Certain cities in the world are instantly recognisable from hundreds of classic movies that have been set there. No one could mistake Paris, New York or London on film, but for me the most recognisable city of them all is the great bay of Hong Kong. I grew up on a strict diet of Hong Kong movies: from Jackie Chan cop thrillers to John Woo gangster flicks. The Hong Kong cinema actor Chow Yun Fat was considered by my friends and I as the coolest guy in the universe, bar none, thanks to his incredible performances as Ken Gor and The God of Gamblers. With these memories, I felt like I knew the city off by heart even before I visited there. I had a mental map already in my head that included combinations of scenes from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and the, unintentionally, hilarious Jean Claude Van Dam 90’s action fest Double Impact. It was no doubt the sort of distorted mental map that everyone has when they have watched too many movies: all warped distances and colours. Larger than life could ever be.
I knew, of course, that reality would bring me down with a bump. Surely, no city could be exactly as it is portrayed in the movies?
I prepared to be disappointed.
Booking ahead to be in the heart of the city, we happily landed and made our way to the guesthouse, which was right in the heart of the city. I remember checking in and looking forwards to a nice lay down and long shower. Our room was costing an enormous fee, or at least that was how it seemed to us freshly departed from the cheapness of India where we could live for a week on the day rate here.
At first, I wondered if the slight language barrier between the pleasantly professional lady and us had inadvertently meant that we had successfully rented the broom closet, but no – this was our “room”. It barely fitted our bags in. In fact, to be honest, our bags were only fitting in when on top of each other or the door couldn’t close. It had a tiny bed, a miniature window and a shower sized for infants.
“What is this?” I asked out loud, “a hotel for ants!”
“Wha?” Cesca replied, missing what must have been my best quip for the last year.
At least it was clean.
So clean indeed that Cesca and I immediately contrasted with it ourselves. In India, we had been on the cleaner end of the spectrum of locals and travellers and there our clothes stood out as well laundered and presented.
Suddenly placed in a location that was actually clean, we both looked down and considered ourselves with a sense of rising horror: we were filthy! Without a word between us we stripped off the offending items and I jumped in the shower. Washing myself, what I would have then considered to be, “first date” clean, but is actually how clean everyone is in London, I scrubbed whole fields of mud and grime from under my nails and off my body all the while banging parts of it painfully against the fittings. Cesca waited impatiently outside; our common method of showering together was simply impossible given the space we had.
We went out that night and ate a very western meal of giant beers and steak.
It was important to get into the Hong Kong mind-set and leave the Indian one behind. Important because I knew that I was not to be returning to India any time soon, if ever again. I had to leave it behind or it would wreck my enjoyment of this city, with which it contrasted in the most extreme way possible.
I have held off from writing about many of the cities that I have made films about, but I am compelled to write about the city because something incredibly unlikely was going to happen to us… for the second time. However, that event was a day away. Our first day in Hong Kong was spent looking around and arranging our visas into China.
If you remember, back to earlier articles the Chinese embassy in Wellington, New Zealand had insisted to me that I could only obtain a Chinese visa in my home country.
Therefore, this effectively meant that I would have to fly the entire way around the world back to England to get a stamp in my passport and then come back. The stupidity of this was irrelevant to the irate man I had been speaking to. It had been the first time that I had experienced the Chinese way of doing things, which is charitably described as “pig headed,” and the first time I had experienced that there are exceptions to every rule.
In reality to obtain a visa to enter China was simplicity itself and I was not required to queue for it either! All I had to do was pay the right amount to the right man in the right city. I could not buy a visa for China in New Zealand, but I could in Hong Kong. In this case I had to pay any of the travel agents found all over the city. They then had someone else visit the Chinese embassy and get my visa stamped for entry. The nature of this system seems a little crazy and unfair to British eyes, but I must admit that I quite liked its inherent flexibility; something else close to the Chinese heart that I was to learn to appreciate. In fact, I was destined to return to the UK quite enamoured by China to say the least.
The second thing I had to do in Hong Kong was buy a rifle.
I am an airsofter. That is, I play the Japanese sport of airsoft, which is a little like paintball for grownups. The home of airsoft shopping for the entire world is Hong Kong and the heart of Hong Kong airsoft is the store of UNCOMPANY.
I had not bought anything for myself in the entire trip, saving up for this moment, but it still took a high level of convincing to get Cesca to agree to this visit. I arrived at the store and went inside to be greeted by wall-to-wall racks of guns and rifles surrounded by large piles of military clothing and equipment. The clerk showed me the wares and asked me what I wanted.
