Have you ever wondered what a place is really like, beyond what the travel guides tell you? Our Boots on the Ground reports give you real stories from travelers around the world. Below Sarah & Eric, co-authors of the travel blog Chopsticks on the Loose, shares some of their favorite places in Hong Kong:
Dynamic, dense and delicious, Hong Kong is a sophisticated fusion where East meets West. From the towering futuristic skyscrapers in Hong Kong Island, to the brimful vivid spirit of Kowloon, and finally the rural tranquility of New Territories; Hong Kong truly is one of the most dynamic cities we’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
No matter where we travel, we always set ourselves the task to photograph what makes each location unique - we like to call it ‘capturing the essence’. Our photographs not only serve as a visual diary about the adventures we’ve taken, but we also hope they can inspire others to get out and explore all the wonders we’re so lucky to have in this world.
For us, Hong Kong has truly been one of the most challenging places to capture. It’s not as simple as snapping a picture of the Big Buddha and calling it a day - we wanted to convey the emotion of really being here. With that in mind, we spent the next year immersing ourselves into the metropolis, and here are some of the stories we’ve had along the way.
If there’s one thing you notice as you arrive in Hong Kong it’s that it’s a city that never sleeps! The fast-paced, restless appearance has become an undeniable characteristic. Packed with so many people in such a small island, it comes as little surprise then that Hong Kong features in the top five most densely populated territories in the world.
The best place to experience the hustle and bustle is none other than in Mong Kok. In Cantonese, the name even directly translates to ‘busy corner’! As soon as we exited Mong Kok MTR station, it became blindingly obvious how this name came to be. All we could see were hundreds and hundreds of heads bobbing up and down, trying to navigate their way through the streets. There was no time to pause - like penguins we shuffled along with the crowd, completely helpless to the direction we were carried.
Influenced by the energy radiating from the surroundings, we weaved in and out through the masses as we tried to capture the experience as best as we could. With large neon signs illuminating overhead, Cantonese music blaring in the background and the aroma of smelly tofu lingering in the air; the whole experience could only be described as a sensory overload. It wasn’t long before we realised it was just too manic down on the streets...we needed to find higher ground!
We scoured the area, scouting out buildings which may potentially offer a better elevated view. Finally we came across a pedestrian footbridge which presented a spectacular view onto Mong Kok’s Fa Yuen Street Market. Here the market stalls lined along the street stretching as far as the eye can see! It was the perfect spot for people watching, and so we setup to capture a timelapse of the flow of activities taking place below.
Hong Kong is a city which is not afraid to express itself in colour. Spend the afternoon down Central District and you’ll notice a copious number of vibrant murals decorating the streets. Even the underground MTR stations have been carefully colour-coordinated.
We stumbled onto a place which by far displays the most encouraging use of colours found in all of Hong Kong. The discovery happened whilst we were on the minibus one day. As we passed by Choi Hung stop, our gaze shifted to an unusually colourful estate which stood across the road. True to our nature, we decided to postpone our remaining plans for the day and headed towards the building to find out more.
What welcomed us when we climbed the last set of stairs could only be described as a beautiful sequence of colours adorning the otherwise simplistic buildings.The fading lick of paint worn from the sun hints that the building might be long past its former glory. Nonetheless, it was clear the shades represented a rainbow, and that’s why it is so fitting for it’s name - Choi Hung Estate (Rainbow Estate).
Sandwiched between these residential buildings was a huge area featuring three colourful basketball courts. From here we were able to witness the local residents going on about with their daily lives. Mothers hung fresh laundry around the courts whilst the kids ran around playing chase with each other. The elderly strolled through, pausing every so often for a gentle stretch. It was a heart-warming scene to see all the generations living together in this close-knit neighbourhood.
The locals here say that the government initially chose the colour scheme to lift the mood of the residents and those who visit; it surely brightened up our day as we left with a smile on our faces!
Ask us what one thing surprised us most about Hong Kong - the answer would be the sheer amount of greenery which covers this island! Did you know that nearly 75% of Hong Kong is in fact the countryside? Despite being famous for its sky high towers and city lights, Hong Kong homes a vast amount of wildlife and plant species.
Set on capturing the greener side of Hong Kong, it was only a matter of time before we set our sights on the many trails out there. And one of the most popular places to be in touch with nature is Sai Kung Country Park, dubbed as Hong Kong’s back garden.
