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Life in Neon, Hong Kong


Above the crowds of Causeway Bay, the late afternoon sunlight floods onto oversized billboards and stacks of grimy air conditioner units. The traffic light is ticking red as a mass of pedestrians swarm noiselessly across the intersection.

I am on the top deck of an old electric tram, taking the slow route across the northern shore of Hong Kong Island. Affectionately known as “ding ding”, these lovable, gentle beasts have been plying the streets for more than a century.

With nothing else to do, I sit comfortably in my seat, observing and listening to my fellow passengers. The two women behind me are speaking a soft, soothing form of Mandarin. Just up ahead a local girl, dolled up in blue eye shadow and a floral patterned dress, chatters with an excitable young German. He leans his head out the window, almost recklessly.

We glide past I. M. Pei’s irreverent Bank of China Tower and into the colonial realm of Statue Square. On one side the old Legislative Council building sits in sombre granite, pediment still adorned with the Lion and the Unicorn. Across the paving stones the first in a trail of designer superstores – Armani, Bulgari, Prada and Louis Vuitton, where the moneyed elite and wealthy mainland visitors drop thousands each day.

The tram rumbles beneath a pedestrian walkway and slows to a halt. I am heading for the undefined boundary between Central and Sheung Wan, a district that smells more of dried seafood, Chinese medicine and the occasional whiff of incense.

Pawn shop

Peel Street

“Egg lights”, common to all the city’s wet markets

Fishmongers on Gage Street

Fruit sellers

Side-stepping to avoid the pools dotting the worn concrete, I weave my way through a maze of fresh produce, scented flowers, Styrofoam boxes, and further up the hill, dried noodles and neat rows of fish, all of it protected under makeshift canopies in green and stripy flashes of blue and red. It’s gritty, grimy and just a touch chaotic, but it’s the real Hong Kong.

On Gage Street it takes me a moment to recognise my surroundings. A row of shop fronts have already disappeared, sheathed behind a curtain of bamboo scaffolding. Plans have been approved to demolish three entire city blocks, making way for a hotel, a high-rise office building and two residential towers. The street market, ironically, will be replaced with a sterilised version of its former self.

I can see the future from where I am standing. Just down the slope a warren of narrow streets have been totally obliterated, bulldozed for a glossy cathedral to commerce that also serves as Hong Kong’s fifth-tallest skyscraper. Like a spaceship it hovers silently over bubbling fountains and stands of imitation bamboo.

When night falls I return to the tram line running along Des Voeux Road. A steady stream of double-deckers thunder past, rolling beside pavements now emptying of weekend shoppers. Life is stressful, tiring and often unforgiving in Hong Kong, but in spite of all the city’s flaws, it’s still home.

Noodle stall

Graham Street Market

In the shadow of giants

Evening traffic

Anyone for shrimp?

Another seafood restaurant

Des Voeux Road

Art piece by night

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. nice post. Ive not been to HK yet, but I wanna take the ding ding too ! really like your photos, hard to photo ‘lights’ ! The light in ‘peel street’ is especially lovely .

    March 24, 2012
    • The ding ding is a fantastic way to get around Hong Kong – there’s so much to see along the route and it’s very cheap. Thanks for reading, Tanya!

      March 24, 2012
  2. James, those photographs bring back some sweet memories. Thanks for writing this post and taking those shots of the ubiquitous neon signs. They remind me of how pleasant my trip to Hong Kong was (despite the fog in earlier days).

    March 24, 2012
    • You’ll have to come back sometime in the summer, Bama. There are a number of places I’m sure you would love!

      March 24, 2012
  3. It breaks my heart when I read about neighbourhoods full of personnality being destroyed for (more profitable) skyscrapers, however brilliant architecturally they might be.
    I saw in Osaka, hidden behind our very high rise hotel, a tiny restaurant with flapping leather curtains for doors and bonsaï pots on the sidewalk. All around you’d only see inhuman gigantic geometry and speedways…

    I love the post, thank you.

    March 24, 2012
    • Unfortunately that seems to be the common trend throughout much of Asia – very little thought is given to the conservation of beautiful old buildings, communities and long-standing social networks.

      Here in Hong Kong there’s a movement fighting to keep the market alive, we’ve lost a lot of our heritage in recent years and the general public is clearly incensed with both the government and the big-name property developers.

      March 24, 2012
  4. I love the markets in Hong Kong!

    March 25, 2012
    • Agreed – they offer so much for the senses!

      March 25, 2012
  5. I would live to visit Hong Kong. What do you do there?

    March 26, 2012
    • I’ve been working at a hotel but now I am looking for other possibilities. Most of my family live here so it seemed like the right thing to come back for a while.

      March 26, 2012
      • Oh…so is that where you perfect your English?!

        March 26, 2012
      • Nah, not really. I went to an international school from a very early age – hence I’ve been speaking English for practically my entire life.

        March 26, 2012
  6. 852!!! did you go for spicy crab under the bridge??? you have to!!

    March 26, 2012
    • That sounds delicious!! I’ll have to keep an eye out for it on my next little wander!

      March 27, 2012
      • it’s amazing!!! if you haven’t been you have to go, it’s in wanchai

        March 27, 2012
      • Thanks for the tip!!

        March 27, 2012
  7. Your wonderful photographs stirred up some memories! On our second trip to HK we stayed close to the Macau ferry terminal.minutes from the tram stop and used it extensively! All the way to the racecourse and back one evening (our horse won us a princely 200HKD :-))! Loved the slow journey across town!

    April 1, 2012
    • The tram is perhaps the most charming way to get around the city. I too won 200 dollars on my first time at the races, they told me it was beginner’s luck!

      April 2, 2012
  8. wonderful shots … you really captured the colorful nighttime world of hong kong. i’ve been to many of the locations in your pics, and it brings back many memories of one of my favorite cities.

    June 15, 2012
    • Thanks Stephen, one of these days I’ll have to visit the Temple Street Night Market – can’t remember the last time I went, if ever!

      June 15, 2012

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