There are two sides to every story in Hong Kong. Twenty-one years after the former British colony was returned to Chinese control, exploring this territory reveals a place that is at once ancient and modern, an urban metropolis with a sprawling rural hinterland
WORDS: KEVIN EG PERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS: ADRIENNE PITTS
TAKE A HIKE
IN THE CITY…
It’s still before dawn when the first joggers set off along the Lugard Road, the tarmacked path that circles The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island. It’s only when they reach a break in the surrounding canopy of trees that they see the city laid out below them. From this perspective, Hong Kong looks like a vast collection of toy skyscrapers, somehow amassed by a child, with over 7,800 high-rises reaching towards the heavens. As the sunlight breaks through the clouds, it lifts the film noir gloom from the city, revealing the colours of the day. Looking down, the closest tower blocks are painted in muted beige and pink while beyond them tower the gleaming glass obelisks of the bustling commercial centre. Some of these joggers will soon be heading towards them to start their working days. For now, they continue to pad around The Peak as the dawn chorus intensifies with the sun and butterflies dart through the air. This is a city that rewards the early birds.
OR IN THE COUNTRY
A world away from the heaving crowds on the streets of downtown Hong Kong, on the MacLehose Trail you’re more likely to have your path crossed by a scuttling land crab. Chirping crickets replace the sound of traffic. The long and winding route curls around the Sai Kung Peninsula, before heading west across the New Territories and is evidence of a startling, oft-forgotten fact about Hong Kong: despite being one of the planet’s most densely-populated places, less than 25 per cent of its total area has been concreted. The vast majority of its land remains as it always has been: grassland, woodland and shrubland. This makes for unexpectedly fine hiking. Soon after setting out eastward on the MacLehose Trail, walkers are afforded perfect views down over the shimmering waters of the High Island Reservoir and up towards Sai Wan Shan, a grand peak that itself will be dwarfed further along the trail by the New Territories’ central mountains. When the trail reaches the coast, it dips down towards the gorgeous wave-lapped beaches of Long Ke and Sai Wan, where sweaty hikers reward themselves by stripping off and splashing into the cool water.
ADMIRE THE ARCHITECTURE
IN THE AIR…
In the shabby courtyard, a trash fire burns in a metal barrel. An old woman sweeps the dusty floor outside Cleanly Cleaners, just along from a salon named Hair Show and a little shop with an old neon sign advertising foot massages. In the centre of the square, a gaggle of tourists is taking pictures of one another on their phones, crouching low to the ground to find an angle that can capture the huge edifice behind their friends. This is one of Hong Kong’s most photographed buildings, yet it’s not a temple or seat of government. Yick Fat was built in 1972 as simply another public housing tenement block, but it’s become an emblem of a city where lives are lived bunched close, one on top of another. The building is just one of five densely-built residential buildings on the block, together comprising 2,243 flats that are home to around 10,000 people. Above the heads of the amateur photographers, laundry hangs from windows on each of the 19 floors beside precariously-balanced air conditioners. Satisfied with their photos, the tourists disappear, leaving behind the residents of this monument to urban living.
OR BY THE SEA
Hong Kong takes its name from a phonetic Anglicisation of a Cantonese phrase meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’, although it’s hard to imagine anyone ever describing the traditional fishing village of Tai O as ‘fragrant’. In the quiet streets that run past market stalls, the air is thick with the smell of drying fish and octopus, fried fish bladder and fermented shrimp paste. Built around an inlet on the western coast of mountainous Lantau Island, Tai O is a time capsule of Hong Kong as it was before high commerce arrived. The Tanka people have lived here for centuries much as they do now, in simple homes built mainly from tin, which jut out over the water on stilts with fishing boats moored alongside them like cars in driveways. They are the only motor vehicles to be seen as the narrow streets are fit only for bicycles, tricycles and wheelchairs. Nowadays, most of the fishermen are retirees, like 77-year-old Mr Fung. He gave up work 30 years ago, encouraged by his three sons and two daughters. ‘‘It is very tough to be a fisherman,’’ he says. ‘‘During my youth, the catch was good, and we could sell it to mainland China. Then, after a while, the catch got smaller and my children asked me to stop.’’ Mr Fung’s children now all work in the city, in construction, but still return home on weekends to see their dad and enjoy the simpler life outside the concrete metropolis.