In The Mood for Hong Kong

A writer goes in search of the city beloved in the cinema of its greatest filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai.

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A boatwoman ferries tourists at Aberdeen Bay in Hong Kong. Photo by: Jonas Gratzer

The neighbourhood of Tsim Sha Tsui stays up late like an insomniac, tipsy on a cocktail of neon signs lining its streets. Tourists prowl up and down Nathan Road with wheelies full of sneakers and cosmetics, but locals know how to duck out and find their favourite dai pai dong serving chicken’s feet or warm egg waffles. One evening I’m caught in a roiling crowd edging towards the waterfront with baby steps. The 8 p.m. light-and-laser show is about to begin. I turn and walk in the opposite direction, past malls the size of castles, and halt outside a seedy 17-storey shopping complex.

Everybody in Hong Kong knows what Chungking Mansions is: an infamous hive of low-cost hotels, burrow-size homes, and electronic stores. It smells of heavenly kebabs and risk, like anything could happen here—a shootout, a drug deal, or a chance meeting with The One over a plate of naan and keema mattar. I’ve waited to enter this dodgy building for years after I watched Chungking Express (1994), one of my favourite Hong Kong films, where two lovelorn cops run into two enigmatic women. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) deals with his break-up by collecting cans of pineapple expiring on May 1, when he meets a nameless femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) hiding a secret beneath a blonde wig. Cop 663 (Tony Leung), freshly dumped and talking to soaps and towels around his house, encounters Faye (Faye Wong), a pixie-cut dreamer working at the snack bar he frequents.

For me, Hong Kong is divided in two. The Hong Kong of popular imaginings—vertigo-giving skyscrapers, business districts, branded boutiques, some shrines and colonial landmarks thrown in—and then the spirals of other Hong Kongs within, which only a filmmaker like Wong Kar-Wai can unravel. In Chungking, his shaky, hand-held camera took me into the nooks of his boyhood, and the blurred photography made me feel like I was looking into someone’s daydream. I could taste in his films a loneliness peculiar to living in a city of millions, of fleeting relationships that leave you feeling chipped and off-kilter. There are social themes too: the film’s opening cello score is a fit of nerves, invoking a Hong Kong eyeing a ticking clock, jittery about its impending handover to the Chinese in 1997. “I’ve become very cautious,” says the woman in the blonde wig, “When I put on a raincoat, I put on sunglasses too. Who knows when it will rain or when it will turn out sunny?”

***

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Stiletto-like buildings, Chinese signs, and ding dings (trams) lend a cinematic air to Hennessy Road. Photo by: Big Cheese Photo/Big Cheese Photo/Getty Images

That same night, I take a ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island (the city’s two main islands) and come to Lan Kwai Fong, the city’s nightlife district. Its hillside streets are strung with nightclubs and restaurants, and a techno beat is always in the air. But I’m looking for Midnight Express, the snack bar in the second part of Chungking Express. A 7-Eleven has replaced the corner where Faye mixes sauces and salads, bobbing her head to “California Dreamin’” blasted at max volume to keep out the world. So I pick up a bottle of the local Tsingtao beer from the 7-Eleven and walk down D’Aguilar Street that slants like a drunk, humming Faye’s tune to myself.

I return in the morning to Old Town Central, Hong Kong’s nucleus, with the map I’m handed at the airport. Almost two centuries after the British navy arrived at the ‘fragrant harbour,’ its lanes don period costumes and playact both their colonial and Chinese past. One minute I am standing beneath spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling at Man Mo Temple, the next I am opposite murals of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, and the third I am walking up steep Pottinger Street, lined with vendors selling party costumes and freakishly life-like masks of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin.

Imagining a flat Hong Kong is like imagining Russian vodka without its bite; the city’s high-rises then wouldn’t have an excuse to constantly brawl for space with the wild, bosky mountains that tower over them. Neither would the city come up with utterly ingenious inventions like Central’s Mid-Levels Escalator. The world’s largest pedestrian escalator, it cuts through 2,600 feet of Hong Kong’s steep hillside, carrying about a hundred thousand people every day. In Chungking Express it ferries Faye’s infatuation as she crouches and spies on Cop 663’s house beside the escalator. She is on her way to break into his house to redecorate—swapping sardine tin brands, adding new goldfish to his tank, and even spiking his drinking water with sleeping pills after he complains of insomnia. She badly wants him to get over the memories of his ex.

