All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2014, 2015
Before I was born, my parents lived in Hong Kong for two years. I grew up hearing stories and pouring over photo album after photo album of the place. It planted a seed inside my mind and it was always at the top of the list for when I was old enough to take off around the world. I wanted to feel a connection to the feelings I got about the place growing up – from pictures, anecdotes, scrapbooks filled with books of matches from strangely named bars, and ancient Lonely Planets that had ended up on the family bookshelf – and therefore to feel a connection to my parents’ experiences of living there.
I was very lucky to make it to Hong Kong at all. I woke up two hours before my flight took off, knowing full well the coach from my town takes two hours and ten minutes to reach the airport. It was also Korean Thanksgiving weekend so the traffic was near-enough guaranteed to be abominable. You could say that the odds were stacked against me. I woke up not to an alarm, but to the sound of an inner-voice screaming. I began shaking even before reaching for my phone to check the time, as it was very light outside my window and I had planned to wake up sometime in the hours of complete darkness. Upon visually confirming the time, I leapt out of bed and temporarily lost my mind – I wasted a valuable ten minutes walking around in a tight and naked circle, unable to think a single coherent thought except for some basic momentary firing of synapses leading to the muttering of expletives. Eventually I pulled both myself together AND some clothes on, swung on my backpack and sprinted up and over the jagged steps into the park that leads to the main street and the taxi rank. I pleaded with the taxi driver for help. Miraculously, this marvellous man who must have been in his late fifties, spoke back to me in good English – ‘Tell me the time of your flight’. I did, and he said ‘I think you have missed it already’. It really did seem like it. Fortunately, he was totally okay with doubling the speed limit in places – and the sensationalist Korean media had done such a good job of scaremongering about road conditions that the roads were in fact deserted! These factors combined so that I was at the airport 50 minutes later, in plenty of time for my flight. I printed out my boarding pass and went through customs.
Once at Hong Kong airport, I followed signs for luxury shower rooms. Like a soiled tramp, I wandered into the private arrivals lounge and paid quite a lot of money for the use of a private cubicle. I took an expensive taxi ride across Lantau island (why I didn’t just take the bus is even a mystery to me) and arrived in Tai O – a fishing village that has remained nearly entirely the same whilst the actual city has transformed. The whole village is built on stilts over the water, and it is very much a working place – but also geared for tourists at the same time. I queued up for a boat trip around the stilt houses, that then took us out into the open South China Sea to search for local Pink Dolphins. I really enjoyed the whole experience, and noted that it really can’t have changed that much since the early eighties – still the same houses on stilts, temples burning the same heady incense. Later on my first day, I took the metro from the main town on Lantau island all the way to Jordan station on Kowloon side. My accommodation was Hakkas Guest house, third floor of New Lucky House on the corner of Nathan and Jordan. It wasn’t pleasant but at least there was mould growing everywhere. The beauty of it, however, was that you walk out of exit B1 of Nathan metro and the entrance to the building is right there in front of you. It’s owned by an old Hong Kong gent by the name of Kevin Koo, who is as mad as a box of frogs, overbearing and highly annoying – he just doesn’t shut up, then when it’s at last your turn to talk he doesn’t listen because he’s just pausing for air. My Lonely Planet promised a good chance that he would invite me hiking in the New Territories on the Sunday, but I think I’d have refused on the grounds that I would’ve probably ended up dashing his head against a rock until movement ceased. It’s true that I have added reason to be Anti-Koo, and that is that my laptop stopped working under suspicious circumstances during my stay at Hakkas. After 7pm each day, Koo buggers off home and a 7 foot Chinese mute takes over the reception desk. It was tremendous fun getting home night after night at about 5am and waking up this ogre. After ringing the doorbell of the Guesthouse, I’d hear banging and crashing, then a light would come on and he would come to the door in his underwear. From the look on his face, I could actually see him searching his mind for details of where he was, what his name was and why he was answering a door in the first place. As soon as he swung it open I dived past him and into my room, looking back briefly over my shoulder to see in the gloomy light a sudden shock of recognition flash across his face. The penny’d dropped. He’d remembered his name.