During one summer day, we packed our gear and set out on a hike around the High Island Reservoir of Sai Kung. We had heard stories of the beautiful blue waters found in the area and just had to go see it for ourselves.
With temperatures soaring over 30℃, the sweltering heat was only further amplified by the humidity in the air. These were some of the harshest conditions we’ve experienced whilst on a hike. Lugging our camera gear and a heavy water-sack on our backs, going uphill was extra tough!
Was it worth it in the end? Most definitely. Indeed, the reservoir truly held the bluest water we’ve ever seen! Beautifully complemented by the lush green mountains, it was hard to believe we were still in Hong Kong. At this moment, we collapsed on the grass together and took our time to admire the stunning landscape before us. After catching our breath, we picked up our rucksacks and continued on.
Hong Kong is certainly a captivating place during the day, but it is one of those cities which become progressively livelier as night falls. Every night the city lights will illuminate the darkness away. Because of this, Victoria Peak holds the number one spot for visitors to catch a glimpse of the cityscape.
When we first arrived in Hong Kong, we too clambered up to witness the classic view. Although beautiful, Victoria Peak was incredibly touristy and it was a struggle to enjoy our time with elbows and selfie sticks at every turn. More importantly, it felt very distance from all the action and lights afar and it just didn't quite capture the energy the way we had hoped it would. With that, we started searching for locations which felt closer to the heart and soul of the district and eventually learnt about Sham Shui Po.
Sham Shui Po has become one of our favourite places to hang around in Hong Kong. Not only is it the place you turn to for anything electronic and gadget related, the whole area gives off a traditional feel thanks in large to the flaky buildings and preserved authentic culture. As the locals pointed out, one of the best spots to see a panoramic view would be from the top of a huge concrete hill behind the famous Garden Bakery.
With just a couple of hours before night fall, we decided to tackle this urban hill to check out the cityscape. The ascend was short and sweet, although it does involve quite a few stairs - so be prepared! Arriving at the top, it took us a moment to really grasp it all in. Shades of pink and purple coloured the sky, twinkling lights blinked from all corners of the city, and cars and people as small as ants moved along the streets below.
Coming over from the UK, where buildings rarely extended above five floors, we were completely blown away by the sheer number of high-rises built here! Hong Kong is well known as a vertical city - everywhere you look, large estate complexes stretch high towards the sky and fill every dot of land. For better or worse, the lack of space has become almost iconic for Hong Kong.
Montane Mansion is a concrete slab of housing facilities located just around Quarry Bay. Take a short walk around the area and you’ll notice many of the buildings are either old and weathered or new and shiny. Much of Quarry Bay is currently in plans of redevelopment as the old buildings make way for swanky new skyscrapers, it’s anyone’s guess when it’ll be the turn of Montane Mansion.
From a distance, the density of people living inside Montane Mansion was easy to guess. A seemingly impossible number of windows decorate the outside of the building whilst shops line the ground floor. The dated look coupled with the occasional Victorian tram rattling by, we couldn’t help but feel like we had been transported back to the Hong Kong of the 70s.
Crossing the road, we headed in through a short but strangely dark corridor. The floor here was still damp from the rain which had come through earlier in the day. Silence hung in the air with no one else in sight. Moments after, we found ourselves standing in the midst of a dingy courtyard.
Then we looked up…
We had never seen anything quite like it. Three sides of the building towered above us, almost like a prison wall leaving no escape. A separate residential building shot so high it plugged in the gap left by the three other walls. Bold stripes of red, blue, yellow and green ran down each side - perhaps to bring some life to the dreary setting. Row upon row of apartments stacked up like Lego bricks. And the exposed narrow strip of sky created a portal like effect, almost as if we were peering into a different world. Montane Mansion was exactly what we were looking for.
Unfortunately the question is not an easy one to answer. What we believe to be the essence of a location may wildly differ from your own - each and every traveller out there has their own unique way of seeing, doing and thinking. And that’s what makes travelling fun.
So get out there, explore and capture your own adventure!
Eric and Sarah, co-authors of the travel blog Chopsticks on the Loose, left behind their corporate jobs to travel the world full-time. They're currently exploring Asia and capturing its beauty through photographs. Follow their journeys on Facebook and Instagram.