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Hong Kong: A Photographer's Paradise

Photo taken by Edith Tse

Photo taken by Edith Tse

In the middle of January 2017, I took a one-week trip to Hong Kong. This trip was unlike any of my previous travels for a variety of reasons, which I will get into in a bit. First I’ll talk about why I chose Hong Kong and explain a little bit about the city, then I’ll get into photo gear (nerd) talk, followed by photos and travel recommendations, and I will end with some personal thoughts and conclusions about the whole trip. This post is longer than usual, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing from top to bottom ;)

Background

I had wanted to experience and photograph Hong Kong for a while. A few of my friends had gone recently, and I also follow a few Hong Kong-based Instagrammers, and I loved the photos I was seeing from them. I had been to Hong Kong twice before: once in 1999 (to see family) and most recently in 2012 (on a music missions trip).  Obviously, during each of those visits, I was a very different person, and during my last trip, I wasn’t a full-fledged urban planner or a photographer.  So although the city was somewhat familiar to me, enough to prevent major culture shock and complete confusion, it was still fresh, and I was able to approach the trip like any other adventure to a new place. I’m pretty sure that both times I visited in the past were during summer, so of course the humidity was a big negative factor and didn’t help my impression of the city. However, I have since come to realize that there is so much more to Hong Kong than simply another place where people lived. There is just so much to see and experience, even without looking very hard at all. While there, I felt like the whole city was like my blank canvas, and it was up to me to create artwork by using my tools and only limited by my imagination.

I had booked my flights back in December using Hopper. Whenever I track flights for upcoming trips I want to take, my primary search filter is price. I am generally fine with layovers; I am not picky about airlines. So this time, my itinerary ended up being outbound and return flights with Philippine Airlines, with a layover in Manila each direction. To make a long story short, due to the incompetence of Philippine Airlines, my original flight was cancelled, causing my entire trip to be cut short by 24 hours.  Lesson learned: flying with a better airline is worth the extra cost if it means not flying with PAL.

If you’re not familiar with Hong Kong, it’s a unique place for many reasons: it’s a blend of East/West cultures, it’s very densely populated so there are people everywhere, the local food is full of distinct flavor, there are massive, brightly lit neon signs advertising fashion, technology, and jewelry brands at every turn... it seems like everywhere in the city has something demanding your attention. There’s something for everyone. And although the population is predominantly Chinese, there are numerous foreign expats who live and work in the city, as well as tourists from every part of the globe, making Hong Kong truly “Asia’s World City”. The city is diided into three general areas: Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and New Territories. To me, Kowloon:Hong Kong Island:New Territories was like Brooklyn:Manhattan:Queens. I could be totally wrong about that, but that’s how it felt like.

When I plan ahead for trips, seasons are a big factor for me, as I remind myself that different parts of the world actually experience different seasons, unlike San Francisco, with its year-round mild temperature range. So because Hong Kong is located closer to the equator and has a predominantly hot and humid climate, I knew that winter would be the best time to go because it would be the coolest time of year, but would never get too cold. While I was there, the weather was a pleasant 50-70 degrees or so, and yet I still saw numerous people bundled up in puffy jackets, scarves, and hats. It’s amusing to think about how we all get acclimated to our home climates, but of course temperature is relative.

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Camera Gear

Let’s talk gear for a bit: for this trip, I brought my Fujifilm X-Pro2 plus the Fujinon 35mm and 23mm f2 lenses. That kit was all I needed, really. The lenses are nice and compact, and I didn’t need to go any wider or closer for what I was planning to shoot, which was mostly street and portraits. Although, with two lenses available, I was constantly switching back and forth to see what I could get. That’s the world of multiple prime lenses with one body. More on this later. And of course, I had my trusty iPhone 6s and accessory wide lens from Moment.

Photos

Below I will recap my favorite places I experienced, with photos of each, as well as additional thoughts about Hong Kong life and culture and personal thoughts. These photos were taken with the gear I mentioned above: Fujifilm X-Pro2 with 35mm f2 and 23mm f2 lenses, and iPhone 6s, plus Moment wide lens. Try and see if you can tell which photos were taken with which device.

Yick Fat Building

On the day I arrived, I headed out to Quarry Bay to meet Justin Lim, who I had connected with over Instagram. This was the first of numerous trips that week I took on the MTR, or Mass Transit Railway, which is definitely one of the major highlights of Hong Kong for me. It spans the entire city, is quick, efficient, and frequent (a 3 minute wait is considered long). Navigation, both on the train and in the stations, is ridiculously easy, despite the sprawling nature of the station, the long trains, and the thousands upon thousands of people. When we met up, Justin took me to the Yick Fat building complex in Quarry Bay. In Hong Kong, space is limited, so expansion has only one direction to go: up.

