Archive for August 19th, 2011

Hong Kong

Rain and ocean spray blurred the entrance to Hong Kong harbour. The ferry windows were near opaque with streaks of water, and the low, heavy clouds cropped the horizon. I was coming in from Macao, on a choppy sea, with an English chap whom I suspected of having Tourettes. As the express boat bobbed and slapped on the waves, I wandered up and down the aisles, looking for photographs and trying to avoid any further conversations with my odd companion.

The night before a typhoon had struck and my flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong had been cancelled. There was the usual chaos at the airport with passengers being unnecessarily rude to staff and the airline being unnecessarily unhelpful to passengers. I sat it out with a Coke and let the more enraged customers do the hard work. One American lady, whose name was Rebecca, performed admirably. She locked horns with Air Asia and ensured that we would all be compensated with standby flights the following morning. Her next trick was to make sure we got accommodation for the evening, at a significant discount, in a hotel near the airport. Nice.

I was so impressed, I went and congratulated her and, next thing, we were a team. It was at this point that the English chap, let’s call him Harry, joined us. He did not cease talking for the next few hours, irrespective of whether or not someone else was speaking at the time. Whilst he did not actually exhibit the random swearing associated with Tourettes, his continuous, involuntary and very pronounced talking and blinking was suggestive of the condition. At first I liked him, and I tried very hard to continue liking him, but after a few hours, I was ready to lose him at the first opportunity. Rebecca soon became his best friend as well, and when the three of us, plus several others, arrived at our hotel in a minivan, it was a real tussle to avoid being his chosen interlocutor.

When we arrived at the airport the following morning, the best they could do was fly us to Macao. This was fine with me, except that I wound up sitting next to Harry. I was working hard to be friendly with him and felt guilty that I wasn’t enjoying his company, but he was genuinely getting on my nerves.

As we neared Macao, we passed through the very typhoon that had caused all the trouble in the first place. Sitting beside the wings, I watched the heavy rain rush violently over the engines. It was a little unsettling, especially with the turbulence, but this was as nothing compared to the reaction of my companion. Harry became utterly terrified, and curled up in his seat, flinching keenly at every bump. He talked his way through the entire experience, saying over and over things like “we’re going to die, we’re going to die,” “I should have stayed in Bangkok!” “Why did we have to catch this flight!” “That wing’s going to fall off!” “Tell me we’re not going to die!” and so on. I felt a mixture of pity and embarrassment on his behalf, especially when two Chinese girls across the aisle began giggling at him. I tried my best to reassure him, offering soothing phrases such as “come now, we’ll be all right, chin up”, but in truth, he’d gone and put the fear of crashing in me and, for the first time ever on a flight, I too thought we might actually die. I was pleased that I managed to remain so cool.

Needless to say, we landed safely in Macao a short while later. Our bad buddy movie did not stop there, however, for we still had a long bus and ferry ride together, followed by a taxi to Nathan Rd in Kowloon, where, it just so happened, we were staying in adjacent hotels. Fortunately, however, I had lost my mobile phone on the ferry and there was little hope of me making any further efforts to continue our acquaintance. I did indeed feel guilty, after all, we’d been through a lot together, but Harry had almost driven me entirely bonkers and I couldn’t risk going all the way.

So there I was in Hong Kong. For the five weeks previous, I had been travelling through Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand and I was pleased to be in the presence of some startlingly different subject matter. Most of the places I’d visited, with the exception of Bangkok, which had astonished me with its modernity, were nothing like this. They were either shabby and run down, places where urban neglect weighed heavily, or they were simply small towns, often picturesque, but with no real high-rise development. Hong Kong had the immediate promise of arresting landscape and architecture, and I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of this contrast.

Over the next few days I spent my time wandering around Hong Kong, shooting everything of interest. At first I found it hard to make the most of the subject matter. Architecture makes a great subject for geometrical compositions, but without living subjects it lacks a sense of scale and humanity and risks appearing too sterile. For all the high-rise modernity around me, some of it rather old and weathered, I struggled to find the right tone, angles and themes to give import to the metropolis. It took a while to dawn on me that the abundant great architecture, alongside the dire, and the special geography of Hong Kong, were, in effect, a grand distraction. The sharp jab of the The Peak, the tall, forested hills, the wide embrace of the harbour – at once brooding and light-hearted – and the serried needle apartments, were all an elegant backdrop for the people. It was people I’d focussed on in Cambodia and Vietnam, and, just as in those countries, I soon found the people of Hong Kong to be priceless subjects.

On the second morning of my visit, having moved very early across the water from Mon Kok to Wan Chai, I took a long walk around the neighbourhood. The sidewalks provided a constant stream of locals and visitors and, as is always the case with so many people, it was a great chance to capture diverse narratives within a single frame. It was a golden morning and I got off to a pleasing start in what ultimately proved to be one of my favourite shooting days ever. I began locally, doing laps of the blocks, then drifted off along Hennessy Rd and started trawling all the side-streets. I soon stumbled upon a glorious meat market. An entire street of butchers, with shirtless men in white aprons, surrounded by hanging cuts of beasts, dangling globes and a circus of shoppers – it was heaven. I have always had a love of shooting in markets, especially meat and fish markets. In Venice, Siem Reap, Hanoi, Darjeeling, Chiang Mai, New Delhi, New York, Singapore, Sarajevo, Tokyo and Jodhpur to name a few, I’ve gotten some of my favourite photographs.

On this day I spent about forty minutes with the butchers, then made my way up towards The Peak. I had not expected to be so impressed by the view, but it was powerful and wide. The clarity of the light and the grandeur of this seemingly smog-free hive lifted me into a thrill. Before me was one of the greatest cityscapes on the planet, a place of chaos, romance and legend. A hot bustle of enterprise and slog, a fracas in perpetual motion, it was stunning. When I left The Peak, I made my way down to the harbour, which now seemed easier to interpret. The weather was proving an unexpected boon. For weeks on end I’d been shooting in a haze, with glaring off-white skies and washy sunlight. Here at last the sky was a rich blue and the sunlight clean and sharp. I took the ferry across the harbour, back and forth a few times, and wandered along the overpasses looking for vistas. When the afternoon finally drew down and the sun hung low in the harbour mouth, I was fortunate to witness some magnificent illuminations and plays of light.

Anyway, enough out of me. Enjoy the photographs, all of which were taken Monday, July 20, 2009. They are not in chronological order.


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