:
I love the soaring concrete, which I recognize isn’t to everyone’s taste. But then, I’ve never been a fan of nature. Don’t take it personally:

Their street:

The shortcut up to their street:

And the alley back to the main street:

Near the main street:

Some creative appropriation of radical chic:

I went next to the cramped kitsch of the Western Market building:

From there I took a tram ride across the length of Hong Kong, which was a great way to see the city and deserves its own post. After that, I crossed back across the bay to Kowloon to find dinner in Chungking Mansions:

What makes this building significant is not just that it’s a 17 storey mall/guest house, its ugly facade not improved by the LED strips tacked across the front. Rather, it’s that it’s the port of entry for Hong Kong’s migrant and refugee community. It has a reputation for being dangerous, but as so often with that kind of travel advice, ‘dangerous’ actually means black, brown and poor. The first two floors are tiny shops run by people from across South Asia and Africa. It’s very similar to parts of Itaewon in Seoul, but here everyone’s crammed into the same circular floor plan:

I really wanted to take pictures of everything, but I thought it was an imposition: many of these people are here illegally and probably have enough trouble with the authorities and organized crime. My skin colour marked me as a tourist, and I didn’t want to make it worse by interfering with their business. So instead I stopped at a recommended Turkish-Pakistani hole in the wall and had quite passable chana masala (which was switched with the dal I ordered, without telling me; that happened twice in Hong Kong, but I didn’t complain, for the same reason I didn’t take pictures. My airbnb hosts said they ‘saw you coming’ as a whitey off the beaten path – goes with the territory.)

I went to find the bathroom afterwards and stepped into a filthy, flourescent-lit hallway. That, and the all-steel bathroom, reinforced the impression I’d entered some future-dystopian world. But despite been easy pickings, stumbling around in a deserted bathroom and hallway, no one bothered me. That’s because, unlike the terror of well-heeled screenwriters, poor people are usually too busy getting on with their lives to bother you – if you don’t bother them.

Some HR Geiger-designed pipes in the hallway:

I took the stairway exit and stepped out into a dark alley – literally. There were no lights, just a few young South Asian guys hanging around, one of whom offered me ‘hash or weed?’ I politely declined and kept walking. An alleyway on my right opened up onto a small courtyard, where African men were playing cards and talking loudly. A young South Asian couple emerged from the darkness in front of me and passed. This is in the centre of Hong Kong, steps from some of its most popular tourist destinations. And that makes sense: these people, despite being marginalized, are not marginal. Their cheap, illegal labour is what keeps the fancy buildings clean and the shops stocked, the drugs and women’s bodies supplied to eager punters looking for a taste of the exotic. My lack of photo-taking became tinged with respect for how they persevered despite living in what looked like an 80s post-apocalypse movie, and anger for how they lived completely invisible next to wealth. The dark alley opened up onto this:

And around the corner, this mall:


Somehow still having energy, I went back across the bay and found the bus up to The Peak, an old colonial hideaway where, in the 19th century, the British governor got 8 Chinese men to carry him up in a divan. The bus was much better, switching back and forth between apartment blocks which just seemed to get taller, the higher we went. The bus let us out by the governor’s mansion, now a restaurant:

And it wouldn’t be Asia without a giant mall on top of a mountain:

But the view beside it was spectacular, and you could almost forget about the labouring masses invisible below:

Hong Kong administrators clearly have no compulsion about letting the wealthy build on top of hills.

I know this is proper English – and I saw it everywhere – but… OK, I’m still 14 inside:

After a much-faster bus ride back, where the driver seemed intent on careening through every traffic barrier, I got back to my homestay with some plum wine to fortify me. Outside the apartment building were two women making out. It was dark, but they were on a street in full view of hundreds of apartments. After over a year in conservative Korea, where kissing in public is frowned upon and lesbians don’t even exist in the national consciousness, this was lovely. Also, these were Chinese women, in a non-tourist neighbourhood, so no one could accuse them of being dissolute foreigners. Hong Kong is clearly a more liberal place.

On the topic, here’s a picture of the best man in Hong Kong, near Chungking Mansions but obviously not staying there. Actually, this might be my best photo of the trip: the motion/stillness contrast, and his awesomeness:


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