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This is one of the more iconic examples of an apartment complex and courtyard, recently made notorious for its appearance in the downright awful Michael Bay flick Transformers: Age of Extinction. However, there’s no denying its breathtaking scale and sheer vastness. Something that I observed with myself was that I would visit all of these cool places, and then I would want to revisit them, because the first time is all about the novelty and taking photos to capture the spot, and afterwards, it sits in your brain a bit and new ideas form. So I ended up revisiting most places at least twice. Normally, I wouldn’t do this because I simply wouldn’t have enough time. But this vacation was longer than usual so I enjoyed the extra flexibility. Here are some shots from my second visit, during which I met Kumiko from Japan:

 

Choi Hung Estate

This is probably my favorite spot in Hong Kong. I came back twice for a total of three visits. Choi Hung was one of my must-see spots after I saw some photos of it on Instagram. I love color in my photos, and obviously this place is full of it. I’ve also been really liking shooting photos on ball courts, and the one at Choi Hung had plenty to offer.

The first time I visited Choi Hung was with my great-aunt, who lives there. The second and third times were with my friends Edith and Serena, respectively, each who were kind enough to model for me (mostly sitting on the ground). You can see how different lighting conditions affect the photos:

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Something I noticed during my entire trip, but especially here, was that young people in Hong Kong seem to really care about their appearance. Even just walking around the streets, I saw many people dressed to the nines. At Choi Hung, there were a good number of teenagers with impeccable outfits and makeup posing for each other to take photos. This struck me as interesting, because while I don’t see anything wrong with this behavior, it would probably be very odd to see American kids doing the same thing here, and people would probably label them as outrageously narcissistic. Although I don’t know, maybe this is the norm in L.A. Anyway...

 

Ping Shek Estate

Just across the street from Choi Hung (well it’s really through an underpass) is Ping Shek Estate, another public housing estate. It consists of four color-coded but otherwise identical buildings. The distinguishing feature of Ping Shek is the internal courtyard at the center of each building. Looking up from ground level gives the impression of being trapped in a rectangular pit. Alternatively, it looks like it could be a long pathway leading to a rectangular opening, very similar to the interior of the spacecraft in Arrival (which was an excellent film).

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Nam Shan Estate

Also in this vicinity is Nam Shan Estate, best known for its green walls and curved climbers. I shot a few photos of Edith here as well. Tip: if you want to avoid long waits for the aforementioned teenage models to finish getting their money shots, visit in the morning if you can. It’s deserted.

Sham Shui Po

I spent most of the second day of my trip with relatives. I love them, but admittedly, they were a bit of a... liability when it came to exploring, waiting for photos, and mobility in general. So in mid-afternoon of that day, I thanked them for spending time with me and (graciously as possible) insisted that I’d be fine on my own from then on. I then took a walk through the streets of Sham Shui Po, a working-class neighborhood which is known for its street markets predominantly selling cheap electronic appliances and devices. During the afternoon, the area is an excellent place for street photography because there is human activity everywhere.
 

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CityU and PolyU

Hong Kong’s universities are among the best in Asia, and some of them contain very modern and impressive architecture as well. First Edith took me to City University, which contains the Run Run Shaw Media Centre. We spent a lot of time at the exterior, which was perfect for some environmental portraits.

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The other campus we visited was Hong Kong Polytechnic University (which happens to be Edith’s alma mater), home to the Innovation Tower, designed by the late great Zaha Hadid. I don’t know as much about architecture as I should, so I will let the photos speak for themselves and also point you to this Wikipedia page. This was probably my second favorite spot because the plain gray concrete setting is very neutral (the polar opposite of Choi Hung, actually), which allowed me to explore different ideas that came to my mind on the spot and didn't become a distraction. Often, less is more.

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Sai Kung

When you roll into Sai Kung, you feel as if you’re in a different place entirely. It’s kind of off the beaten path of the main parts of Hong Kong, and it feels like a quaint countryside fishing village. We also found a building to take some portraits in.

 

Sai Wan

This is one of those spots that gets a lot of love on Instagram. The deep turquoise of the water, the crashing waves, the golden sunlight, and the isolated pier all combine to make a dramatic scene. There was actually a medium sized line- I mean queue, snaking down the steps to take photos at the pier, but I didn’t mind, because I felt that the view from up top showing the pier in the context of its surroundings is better anyway, and everyone in front of us (all very well-dressed, of course) became my models! Tip: if you want to get good golden hour shots, give yourself well over an hour before sunset, as the best light actually hits this spot before sunset, and there will likely be a wait, especially on the weekends.

 

Lai Tak Tsuen

On the last day of my trip, I met up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in 3 years: Keso Kendall. Keso was the first friend I made at my first instameet, and even though we’ve always lived halfway around the world from each other, I finally got to see her again. She’s one of the strongest, most elegant people I know. We went to Lai Tak Tsuen, which is another housing estate, but unique in that each of the high-rises is cylindrical, forming a unique point of view from all angles. The light was dramatically different depending on which of the 25+ floors (all traversed via stairs!) we were on. Tip: to get in, go to the side door and wait for someone to go in or out, then slip in. Take the stairs to go up and down and avoid the lobby at all costs.

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Other Miscellaneous Photos

Rooftopping in Mong Kok, above Ladies Market.