“What’s the best rifle you have in stock?” I asked him.
“The Systema Personal Training Weapon is best”.
Systema make the PTW rifle for actual soldiers to train with. It is unbelievably high quality. It is also an unbelievably high price.
“What is the second best rifle you have in stock?” I said without missing a beat.
The man grinned and pointed at a plain brown box atop a pile. It had the words, “Magpul” written on it. I didn’t move my eyes from the box.
“Is it an M4?”
“Yes, brand new in. Going to sell out today for sure. Magpul own-make M4”
“I’ll take it”.
“Don’t you want to try it first?” Cesca asked.
Frankly, no I didn’t, but that was because Magpul are the Gucci of the rifle world. So, I simply knew it would look brilliant, perform brilliantly, and more importantly be rarer than hens-teeth and so impossible to buy back home. I got it out of the box and sure enough, she was a very high-end rifle.
I bought it immediately and posted it back to the UK.
Our next stop was to visit with a local. Cesca had a relative living in Hong Kong and we caught the bus out of the centre and into the suburbs to go meet up with her. I remember that as the bus crested one of the hills I got a look for the first time at the country surrounding Hong Kong.
It was trees as far as the eye could see. Such immense forest right up to the edge of the city. I realised that this is why Hong Kong is considered a “jewel” out here on the edge of all this nature, like a space station attached to some distant asteroid twirling in the endless blackness. After meeting up with Cesca’s relative, and meeting her child, we took a turn around a local market and then caught the bus back to town. We then went on the normal sort of tour of Hong Kong that all tourists embark on: riding around the train lines and up and down the mountains to see the sights.
As the night dawned, a slight rain fell and we walk around the silent CBD district looking at the famous skyline up close.
The buildings are all lit up by the bright neon lights playing up and down their surfaces. We decided that the next night we would take in the same view from the other shoreline over in Kowloon Bay. We then went off to a very nice restaurant for a true Chinese meal.
It was fun to play tourists. What I mean is that after months of slumming it around South East Asia, with its spiders and shacks for rooms, and then through India, with its burning piles of rubbish and mix of cultures, it was fun to pretend we were normal tourists just out for the sights.
That fun cost us a packet, more than the last month had in three days.
The next day we made our way across the river to Kowloon Bay and looked around. This side of the river was a lot more squalid, with the sort of high-rise blocks that Hong Kong is famous for. We walked around a few markets and realised that 90% of the backpacker crowd were over here. We even found an Irish bar and took a drink inside in honour of Colin our friend we last saw in Khaosan Road, back in Thailand.
Then we walked up the street and straight into him.
5 months previously we had been travelling with Colin and his Spanish friend Marilou. We had then lost contact with them both one day when they were forced to jump in a Tuk Tuk and find accommodation in a very overbooked city in Laos during the Laotian “Olympics”. We did not see them again until a couple of months later when we ran into them in Thailand on the Khaosan Road. That had been legendary and a great nights drinking was had by all in celebration of meeting back up so unexpectedly.
Now, 3 months after that random meet-up, here they were again and we had bumped right into them in one of the busiest and largest cities in the world!
Serendipity my friends.
Not only that, but they too had visas to enter China at the same time as us. Not a group to look on such events as chance we suddenly knew that we needed to join forces. Making a date to meet at the train terminal to the mainland, and still shaking our heads in disbelief, Cesca and I went down to the bay to look at the famous Hong Kong version of the Hollywood Stars.
I must admit that they meant more to me than to Cesca who was very unimpressed at my exclamation that one handprint was from none other than Raymond Chow!
“But darling,” I protested, “the Raymond Chow!”
“Right…” she answered rolling her eyes.
Still the view over the city more than made up for it, as it was simply stunning.
I suddenly knew then that I could quite easily live in Hong Kong. I like “proper” cities and Hong Kong is certainly that, but I also liked the fact that it was so close to many of the places I had also come to love. New Zealand was a short hop, China, Japan, the whole of SEA. It was all here. I was amazed the Chinese let us have it. I don’t suppose that they had much choice faced with British army as the alternative.
Again, learning about the behaviour of my country to others around the world sickens me. The Opium war was to force China to let us sell them lethally addictive drugs that Britain grew in India, which their leaders didn’t want corrupting their country.
Here is the film I made of Hong Kong. I have recut it into a high definition special edition, enjoy:
Our time in Hong Kong was ending, and thank god as the cash cost was hurting us something chronic. We met up with Colin and Marylou at the train station and boarded the bus into China.
Little did I know then, but my personal beliefs were going to change forever in the coming weeks.