Hong Kong Street Art

IMG_0185

Hong Kong has a perfect storm of huge concrete walls, secluded back alleys, and social freedom that allows street art to flourish. Wander around the downtown area and you’ll stumble on small stencils and tags on walls and sidewalks. Turn a corner and find yourself facing a mural, creeping up the walls of a building or a flight of stairs. Even the trees join in to decorate the city’s spaces, engulfing them with a complex network of roots and vines. Welcome to the concrete jungle.

IMG_0011

IMG_0042

IMG_0214

IMG_0212

Untitled

IMG_0202

IMG_0050

IMG_0191

IMG_0131

IMG_0112

IMG_0078

Hong Kong, city of prosperity and re-construction

IMG_0230
A butcher sells his wares at a market in downtown Hong Kong.

It’s cloudy when we arrive in Hong Kong, only an hour’s flight but worlds away from Hanoi. We board a modern double-decker bus to carry us from airport to the city, marveling at the skyscrapers that line the highway and the slew of construction equipment building ever-more. We’re only here for a week (in an ill-fated attempt to get Chinese visas), but even in that short time it feels like the city will be different—an old, crumbling building lost there and a new, shining one erected there. And between our arrival and departure, the city will have grown even further, adding to itself as land is reclaimed from the sea.

IMG_8944
Endless rows of high-rise buildlings on the way into the city.
IMG_9000
A barge, laden with sand, likely for land reclamation work.

It’s a city of lonefulness, a feeling I get when I visit New York. The streets are full of people, all rushing to get somewhere in quick strides, staring down at their phones or straight ahead to their destinations. You could pass hundreds of people in an hour here and not know you had passed a single one. Interactions only come when necessary, and otherwise people huddle in their groups of friends and acquaintances, sharing inside jokes and giggling. Or they sit without anyone, full in their alone-ness.

IMG_9032
A man walks alone by the space museum and planetarium.
IMG_9095
A man sits alone and drinks on the waterfront.
IMG_9132
A face, lit only by screen-light.

The people that will interact with you on the street want to sell you something, often “copy” or “replica” products. These street-sellers are immigrants from South Asia, India and Pakistan, who came here for the same reason most people come to a city: the prospect of jobs and better money. They crowd the main streets, asking if you want to buy a ‘replica’ watch, a SIM card, or need a room for the night. Their epicenter is Chungking Mansion, where we happen to be staying. Several decades old and brimming with stalls selling Indian curries, electronics, and everything and nothing you might need, Chunking Mansion is a city unto itself. It lives and breathes, exhaling and inhaling human bodies that make their way up the few squeaky elevators to tiny guesthouses and homes and restaurants run illegally from apartments.

IMG_1185
Immigrants from South Asia socialize at one of the entrances to Chungking Mansion
IMG_20170516_160538
Our hotel room, from end to end, is the width of one Stoytcho.
IMG_0004
The internals of Chunking Mansion. We’re on the fourteenth floor. Thirteen floors below us is the center cesspool, a mix of rainwater and whatever people throw down here.

Despite Chungking Mansion’s relative poverty, the rest of the Hong Kong downtown appears wealthy. Hong Kong was and continues to be a huge financial hub, although there have been some grumblings that the city is declining in prominence as China attempts to elevate Shanghai’s status as a financial center. Steps from the entrance to Chunking Mansion are storefronts boasting glittering figurines and jewelry made of pure gold. Parks are full of sculptures and art installations, while galleries line the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and an “Affordable Art Fair” we visited boasted works starting at only a few thousand dollars. Old buildings, like the PMQ, have been entirely renovated to house artisanal bakeries and design shops. There are people here in Hong Kong who want to live well and have the money to pay for it.

IMG_9055
A sculpture stands in the pond behind the Hong Kong Space Museum.
IMG_0428
A woman explains her work in an exhibit.
20170520_142354
Spot the banana: visitors giggle over a real banana hidden among ceramic replicas, a joke by the employees running the exhibit.

But undercurrent in the city is a mild anxiety, of what it is and will be in relation to China. Much news has been made abroad about the Hong Kong democracy movement, but it’s hard to say Western news outlets are unbiased, given that Britain only gave up Hong Kong in 1999 and would like to maintain influence there. Nor can it be said that China is unbiased, since it’s likely looking to bring Hong Kong’s government closer to one approved by the nation’s Communist Party and to avoid the spread of any ideals that would weaken the Party’s power. In the absence of unbiased sources, the best course of action is to ask the people of Hong Kong directly what they worry about and want, on streets and in coffee shops and clothing stores. Their response isn’t surprising: they worry that their future is dim, with investors nervous about China’s increasing influence in the city and China working to develop Shanghai as a major financial hub. What they want most is an assurance that they, too, have a future where they can prosper.

IMG_0235
A cat peers out from under stacks of goods at the market.

Travel Update: Chinese Visa Issues

ChinaVisa

This is a brief message from the present, where we are currently holed up in Hong Kong at the infamous Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. We came to Hong Kong originally to get visas to mainland China, but after corresponding with a local visa agency, we ran into a problem: we can’t get the visa we want with what we currently have.

Here were our options:

  1. A standard tourist visa, good for at least 30 days and single, double, or multi-entry. Requirements: application, passport photos, copies or proof of ant previous Chinese visas, current passport, and old passport if your current passport was issued in 2015 or later. 
  2. A “group” tourist visa, good only for 30 days and single entry, but we must enter within 15 days of receiving the visa. Requirements: application, passport photos, and current passport.

This left us in a bit of a pickle because we didn’t bring our old passports along for our trip, so option 1 was a no-go. But if we chose option 2, we were committing ourselves to entering China within 15 days, which would make our trip to Japan less than 2 weeks. It was also risky to be on such a tight schedule. Flight delays could result in us arriving after 15 days had passed, invalidating our visa and throwing off our travel plans.

So we opted not to get the visa to mainland China, and we’ll instead hop over to Taiwan for a week or two. I’ll get to practice Mandarin a bit, which is better than not at all (although I will be an illiterate peasant, thanks to my education in simplified characters). From there we will head on to Japan, then fly to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to start the trans-Siberian railway mid-June. It’s a shame we can’t take it from Beijing all the way to Moscow, but I think Ulaanbaatar to Moscow will be plenty of railway for us.

For people looking to get a visa here in Hong Kong to mainland China, here are some details that are current as of May 2017:

  • We have U.S. passports, although from talking with others it sounds like many of the things mentioned in this post apply to all passports that require a visa.
  • We worked with Forever Bright. They were professional and honest throughout the process. Though we ultimately couldn’t get a visa and made no payment to them, they were still willing to help us.
  • If you want a tourist visa and your passport was issued in 2015 or later, you will need to bring your old passport for the visa application process. Forever Bright suggested a copy would work, but I’m not sure if that’s just a copy of the first page or all of the pages of the passport.
  • If you have visited Turkey, it will be an issue and you may not be able to get a visa in Hong Kong, so contact a visa company in advance to find out more. This problem is due to the somewhat strained Chinese-Turkish relations.
  • If you come here to Hong Kong hoping to get a visa to mainland China and failed, you can always drown your sorrows in amazing food. Go out for dim sum at Tim Ho Wan (formerly the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world) or Dim Dim Sum, then relax and repeat.