As I hop on and off the Mid-Levels—a series of 20 interconnected escalators—Central below spreads out like a diorama. On Gage Street, I give way to dashing waiters in Lan Fong Yuen serving ‘pantyhose milk tea’ brewed in a polyester sock-like net. At 8 Cochrane, sharp-suited bankers mill around a century-old Chinese medicine clinic serving herbal teas with names like Love-Pea Vine. Wong Kar-Wai’s films feel like scenes viewed through coin-operated binoculars. And if I stay long enough in his locations the vivid everyday comes into focus, swaying to tunes like his characters when no one’s watching.

***

In The Mood for Hong Kong

In Chungking Express (left and top-right) and In the Mood for Love (bottom right)—two of Wong Kar-Wai’s greatest films—the city is not just a location; it is the lead character. Photos by: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo/indiapicture (Chungking Express still), AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo/ indiapicture (In the Mood for Love), Featureflash Photo Agency/shutterstock (Wong Kar-Wai), Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo/indiapicture (Chungking Express)

That evening, I head to Tai Kwun arts centre to meet a friend. C was born in the late ’80s in a different Hong Kong, when it was still a British colony. As a student, he and millions across the city rose in protests during the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, when Hong Kong demanded that Beijing not meddle with its elections. When he speaks of how fast his city morphs, I only have to think back to my walkabout. So there is a quiet pleasure in the moment, as we pop cans of beer on Tai Kwun’s grounds, looking up at beautiful mid-19th-century buildings. There is existential poetry on the walls for hipsters to love, film screenings, and a soft clang of drums in the air. You almost forget that the complex was originally a prison, police station, and two courts.

C teases me when he hears about my Wong Kar-Wai-led strolls. “So, what’s next? You’ll hire a cheongsam and walk around Central? Be all Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love!” I snort and decide not to tell him that Linva Tailors, who stitched some of those gorgeous figure-hugging dresses for the actress is indeed a three-minute walk away.

We talk about an ongoing exhibition at Tai Kwun that uses everyday objects to link the past and present. For all the ways in which Hong Kong hurtles towards the future, it pines for its past like an old friend. I first sense this wistfulness in Wong Kar-Wai’s most famous film, In The Mood For Love (2000), following two neighbors—Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung—who discover their spouses are having an affair. The film is also Wong Kar-Wai’s love poem to the golden years of Hong Kong: the early 1960s. Born in Shanghai in 1956, he moved to Hong Kong aged five to inhabit that city lost to time. He shapes that longing tenderly: scenes awash in crimsons and chromes; steamy kitchens with wizened cooks packing dim sums in aluminium tiffins; actors framed in artful, almost voyeuristic frames to capture Hong Kong’s ever-cramped rooms and stairways.

If that city can still be found, it is back in Kowloon.

***

In the Mong Kok suburb of Kowloon, stiletto-like buildings come in all the colors of candy. Curvy old Chinese typefaces outside shops will hawk things you can’t read and don’t need but will pine for. Somehow, almost every street you turn into will be lined with caravans of red minibuses. These are Hong Kong’s cheap rides that connect the remotest corners. (If you hop on one, hold on tight as it swerves and streaks like the Knight Bus, and scream “YAU LOK!” when you want to get off.)

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Central teems with high-rises and tussles with space, but it isn’t impossible to find your own pocket of calm. Photo by: Jonas Gratzer

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For the writer, strolling across Hong Kong becomes a quest to see everyday life that looks right out of a Wong Kar-Wai film, be it in steamy kitchens (top), or restaurants served by robots (bottom). Photos by: Jonas Gratzer

 

Walking into the always-full Kam Wah café, a typical cha chaan teng (no-frills, 1950s-style diner serving an array of Western and Chinese fare), I dap toi (share a table) with seven others. I wave at a blur that’s the waitress, and she zooms in to hand me an English menu. No smiles, no small talk; in fact, I feel like a nuisance when I linger over her plastic-sheathed booklet for too long. I love it.

A feast arrives, one like I’ve never seen. The red bean frappes and iced Ovaltine are claimed by the gang of schoolgirls on my table. The couple with the fussy-eater kid stuff him with instant noodles topped with ham and egg. The uncle with thin hair and basset-hound eyes eats his corned beef sandwich as if in meditation. It’s a frame Wong Kar-Wai would’ve been proud of, where actors emote with postures and glances more than words. I bite into a bo luo bao—the gold, sugar-crusted “pineapple bun” hiding a thick slab of butter, which tastes like my favourite song. The egg tart and fried noodles with diced pork make me want to hug everyone at the table. Instead, I too bend my head down and join the orchestra of noodle-slurps.

