Sunday, January 29, 2012

The most crowded place on earth

For neon-lit, beehive insanity and just sheer Hong Kong-ness, nothing beats the streets of Kowloon at night. The Mongkok neighborhood, where a number of the pictures below were taken, is often cited as the most densely populated area on Earth - I read one estimate of 500,000 people per square mile. The signage alone makes it worth wandering around. The only thing I can compare this to in my experience is Times Square, but Mongkok is less sanitized and (relatively) less corporatized, and still contains a lot of local, daily life as part of the mix, instead of being given over completely to tourists (although there's no shortage of them).

But you can still find quiet little sidestreets:

Peeking through a slot in a wall, I saw some sort of lawn bowling game in progress. It felt a bit Alice in Wonderland, as if just over the garden hedge there was a quiet, secret otherworld of pleasant English eccentricity.

Below, your quintessential Picturesquely Shabby Kowloon High-Rise. This looks like a shot straight out of Chungking Express, if I do say so myself. Isn't this better than an anonymous, antiseptic glass-and-steel luxury building?

And before anyone asks... No. I didn't. (And to be clear, that's 390 Hong Kong dollars, or about 50 in US currency.)

The shop below is, according to my guidebook, one of the last makers of old-fashioned, Shanghai-style bridal garments in HK (the territory absorbed lots of ex-Shanghaiers in the various big exoduses from the mainland after WWII, and they were a big factor in the modern local culture).

One of my favorite consequences of the local climate was how open to the street many homes and stores were - like this barber shop below. On a warm day or night, I'd often see a home where the whole front wall was just open and the family would be sitting there eating and watching TV ten or fifteen feet from me as I walked by. Probably there's also less of an obsession with privacy and personal space in Chinese culture.

Not sure why, but I had trouble getting the picture below flipped right side up. Maybe I just forgot to do it. Don't want to bother now. Turn your head sideways for a sec. Anyway, this is the famous Temple Street Night Market, which is nowadays largely given over to tourists and their tsotchkes, but is still fun to wander through.

Another great thing about Hong Kong is the public toilets, which are scattered about quite generously and usually pretty clean and safe - each one has a janitor onsite who seems to clean it more or less hourly. And most of them are not in the same building as the local refuse collection point.

Chinese herbal medicine shop:

Footnote to the shot above... it was easily in the 70s fahrenheit, at least, and I was wandering around comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt. For many Hong Kongers like the woman above, the 70s at night is starting to get a little nippy.

At one end of the market, it becomes outdoor food heaven. Or hell, depending upon your tolerance for crowds and dubious culinary hygiene.

This guy's entire act seems to consist of singing badly and dancing badly while carrying a cute dog on his shoulders. But whatever brings the crowds and the loose change, someone will do, and he seemed to make out quite well from what I could see.

The Free Go Yummy House, where I ate dinner at an outdoor table. I might say the place was aptly named if I understood what "Free Go" meant. All the good, cheap al-fresco dining is one of the great pleasures of HK.

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