Sunday, January 22, 2012

Up Nathan Road through Kowloon

The epic traffic and shopping thoroughfare Nathan Road, which runs for miles north through the heart of Kowloon. This is not even remotely the road at its busiest.

The building below might not look like anything special, but it's one of the more (in)famous in Hong Kong - Chungking Mansions, a massive, labyrinthine block teeming with shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and living quarters, and lots of the territory's cheapest hostels, favorites of cash-strapped backpackers from around the world. 

It has a widespread reputation as a slummy, gritty place you don't want to be after dark (as well as a firetrap), and many people will advise you to book accommodations anywhere else. Many others, on the other hand, say this scary rep is greatly exaggerated. If the latter are correct, it's hard not to suspect an element of racism/xenophobia in the legends, as the shopkeepers and residents consist in large part of working-class African and South Asian immigrants.

I poked around the first floor a bit and bought a stored-value SIM card for my cell phone (giving me a functioning local number) from a South Asian vendor at a booth somewhere near the shot below. 

Here is as good a place as any to plug Chungking Express, the movie that more than any other made me want to visit HK, and that captures the atmosphere of the place best for me. The first half is set in and around Chungking Mansions, the second on HK Island in and around "my" neighborhood, including scenes on the Mid-Levels Escalator. If you want to make a two-hour visit to Hong Kong without leaving your couch, you can't do better than rent it. It's also just a good movie, and a fun one (unless you don't like the Mamas and the Papas' song "California Dreaming" - then you're in for a long slog, and you're also, incidentally, a bad person).

(Credit where it's due: the two pics above are lifted from Shiva Shabani's blog.)

OK, back to the real place.

The Kowloon Mosque:

Even much official signage is garishly cute and colorful (more on that later):

Kowloon Park, as much an oasis of sanity as Central Park in Manhattan.

Two of my favorites from the sculpture garden:

"Kung Fu Corner"... with one white guy going through his moves:

Somewhere in this vicinity I passed by a small Christian group of variegated hues gathered around and singing something gospel-ish to guitar accompaniment by one of their members. A nice young African man broke off from them and came over to urge me to come sing and be saved. His English was pretty decent, but we were still speaking different languages, if you follow me. We debated in a low-key fashion for a few minutes, to no discernible effect for either of us. I will say this for them: it was the only time in Kowloon I remember seeing black, Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian people all together enjoying each other's company.

As discussed previously, much of HK is remarkably neat and clean. Then suddenly, you find yourself saying, "Why would anyone leave that there?" It happens in New York, yes, but not as much.

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