You can cross Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and Hong Kong by ferry or by any one of the five road and rail tunnels. Millions do it every day. But when a fellow expat said ‘I’ve been to North America more times than Kowloon,’ there was mild amusement among our group of drinkers, but no great surprise.
When I moved to Hong Kong in spring 2015, I knew there was more to the territory than beaches and brunches. I’d come for a different cultural experience.
Growing up in Scotland, the images I had of Hong Kong were not of malls and five-star hotels. They were of low-rise apartment blocks with rounded corners and ornate balcony railings, street butchers, crowded business signs and tattered awnings.
So as soon as I could, I headed over the water. Every spare hour I had was spent plunging deeper and deeper into Kowloon’s hinterland.
I got a kick out of walking around Cheung Sha Wan and Sham Shui Po – the real-life versions of what I’d seen in books, postcards and on TV. Many tong lau buildings here have kept the pastel colours that they were painted decades ago; and while the rounded corners were never designed to be decorative (they were built that way to improve drivers’ visibility of pedestrians and traffic at intersections), they’re a welcoming difference to the glass towers of Central and Causeway Bay.
The narrower the street, the further back into Hong Kong’s history you go. Look up and you might notice old stained cloths in holes of broken windows that had probably been stuffed into them decades ago; or the signs of long-gone businesses still hanging strong on their rusty bolts. I filled my Instagram with photos of men shimmying up bamboo poles, crumbling shophouses and old markets.
Click – butchers selling from brightly painted street-facing counters, with flickering old neon signs above. Click – people frantically scrubbing clay pots and their street ovens in anticipation of a busy evening of service. Click – bakers napping on their tea breaks. Click – market stall owners talking loudly to each other.
Push through the market crowds in Prince Edward and you’ll find Tai Nan Street, which is becoming incredibly popular for its galleries, craft shops, cafes and street art. Sham Shui Po’s Yiu Tung Street in the evening has some amazing food stalls and a vibrancy you don’t feel in other parts of the city. A stone’s throw from Cheung Sha Wan MTR station is Lingnan Gardens, a well-kept traditional garden with water features, rockeries, greenery and pagodas to share with old Hongkongers – with dim sum joints and local cafes nearby.
My Kowloon adventures have given me a different impression of the city to that of some of my friends. The more I left Hong Kong Island, the more snapshots I got of the peaceful, laidback, sweeter and more humble neighbourhoods.