A writer goes in search of the city beloved in the cinema of its greatest filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai.
A boatwoman ferries tourists at Aberdeen Bay in Hong Kong. Photo by: Jonas Gratzer
The neighbourhood of Tsim Sha Tsui stays up late like an insomniac, tipsy on a cocktail of neon signs lining its streets. Tourists prowl up and down Nathan Road with wheelies full of sneakers and cosmetics, but locals know how to duck out and find their favourite dai pai dong serving chicken’s feet or warm egg waffles. One evening I’m caught in a roiling crowd edging towards the waterfront with baby steps. The 8 p.m. light-and-laser show is about to begin.
I turn and walk in the opposite direction, past malls the size of castles, and halt outside a seedy, 17-storey shopping complex. Everybody in Hong Kong knows what Chungking Mansions is—an infamous hive of low-cost hotels, burrow-size homes, and electronic stores. It smells of heavenly kebabs and risk, like anything could happen here: a shootout, a drug deal; or you could run into The One over a plate of naan and keema mattar.
I’ve waited to enter this dodgy building for years after I watched Chungking Express (1994), one of my favourite Hong Kong films, where two lovelorn cops run into two enigmatic women. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) deals with his break-up by collecting cans of pineapple expiring on May 1, when he meets a femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) hiding beneath a blonde wig and a secret. Cop 663 (Tony Leung), freshly dumped and talking to soaps and towels around his house, encounters Faye (Faye Wong), a pixie-cut girl working at the snack bar he frequents.
There’s the Hong Kong one imagines: vertigo-giving skyscrapers, business districts, branded boutiques. Some shrines and colonial landmarks thrown in. But for me it was filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai who unravelled spirals of other Hong Kongs within. In Chungking, his shaky, hand-held camera took me to the nooks of his boyhood; the blurred photography made me feel like I was looking into someone’s daydream. I could taste a loneliness peculiar to living in a city of millions, of fleeting relationships that leave you feeling chipped and off-kilter. There are larger metaphors too: The film’s opening cello score is a fit of nerves, invoking a Hong Kong eyeing a ticking clock, jittery about its impending handover to the Chinese in 1997. “I’ve become very cautious,” says the woman in the blonde wig, “When I put on a raincoat, I also put on sunglasses. Who knows when it will rain or when will it turn out sunny?”
That night, I take the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island (they’re the city’s two main islands) and come to Lan Kwai Fong, the city’s nightlife district. Its hillside streets are strung with nightclubs and restaurants, and a techno beat is always in the air. What I’m looking for—Midnight Express, the snack bar in the second part of Chungking Express—has closed down. A 7-Eleven has replaced the corner where Faye mixes sauces and salads, bobbing her head to “California Dreamin’,” blasting it to keep out the world. So I pick up a bottle of the local Tsingtao beer and walk down D’Aguilar Street that slants like a drunk, humming the tune to myself.
I return in the morning because Old Town Central is the nucleus of Hong Kong. It is the first map I’m handed at the airport, so I see why many tourists make the mistake of never venturing out. Almost two centuries after the British navy arrived at the ‘fragrant harbour,’ its lanes don period costumes and playact both their colonial and Chinese past. One minute I am standing beneath spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling at Man Mo Temple, the next I am opposite murals of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, and the third I am walking up Pottinger Street. It is steep, and lined with vendors selling party costumes and freakishly life-like masks of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin. I deliberate over which one to pick for the night.
Imagining a flat Hong Kong is like imagining Russian vodka without its bite; it wouldn’t constantly brawl with space if wild, bosky mountains didn’t tower over its high-rises. Neither would it come up with utterly ingenious inventions like the Mid-Levels Escalator in Central. The world’s largest pedestrian escalator cuts through over 2,600 feet of Hong Kong’s steep hillside, carrying about a lakh of people every day. In Chungking Express it ferries Faye’s infatuation as she crouches and spies Cop 663’s house beside the escalator. She has work to do—breaking into his home to redecorate it so he gets over the memories of his ex. Swapping sardine tin brands, new fish in his tank, even spiking his water with sleeping pills after he complains of insomnia. It makes sense.