My first night, I walked down Nathan Road from Jordan metro station to the Kowloon Star Ferry terminal. I had been expecting something resembling chaos. My mother even skyped me as I was walking. “I’m on the Nathan Road, Mum!”. “Be careful! Oh that place’s just like Blackpool now”, came the response. Well, that was a speculation based on 25 years of absence – completely untrue. I felt totally safe, offered to have a suit made for me just three times – and I was only offered drugs once! “Oh mum, I’m walking past Chungking Mansions now” – “You wanna buy some hashish, my friend?” said the short Indian man in front of me. I burst out laughing. I was obviously on the phone, did he expect me to get a note out and do a one-handed drug deal on the street?! Once at the harbour front, I stood and drank in the overwhelming skyline. Superlatives abound – one of the top ten sights of my life and it’s likely to stay that way no matter where I go. The crossing on the Star Ferry to Wan Chai was very exciting, although it’s reportedly a much shorter journey than it used to be because Hong Kong harbour has been extended out into the water on reclaimed land. Still, the same iconic boats are in operation, so it felt special. My heart leapt at the sight of a quote on a Star Ferry poster, taken from National Geographic – “Crossing Hong Kong harbour on the Star Ferry is one of the top 50 travel experiences of a lifetime”.
Later I met a Couchsurfer in Causeway Bay, by the name of Kelvy Wong. She worked for a top modelling agency, and as such had managed to get me on the guestlist for two of the most exclusive clubs in the entire city – usually the reserve of models and movie stars, tonight ‘Play’ and ‘Volar’ were our stomping grounds. We ate Japanese food, including the part of the squid not normally eaten (the gristly bone from inside). The clubs were in Lan Kwai Fong, the main nightlife area on Hong Kong island. On the way from Causeway Bay to Central, we rode on an ancient tram and Kelvy gave me the lo-down on what to say to her gossiping colleagues upon meeting them. She didn’t want rumours about us, and apparently their minds weren’t open enough for the concept of ‘couchsurfing’ to be a reasonable excuse. We spun a yarn that I was a friend of a friend from London, and she had been asked by said friend to show me a good time in Hong Kong. Waterproof. Lan Kwai Fong was reportedly nothing to speak of in the early eighties, so the investigative stuff was put on hold for the night. We had our names checked off by doormen, whilst a long line of folk were being steadily turned away for not being famous enough. Some of the looks we got. Out on the street it was meltingly hot and humid, and I was sweating badly from my face. This probably helped the doormen to identify me as a ‘celebrity’ – “Hello Sir. You’re obviously on copious amounts of cocaine. Come on in. Would you care for a face towel?”. Once inside I mopped up before meeting Kelvy’s colleagues from the modelling agency. They were very attractive and friendly to me for the whole night, I genuinely thought they had liked me until she told me later that they are the fakest people she knows. Oh well, there was much fun to be had mocking vain Russian male models. Kelvy and I set about stealing their headbands and laughing at their reactions. There was a lot of gurning going on. “Are they on drugs, Kelvy?”. “No Ben, don’t be silly!”. Volar was more of the same but bigger and even more pretentiousness. I enjoyed it hugely for one night and one night only. Any more though, and I just couldn’t have coped. We caught a 24hr minibus back to Kowloon side, and spent the early hours stalking the side streets off of Nathan Road in search of food. We found a shop called Ebeneezer’s, serving a multitude of food for drunks. I had me a delicious Doner kebab. She had a not-so-pleasant fish curry. Then home!
