If I had a chopstick for every person that responded, “Ooooh the shopping” and “Mmmmm, the food” upon learning that I was destined for Hong Kong I’d be well equipped to establish a thriving Chinese take away business. Well, nearly. The more often that I heard this, the more determined I grew to break the stereotype. Not simply for the sport of playing devil’s advocate, but rather because it left me wondering, “what if one doesn’t like shopping? What if you’re not a foodie? What then? It seemed as though something was missing. Intuitively, I felt that a population in excess of 7 million people would not simply shop and eat, shop and eat all weekend, every weekend. Just how did locals spend their time outside of shopping and eating? Biased by optimism, I assumed that if it was enjoyable enough for the locals, maybe I too would enjoy their pass times. And so began the quest of unearthing Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific.
Testament to the cleanliness and safety of the city, within a few hours I was on foot walking the streets and riding the public transport system (which if I may digress, is efficient, convenient and spotlessly clean), bound for Aberdeen Floating Fishing Village. The village was once an important fishing port, where locals worked and lived on their junk boats. Working on the water by day, and sleeping on the water by night. Nowadays only a few locals still reside on their junk boats. Despite the frequent ferrying of sampans along Aberdeen Harbour, there was an immediate sense of peace the moment I stepped off the bus. Perhaps it was the feeling of the water’s proximity. Perhaps it was a subconscious sensitivity to the Island’s nautical past where it all began. The peace may even be attributed to the fading 5pm sunlight and the dissipating crowds. But whatever the cause, the calm was obvious as I observed a sense of community in this fishing precinct. Men, congregated in communal buildings playing majiang on the edge of the city. Families, unhurried, relaxed and seemingly apathetic towards the drizzle walked along the waterfront. There was an unconventional beauty here that had caught me off guard. I had not envisioned Hong Kong to be beautiful. Vibrant, yes. Mesmerising and hypnotic yes. Entertaining, unequivocally yes again. But not beautiful… and yet as the sun faded on my first day in Hong Kong, the cityscape began to illuminate. The harbour’s water still visibly blue, and the spring blossom beginning to bloom. The moment felt beautiful. The beauty went beyond what was visible and revealed a simplicity of life. A sense of unhurried calm and peace. A place that appeared to foster opportunity for collective memories amongst a community.
Rising with the sun, the day ahead was dictated by a rumour that I’d heard. That being, locals migrate to the water on weekends. I’d heard of several “secret” locations offering reprieve from the bustle of city life and I, like the locals was too allured by the lull of the sea. Veiled by dense foliage, followed by a short walk from the main road, and a series of descending steps, awaits the ‘secret’, not so secret Sai Wan Swimming Shed. A local hideout, with striking panoramic sunset views. The real photographic draw card is the pier which juts out into the Sulphur Channel and serves as a launching place for local swimmers. Feeling a world away from city stresses, Sai Wan Pier reconnects one with nature whilst providing a glimpse into local life and for a fleeting moment one could forget that you were on the edge of one of the world’s great and populous cities.
We left the water’s edge in search of the inner life of Hong Kong and arrived in Kowloon to the tune of songbirds at the Yuen Po Bird Garden. Long before it was visible, it was audible. Heard from more than one block away the melodious bird calls intermingled with the sounds of modern city life. Arriving at the garden, we found men lounging on crates, their birds suspended from trees in bamboo cages. Their faces were full of pride and adoration for their ‘pets’, many of the men willing and enthusiastic to converse with me, sharing details about their bird, despite the obvious language barrier.
Drawn further in to the heart of Hong Kong on an early, weekday morning, we found ourselves in a pastel coloured high rise courtyard. Surrounded by even higher rise public housing. Unlike the men at Yeun Po Bird Garden, we were eyed with suspicion by sixty sword wielding Grandmas and Grandpas at Choi Hung Public Housing Estate. Truth be told we were just as surprised to see them as they were to see us. In the hope of creating an Instagram worthy photo of this visually aesthetic rooftop recreational space, we’d made an early start thinking there would be no one there. We came to capture where locals lived, and instead were captivated by how locals lived. Every inch of the court was utilised by the locals and with each fluid Tai Chi gesture a cliché was made real with the motion of their sweeping swords and oriental fans.
Thanks to the Hong Kong Tourism Board I had a truly unexpected experience. I boarded Hong Kong’s last remaining junk boat expecting a touristy and slightly kitsch experience, but what I experienced was truly remarkable. The sun dipped below the horizon, silhouetting the city buildings. The junk boat was uncrowded, with a glass of red in hand, the wind whipping my hair and the air unseasonably warm, it was in this exact moment that Hong Kong won me over whole heartedly. Here on the water’s edge I connected to the heart of Hong Kong’s present and past.