I hop on and off the Mid-Levels—it’s a series of 20 interconnected escalators. Below, Central spreads out like a graphic novel. At Gage Street, I give way to dashing waiters in Lan Fong Yuen serving ‘pantyhose milk tea’—velvety and dream-creamy, made with evaporated milk and brewed in a polyester sock-like net. At 8 Cochrane Street, sharp-suited bankers mill around Good Spring Company, a century-old Chinese medicine clinic serving herbal teas with names that make you sigh, like Love-Pea Vine. Wong Kar-Wai’s locations work like a telescope; look long enough and vivid details of everyday life come into focus, swaying to tunes old and new like his characters do when no one’s watching.
Around dusk, I head to Tai Kwun arts centre to meet a friend. C was born in a different Hong Kong, when it was still a British colony in the late ’80s. As a student, he and millions across the city rose in protests during the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, when Hong Kong demanded that Beijing not meddle with its elections. When he speaks of how fast his city morphs, I only have to glance around to see what he means. There is a quiet pleasure when we pop cans of beer on Tai Kwun’s grounds, looking up at beautiful mid-19th century buildings. There is existential poetry on the walls for hipsters to love, film screenings, and a soft clang of drums in the air. You almost forget that Tai Kwun complex was originally a prison, police station, and two courts.
C teases me when he hears about my Wong Kar-Wai-led strolls. “So, what’s next? You’ll hire a cheongsam and walk around Central? Be all Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love!” I snort and decide not to tell him that Linva Tailors, who stitched some of those gorgeous, figure-loving dresses for the actress is indeed a three-minute walk away.
We talk about an exhibition that looks at collecting everyday objects as a way of linking the past and present. For all the ways in which Hong Kong hurtles towards the future, it pines for its past like an old friend. I first sense this wistfulness in Wong Kar-Wai’s most famous film, In The Mood For Love (2000). It follows two neighbours—Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung—who discover their spouses are having an affair. It is also Wong Kar-Wai’s love poem to the golden years of Hong Kong—the early 1960s. Born in Shanghai in 1956, he immigrated to Hong Kong at age five, inhabiting a city that doesn’t exist anymore. He shapes that longing tenderly: scenes awash in crimsons and chromes; steamy kitchens with wizened cooks packing dim sums in aluminum tiffins; actors framed in artful, almost voyeuristic frames to capture Hong Kong’s ever-cramped rooms and stairways.
If that city can still be found, it is back in Kowloon.
Trust me, you’ll know when you’ve arrived in Mong Kok. Stiletto-like buildings come in all the colours of candy in this Kowloon suburb. Curvy old Chinese typefaces outside shops hawk things you can’t read and don’t need, but will pine for. Somehow, almost every street you turn into will be lined with caravans of red minibuses. These are Hong Kong’s cheap rides that connect the remotest corners. (If you hop on one, hold on tight as it swerves and streaks like the Knight Bus, and scream “YAU LOK!” when you want to get off.)
I walk into Kam Wah café, a typical Hong Kong cha chaan teng—no-frills, 1950s-style diner serving an array of Western and Chinese fare. It is always full, so I dap toi (share a table) with seven others. I wave at a blur that’s the waitress, and she zooms in to hand me an English menu. No smiles, no small talk; in fact I feel like a nuisance when I linger over her plastic-sheathed booklet for too long. I love it.
A feast arrives, one like I’ve never seen. The red bean frappes and iced Ovaltine are claimed by the gang of schoolgirls on my table. The couple with the fussy-eater kid stuff him with instant noodles topped with ham and egg. The uncle with thin hair and basset-hound eyes eats his corned beef sandwich as if in meditation. It’s a frame Wong Kar-Wai would’ve been proud of, where actors emote with postures and glances more than words. I bite into a bo luo bao—the gold, sugar-crusted “pineapple bun” hiding a thick slab of butter, which tastes like my favourite song. The egg tart and fried noodles with diced pork make me want to hug everyone at the table. Instead, I too bend my head down and join the orchestra of noodle-slurps. While leaving I nod at the blur-waitress, but she scowls, and somehow that makes me happier.