The next day, I travelled North to Mong Kok. At one time the most densely populated place on Earth, it’s a lively, atmospheric shopping district that I loved. I bought a new belt because my trousers were falling down to my knees at an embarassing frequency, then found a Cantonese diner for lunch. A portion of challenging size was placed before me – fried noodles with beef brisket and pak choi. Delightful! I then went back to the subway station, where I was surprised to have my name shouted a number of times. Surely this was for somebody else? I was a long way from Korea, and I didn’t know anyone in Hong Kong. Turns out it was Clare, best friend of Frank’s ex-Korean girlfriend Boram. She was on holiday too, visiting her friend Pris who was also now standing in front of me. They invited me for Dim Sum. I cursed myself for having just eaten such a cripplingly large plate of food, because eating Dim Sum was at the top of my ‘Not to leave Hong Kong without doing’ list. Now I was being invited by a local, promising one of the best places to get it that she knew of. I swallowed and accepted the invite. We soon found ourselves upstairs in a huge place decked out in gold, many locals at tables – this was the place to be! Pris’ boyfriend was waiting at a round table at the edge of the dining room. Introductions were made, and we just started ordering and eating. Dim Sum – one of the most enjoyable eating experiences of my life. Loved every bite. The rest of the day we walked and walked around shopping malls – not much soul or culture to be found there. Kowloon Park was really fun for a walk though – they had flamingos and turtles everywhere. That night we watched the light show down at the harbour, before catching a train into the New Territories right to the end of the line. A ‘town’ called Tien Mun, population 500,000. It was the Mid-Autumn full moon festival. We found Tien Mun park and walked amongst hundreds of families celebrating in the traditional way of eating ‘mooncakes’. The moon hung in the sky, bigger than I’ve ever seen it, and it reflected in the park’s lake as dozens of remote controlled miniature boats decked out in flashing lights and glowsticks zoomed across the surface. They sent ripples in all directions, and for a moment the lights appeared to be reflections of the sky.
I spent Sunday hiking on Lamma island. It was a needed excursion after the overdose of commercialism provided by Hong Kong island and Kowloon. I had a great day just walking through jungle paths. I took a detour right to the Southern coast of the island, and stayed far too long at the entirely deserted beach that I found at the bottom of the hill. So long in fact, it got dark. I then enjoyed pushing on through sections of path covered by thick jungle canopy, and in the light I had already seen spiders as big as one of Jon’s kindergarten students. I sang. LOUDLY. At the island’s second ferry pier, I purposely missed the soon to depart ferry and sat down for a set meal for one at a seafood restaurant. Squid, prawns, scallops, beer – well deserved.
That night I found a lively Irish bar. I thought about the trip over a pint of Guiness. The parts that I enjoyed the most were the parts where I could just feel nothing had changed for years. Lamma island and Tai O on Lantau island in particular. I loved that Lamma was car free, and had never seen a car on its shores in the island’s entire history. Shame about the power station. If I was to go back, I would go with someone. As much as I love travelling alone, there are some travel experiences that just need to be shared with someone you know. On Sunday night I took the Peak Tram to the top expecting to be kicked in the face by the view, instead I was stabbed with a big, icy javelin of loneliness as happy couples fawned around me, mocking me with their laughter. A marvellous time was had everywhere I went, but the faceless shopping malls were all the same. I could have been anywhere. I could happily go without seeing another fucking Louis Vuitton shop for as long as I live. Unfortunately, this is a major side to Hong Kong.
Weeks later, my mum returned to Hong Kong after more than a quarter of a century. Upon her return to Seoul, we walked down the hill towards the main drag of Gangnam. I held back the story of my experience there, and asked about her trip back. “I took a taxi on Kowloon side to the road where I used to work at the hospital. The taxi driver pulled over and said ‘This is it’. I asked him if he was sure, and he said yes. I got out and recognised nothing. I walked up and down, the hospital had been torn down along with the rest of the buildings that had once lined the road. All that was the same was the street name. Same all over. It’s all changed Ben, it’s all changed!’. Her voice was strained and I could see her holding back tears.