In Hong Kong, there are endless ways to celebrate any occasion (real, imagined, or adopted from somewhere else), for better or worse. However, after reveling in the Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival, Halloween, Mardi Gras, and Carnival, and before we begin our winter holiday celebrations both here and abroad, I feel it’s appropriate to reflect for a moment on the more humble and authentic (although not quieter) side of HK.
Seemingly a world away from the the glitzy and glamorous stereotype of HK, on the western side of Kowloon, lies a grittier area nestled within the neighborhoods of Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po. Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. With that, comes both a high-energy neighborhood chock full of bargain shopping streets/markets and cheap eats, as well as the overwhelming congestion of many of its residents, often living in so-called ‘caged homes’ or tiny subdivided apartments. You may have seen examples of these in shockingly claustrophobic apartment ‘aerial’ photos taken by Benny Lam and featured on the Hong Wrong blog. Granted, Mong Kok has its more luxurious, ‘5-star hotel’ façade, but I’m more interested in exploring and understanding its humbler underpinnings and the nearby ‘authentic’ Sham Shui Po area.
Poverty is sadly prominent in this area (and others), and with HK’s first official poverty threshold established just a few months ago, this will become more quantifiable. Right now, there are well over a million people in cosmopolitan HK living in poverty (with at least 100,000 of them living in caged homes or subdivided apartments). Prostitution is not uncommon in certain parts including Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po, and there are ‘Triad’ operations here (Chinese mafia involved in drugs, crime, and prostitution). Of course, the hope is for successful urban renewal, but as always, there are no easy answers.
On the (mostly) brighter side of things, this area is full of color, both literally and figuratively. Mong Kok has even been dubbed by the Guiness Book of World Records as the busiest district in the world. The area is home to the famous Ladies’ Market (selling mostly ladies’ clothing, not ladies!), a few obligatory HK malls, and numerous shopping streets often with a singular focus (e.g. one street sells only electrical items, another only flowers, yet another only fabric trimmings).
I walked through this area twice, once with Mark and then again with some new friends (special thanks to Elise for being such a great educator on the area). My visit with Mark was a mostly functional one. Indeed after multiple visits to reluctant stores on the main island, we managed to find the one store in Mong Kok that was willing to special-order an item for us – for which we are still very grateful. It was honestly the best customer service we’ve received here in HK! That said, our success was immediately preceded by a series of impatient wave-offs by shopowners who knew trying to help us would be a waste of both their and our time – no English spoken. If you experience this in some shops, don’t be offended – it’s not personal.
On my repeat visit to the area, I just absorbed my surroundings, learned from Elise, and photographed as much as I thought appropriate.
A ‘bird garden’ is located on a beautiful little street and is an apparent source of pride to many locals and the tourism industry. However, I found it horrifying for many of the birds, as they are mostly either crammed into tiny cages with dozens of other birds or are tethered by chains to perches.
I’m not a fan, and I wish this ‘bird garden’ would disappear, to be honest. Seeing most of the them clamoring to get out made it that much clearer that birds are meant to be free (or at least in larger spaces).
On another note, the original location of the least expensive Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan, also resides in Mong Kok and ‘boasts’ wait times sometimes exceeding 2 hours mostly for guests to experience its famous baked barbecue pork buns. I have yet to have the patience for this, but I’ve heard they’re quite impressive! This tiny restaurant has been so successful, it has expanded to become a successful ’boutique’ restaurant chain, including a coveted spot in the IFC (one of HK’s luxury shopping malls).
Continuing in the spirit of small businesses (aspiring to become larger), Mark and I often half-joke that HK is a city in which, for a fee (and probably a pretty reasonable one), you can get almost anything made for you. Well, in Mong Kok, you can add bras to the list. Yes…bras. Sold by a man, no less. Here’s to entrepreneurship!
I hope you enjoy the rest of my visual sketches of fascinating Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po – an area rich in history, riddled with problems (at least in certain parts), but mostly filled with hopeful, hard-working people who are integral to the tapestry and culture of Hong Kong.