I begin to see how Hong Kong wasn’t just the setting in the movies I’d loved; it was the lead character, always. Wong Kar-Wai rarely came to the set with a script, he scouted for locations before he wrote anything. “[In this city] the space tells you what the characters are, why they’re there,” he once said. So I too begin moving through Hong Kong like he would, intuitively, not just tracing film locations. I walk around Mong Kok in circles, in saturated, neon-filled streets I’d seen in As Tears Go By (1988), Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut. I enter just about any place, like the underground video game arcade, Game Zone, where everyone’s half my age and no one can hear each other over the metallic scores. I follow a girl dressed in a pinafore—a lacy white bow in her hair, game face on. She wins every Mai Mai game she plays. The area’s Flower and Ladies Markets teem with people. At the nearby Yuen Po Bird Garden, I don’t quite know what to feel about the elderly men carrying their birds in carved bamboo cages, so I leave.
Walking south leads me to Yau Ma Tei, a neighbourhood in transition. It no longer carries traces of the opium dens of the 1900s or the gang wars of the ’80s, but is good friends with its past. The pre-WWII Yau Ma Tei theatre now stages Cantonese opera with English subtitles. Change has also come in the form of Prosperous Garden nearby and Broadway Cinematheque in its grounds, which screens only art films (I pick up a certain filmmaker’s posters near the booking office). Armed with a rose iced coffee from its café-bookstore—named after Stanley Kubrick, of course—I move on. Outside, an old building is being demolished but another is painted high with a beautiful mural of a boy and his bike. From nowhere, a Space Invader peers from a corner.
Circa 2018, Hong Kong’s tourism board unveiled its new poster child: a suburb farther north in Kowloon. Sham Shui Po is a former fishing village, and Hong Kongers visit it—with a hawk’s eye on their wallets—if they need cheap gadgets, or fancy a meal at Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-star joint where dim sums cost only HKD20/Rs175. I head there after reading a cautious op-ed that wonders if the suburb has what it takes to be London’s Shoreditch or NYC’s Brooklyn.
Sham Shui Po’s salmon, jade, and blue-white buildings don’t reach for the sky; they curve voluptuously at the corners. People haggle at open street markets with the rare passion they reserve for the weekend. There’s a lone barbers’ chair in a back alley, where the man gives the ritual the time it truly deserves. I turn into a street that sells buttons—only buttons. The next one, beads. The street after, leather. Then ribbons. Toys—weird, wacky, crazy toys. I stop counting the number of shrines I spot at the bottom of buildings’ doorways—a red plaque and a pot to light joss sticks, believed to bless the people living within. Folks actually stop to talk to each other in the streets; the lilt of Cantonese swings in corners. Here time works in loops, and it’s easy to see how a sense of community glues Sham Shui Po in place.
The suburb keeps its old ways remarkably well preserved. To leaf through its memory-journal, I first walk into Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, where a red T-shirted army whips up silken beancurd pudding and deep-fried tofu that still taste of the ’60s. It’s run by a woman who left her investment banking career to return to the family business. Thirty-something Au-yeung Ping-chi sits at Bo Wah, a store his father founded in the ’60s to make paper effigies burnt as ritual offerings to ancestors. Apart from the usual gold and money effigies, he gets orders for smartphones and electric guitars for the cooler dead. The egg noodles I eat at Lau Sum Kee are made from scratch like they have been for six decades, kneaded daily with a bamboo pole. I am lulled into feeling that Sham Shui Po is in no danger of disappearing. But slowly, I see signs of gentrification that might alter this place in less a decade: Hipster cafés and design boutiques bracket old bakeries selling put chai koh (traditional Chinese bowl puddings). It seems a matter of time until real estate prices rise, leaving Sham Shui Po’s old-timers out of breath.
Like all big cities, Hong Kong is cross-stitched with stories; tug at one thread and a new tale comes undone. And that is the most curious doorway Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema opens for me. I return like a homing pigeon to places I am most invisible and happiest in. I catch late-night ding dings (trams) going to districts I am clueless about, just to feel the imagined Hong Kong of the night like in Days of Being Wild (1990). I walk along the tents of face readers outside Temple Street’s Night Market. They beckon urgently, promising to reveal my fortune—in English. If I could, I’d tell them I’d found it on a treasure hunt on an island, by a fragrant harbour in the South China Sea.
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Direct flights connect Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru to Hong Kong. Fill up a pre-arrival registration form for a visa-free stay for up to 14 days (www.immd.gov.hk). The Airport Express and buses are the best ways to get to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Pro Tip: Get an Octopus card for hassle-free metro travel (HKD150/Rs1,335; including refundable deposit worth HKD50/Rs445).