I begin to see how Hong Kong wasn’t just the setting in the movies I’d loved; it was the lead character, always. Wong Kar-Wai rarely came to the set with a script, and he scouted for locations before he wrote anything. “[In this city] the space tells you what the characters are, why they’re there,” he once said. So I too begin moving through Hong Kong like he would, intuitively, not just tracing film locations. I walk around Mong Kok in circles, through saturated neon-filled streets I’d seen in As Tears Go By (his 1988 directorial debut), and start entering just about any place. I find myself in an underground videogame arcade, Game Zone, where everyone’s half my age and no one can hear each other over the metallic scores. I follow a girl dressed in a pinafore—a lacy white bow in her hair, game face on. She wins every Mai Mai game she plays. Above ground, the area’s Flower and Ladies Markets teem with people. At the nearby Yuen Po Bird Garden, I don’t quite know what to feel about the elderly men carrying their birds in carved bamboo cages, so I leave.

Walking south I end up in neighborhoods where the opium dens of the 1900s and the gang wars of the ’80s have given way to Broadway Cinematheque, which screens only art films (I pick up a certain filmmaker’s poster near the box office). Armed with a rose iced coffee from its café-bookstore—named after Stanley Kubrick—I move on. Outside, an old building is being demolished but another is painted high with a beautiful mural of a boy and his bike, and a Space Invader peers from the corner.

***

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Few places in Hong Kong are as joyful as the Kowloon Promenade. Photo by: Jonas Gratzer

My last stop in the search for an older Hong Kong is Sham Shui Po, a former fishing village. Hong Kongers visit it when in need of cheap gadgets or a meal at Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-star joint where dim sums cost only HKD20/Rs.175. A cautious op-ed I’d read in a local newspaper wondered if the suburb has what it takes to be London’s Shoreditch or NYC’s Brooklyn.

Sham Shui Po’s salmon, jade, and blue-white buildings don’t reach for the sky; they curve voluptuously at the corners. People haggle at open street markets with the rare passion they reserve for the weekend. There’s a lone barber’s chair in a back alley, where the man gives the ritual the time it truly deserves. I turn into a street that sells buttons—only buttons. The next one, beads. The street after, leather. Then ribbons. Toys—weird, wacky, crazy toys. I stop counting the number of shrines I spot at the bottom of buildings’ doorways—a red plaque and a pot to light joss sticks, believed to bless the people living within. Folks actually stop to talk to each other in the streets; the lilt of Cantonese swings in corners. Here time works in loops, and it’s easy to see how a sense of community glues Sham Shui Po in place.

Talking to a woman who left her investment banking career to manage the family shop, Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, where a red T-shirted army whips up silken beancurd pudding that still tastes of the ’60s, I am lulled into feeling that Sham Shui Po is in no danger of disappearing. And just a few streets down, I meet 30-something Au-Yeung Ping-chi who sits at Bo Wah, the store his father founded in the ’60s that makes paper effigies burnt as ritual offerings to ancestors. Change for now just takes the form of orders for smartphones and electric guitars (along with the usual paper money and gold offerings) for the cooler dead. Yet as evening comes, I notice the hipster cafés and design boutiques already bracketing old bakeries. Maybe it is still just a matter of time until real estate prices rise, leaving Sham Shui Po’s old-timers out of breath.

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Wan Chai is a suburb of contrasts where everything has its place, be it clubs, malls, or the practitioners of ‘villain-hitting’ (in picture) who sit under flyovers. Photo by: Jonas Gratzer

Like all big cities, Hong Kong is cross-stitched with stories; tug at one thread and a new tale comes undone. This is the doorway Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema opens for me. And why I catch late-night ding dings (trams) going to districts I am clueless about, just to feel the imagined Hong Kong of the night like in Days of Being Wild (1990). I keep returning like a homing pigeon to places I am most invisible and happiest in. I walk along the tents of face readers outside Temple Street’s Night Market. They beckon urgently, promising to reveal my fortune—in English. If I could, I’d tell them I’d already found it on a treasure hunt on an island by a fragrant harbour in the South China Sea.

 

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Photos by: kirpmun/shutterstock (dim sum), francoimage/shutterstock (dragon), Morkhatenok/shutterstock (dai pai dong), Glowonconcept/shutterstock (egg tart), Alan Benge/shutterstock (tram)

 

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Essentials

Direct flights connect Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru to Hong Kong. Fill up a pre-arrival registration form for a visa-free stay for up to 14 days (www.immd.gov.hk). The Airport Express and buses are the best ways to get to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Pro Tip: Get an Octopus card for hassle-free metro travel (HKD150/Rs1,335; including refundable deposit worth HKD50/Rs445).

 

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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