Rooftopping in Mong Kok, above Ladies Market.

My oldest great-aunt, at 91.

My oldest great-aunt, at 91.

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More Camera Thoughts

Shooting with my iPhone and the Fuji X-Pro2 system was incredibly freeing and enjoyable. The Fuji gear’s performance was beyond admirable, andd the iPhone is perhaps the most convenient photo-capturing device anyone could have. The two prime lenses I brought were perfect, but because I had more than one, I found myself switching back and forth quite often, because although the 50mm equivalent is my favorite focal length, I would always vacillate between that and wanting more of the context with the 35mm equivalent. Whenever I had one lens mounted, I would always think "what would this look like with the other focal length?" It’s good to have options, but if you’re not opposed to using zooms, I would definitely recommend going with Fuji’s excellent standard 18-55mm f2.8-4 OIS lens, which I used to own for a bit. I just prefer primes, but for all their advantages, they also have the potential major drawback of inconvenience. A solution to this would be to only bring one lens, but I couldn’t bear to do that.

I don’t think I need to go too deep into how great of a body the X-Pro2 is: the small form factor (not to mention the COOL factor... I felt so cool walking around with this camera around my neck), the dual card slots, the fast autofocus... all perfect for travel. I did find myself using the “WIDE/ZONE” focus area mode a lot for the street stuff combined with a stopped-down aperture like f8 or f5.6, in order to get more in focus because I usually wouldn't have a lot of time to set up the shot. I tried to make my shutter speed at least 1/200 to mitigate motion blur. I always shoot in auto ISO up to 1600, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

Going back to the iPhone a bit: I shot most photos using the native camera (29mm), but I would occasionally mount the Moment wide lens to capture more of the scene. This came in handy at places like Run Run Shaw and the Yick Fat building, where I wanted to convey a more dramatic scale. Every night when I got back to where I was staying, I would go through all the photos I took that day on my phone and pick the best ones to edit. I found that my editing workflow deviated a bit from what I normally do in two areas: saturation and upright transformations. Hong Kong is just so full of color that I couldn’t resist bumping saturation up just a little for most shots. Nothing too crazy, just enough to give it that extra pop. Also, because everything is just so TALL, and I’m super OCD about my vertical lines being as close to parallel as possible, I would often import my edited photos into SKRWT, which is an extremely useful app for adjusting horizontal and vertical perspective. The photos that were shot at street level but have very parallel lines most likely looked quite different originally ;)

Conclusion

Hong Kong is truly a photographer’s paradise. There's just so much to see, and so many amazingly photogenic spots and areas. Seven days was just about the perfect duration for me, because although I probably wouldn’t have minded having some more time to experience more locations, I also packed so much into each day that if I had stayed any longer, I probably would have been overwhelmed.

This trip was very different for me in many ways. First of all, it was longer than my usual holiday weekend trips, so both the way I approached creating an agenda and my sense of time while out and about was different, a bit more relaxed. There was the sense of, “if I didn’t have time to do this today, I can do it another day” and “I liked this place, I’ve thought of some other photo ideas, I’m coming back”. I definitely had a checklist of locations, but there were some that I ended up liking a lot (plus most places are so easy to get to), so I would go back once or twice, especially if I wanted to see different light conditions. Also, the whole flight fiasco was definitely a first for me.

While I was very happy and experienced feelings of great joy for the majority of my trip, I also experienced feelings of incredible sadness. This was due mostly to some personal demons that were haunting me, which indirectly had a connection to Hong Kong. Also stemming from these demons, the night before the trip started, I experienced what I could only describe as a panic/anxiety attack, based on my body’s reaction to seeing some triggering things (deeply personal, not political/social whatsoever).  There were also times that I felt lonely, because although I was able to meet up with many gracious friends for most of my time there, I occasionally found myself alone, which usually is totally fine with me, but for some reason, it made me really sad one day. That’s the thing about traveling alone I guess.

Overall though, this trip was an absolute blast. One advantage I had was that I pretty much looked like most of the people around me, so I didn’t attract any extra attention. I was able to blend in, get up close, and shoot pictures with no problems. And even though my Chinese is pretty bad overall, I can still understand a lot, and can utter some phrases in dire straits, so that was very useful. Something I observed about people was that they generally seemed pretty happy, which was interesting to me. Also, most people walk really fast, which I appreciated, because I also like to walk fast. The fact that everyone else was usually walking in the same direction that I was definitely helped. I haven't mentioned food, but I ate so many delicious items... feel free to talk to me about it later, because I love food. 

Ever since I've been back, I’ve been missing Hong Kong a lot, both the trip itself and the city in general. To me, that’s the mark of a good and successful trip: the fact that I miss it means that there was something about the experience that I found immense overarching satisfaction in, and that’s what gives it its value. I want to go back soon, but definitely when the temperature drops again :P

I hope you enjoyed what you read, and I also hope that this gave you an inside look into what Hong Kong is like, as well as how photogenic it is. Stay tuned for more travel stories, and as always drop, me a line if you want to chat or join in future adventures!