Hong Kong is that place for me.
I’ve heard many good things about this city of high rises with its hugely crowded population, a fusion of British values and the best of Chinese enterprise. Technically Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, but it seems apt to call it a city, also.
I recall watching the United Kingdom hand over this territory live on TV in 1997, another moment when the crumbs from the British Empire, once mighty but long past its sell-by-date, were brushed from its table.
Then-governor Chris Patten clearly held back tears as he sailed out of Victoria Harbour, seen today in the picture above. He’s now Lord Patten and chairman of the BBC Trust, so will be one of my top bosses when I return to the BBC.
The architecture of Hong Kong is remarkable. Although I was fascinated by it, and loved wondering its streets which are a photographer’s playground, I couldn’t help but think of chicken coops, so packed in were some of the flats and living spaces.
I saw lots of washing outside of windows, so clearly there’s no room for a dryer in these apartments.
Although they’re beasts of burden they had an elegance about them, like a cleaner who goes home, puts on a sparkly dress and dances her heart out at a late-night salsa club.
Now then, this is my clever and beautiful friend, Laura. I had met her only once before, photographing her for SOTM back in 2009.
She runs a tour company in HK which also specialises in food tours, one of which we went on. It was very chucklesome time and we ate superb local grub while learning about the history of the city’s cuisine, so it was a few hours very well spent in her charming company.
Laura runs Hello Hong Kong Tours and I strongly suggest you contact her for something fun to do if you’re ever in her town.
To begin our tour we went to a dim sum place, a real old school joint with trolleys being wheeled around from which you chose your dish of choice.
We were the only foreigners in there at the time, and it was a terrific way to start the day.
Here’s one of the trolley ladies in action.
While in there I was desperate to photograph this chap, who calmly walked around with a giant silver pot, replenishing people’s teapots. Happily, he came to our table, spotted me clicking away, and paused for one of my favourite ever photographs.
Afterwards he spoke in Chinese and apparently said: “Now you have to pay me, because everyone wants my photo, because I look like Buddha.” We all laughed, and he said: “No, seriously you have to pay me.”
But he was joking. I shook his hand and he had a grip like an affronted lobster.
Then Laura took us to a place where apparently the service is grumpy but the noodles are tasty. Didn’t experience the former, but the bowl we were served contained amazing brisket and noodles.
I liked this shot because I took it blind, firing off from chest height, over to my left as soon as I saw that chap stretch his arms out. I often use 800 ISO even in bright daylight while on the streets, as it means I can use a fast shutter speed.
One day I came across this small red book in an antique shop. It’s an English edition of quotations by Chairman Mao. It’s quite readable and plenty of what he wrote makes sense. However, as ever, there’s a big gap between theory and implementation.
And while in Victoria Harbour I saw the statue of Bruce Lee standing guard – iPhone photo at night, so not the best quality – and later we visited the Heritage Museum where an exhibition on this remarkable man is being held until 2018. It’s well worth a visit.
After a quite successful SOTM World Tour meet up one particular Saturday, some of us went to a comedy club. It was good and compered by a big, tall man, an American called Peter, who teaches English outside of Hong Kong but does comedy in his spare time.
He was funny, held the show of 10 comedians together well and was in control of the evening the whole time.
When the show ended some of the comedians and some of the crowd, including us, went to a nearby bar. I got talking to Peter there – he approached me as he saw me dancing in my chair to Y.M.C.A before the show started, and told me he was going to single me out in his warm-up, but didn’t get around to it.
I told him about Someone Once Told Me, and he said he’d take part, but wanted to think about it. I approached him a while later, having photographed two other comedians and a Russian woman who’d also been in the audience, and asked Peter if he was ready.
“Yes,” he replied. “It’s not a happy one, though.”
So he wrote down: “You Need To Get Home… Mom’s Not Doing Well.”
I took his photo outside the bar and then it came to him explaining the story behind his phrase, which I captured on my phone, as usual. He said how these were words he never wanted to hear, especially from his sister, “when you’re half a world away”.
He carried on, his voice breaking, and I then saw tears run down his face, catching on his nose. He just about managed to finish talking and wiped them away.
I ended the recording and then gave a hug to this bear of a man, who I didn’t know, and who only a short time before had been making me and a room full of people laugh. I hugged him as he wept for his dead mother.
It’s one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had, and one of, if not the most, powerful SOTM moment for me.
This is the smashing Bernice Chan, a journalist from the South China Morning Post who wrote an article on me and the SOTM World Tour.
And here’s our brilliant Hong Kong host – Richard Lai, who’s senior editor for Engadget.
I met him a few years ago at his leaving do in London, a result of us having a mutual friend. He handed me his card, told me to look him up if ever I came to HK during the SOTM World Tour – which was firmly at the would-love-to-do-this-some-day stage – and that was it. Whole meeting was about eight minutes.
Years later I wrote to him, told him we were coming at long last and he kindly invited us to stay at his family home. I could just about remember what he looked like.
What lay in store for us was nothing short of sensational. Richard’s whole family, and his parents in particular, welcomed us warmly, fed us well and his dad also took us out for food a few times. Kate and I were stunned at how kind and hospitable the whole Lai family were. Richard himself couldn’t do enough for us and took us round to some great spots, and to some superb places to eat.
Here we all are at a dinner in their lovely home.
It contains a really unusual blend of the glass/steel buildings expected from modern-day China, and the beautiful architecture that betrays Macau’s brush with Portuguese rule, which began in the 16th Century and didn’t fully loosen its grip until the end of 1999.
Did I mention the casinos? You simply can’t miss them and are largely what Macau is known for. When awaiting the ferry in Hong Kong, a stern voice recording was warning the passengers about how “gambling can mean you losing EVERYthing”.
Don’t be so hasty as to describe Macau as a Chinese Vegas, for it’s known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. A far classier title (even though I love Vegas).
Macau actually overtook Vegas in gaming revenues in 2007, so it’s a major player on the world gambling stage.
So after our unforgettable time in Asia it was back to the good old US of A and San Francisco to begin with, where I was determined to make it on to Alcatraz, and just as determined to make it off again the same day. More of that next time.