Around the world in 52 suburbs: Hong Kong

After a forty year gap, Louise Hawson returns to her childhood home town to find out how  much of "old Hong Kong" still exists. In her "52 surburbs Around the World" series, the Sydney photographer takes a look beyond the cliches.

When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s, it was a British colony of just 4 million people, a few tall buildings and relatively clean air.

Fast forward to 2012 and Hong Kong is part of China once more, the population has almost doubled and there are more skyscrapers over 150 metres tall than anywhere else in the world. And the air, well, it's breathable, just.

But I was still curious. How much of "old Hong Kong" still existed, or if not old then at least "new interesting", beyond the boring cliches of skyscrapers and shopping?

This curiosity inspired me to include Hong Kong on my latest photographic project, 52 Suburbs Around the World.

Having spent 2009-10 exploring and photographing 52 Sydney suburbs, in search of "ordinary" beauty beyond the usual Sydney imagery (the harbour, Opera House, Bondi Beach etc), I'm doing the same thing but in a handful of other cities around the world.

I have chosen famous, "over-photographed" cities to paint a more intimate, imaginative portrait than you usually see -  Paris sans the Eiffel Tower, New York minus the Empire State, that sort of thing.

The other dimension is I'm travelling with my daughter, Coco, who is eight. The degree of difficulty doing a project like this while simultaneously looking after and home schooling a child? Yet to be determined. I just hope it doesn't get too hairy.

For reasons already stated, we left Sydney four weeks ago for Hong Kong.


Since then I've explored and photographed a different suburb, or neighbourhood as they're known here, each week, starting with one of the oldest and most densely populated, Sham Shui Po.

Even though sometimes it felt like all 7 million Hong Kongers were on the very street that I was attempting to explore, I loved the place. I found Tong Lau shophouses that used to be abundant and started an obsession with beautiful old metal shutters.

For a change of pace in week two, not to mention giving my lungs a break, I hopped on a ferry to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong's 236 islands. Aside from nosing around a charming old house, I was captivated by the Chinese custom of building and then burning 3D paper models of someone's favourite things upon their death to ensure they have a comfy afterlife.

In week three, I explored Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island. If Sham Shui Po was a nice old man and Cheung Chau a gentle aunt, Sheung Wan is your glamour girl - a smart glamour girl striding forward into the modern age with a respect for the past and an understanding of East and West. This is where cool cafes and chichi art galleries rub shoulders with temples, markets and lots of dried stuff in jars.

For my final week in Hong Kong I headed to the freakily calm neighbourhood of Tai Hang, just minutes from crazy chaotic Causeway Bay. It just so happens that this week was the biggest event in the Chinese calendar – lunar New Year – so things were busier than usual. What with all the decorations, food and gift giving, it felt a lot like Christmas, minus the reindeer.

The month has passed quickly and on Saturday, Coco and I are off to city No 2, New Delhi. So far so good; I did manage to find an older, more interesting Hong Kong and I didn't lose my daughter.

Kung Hei Fat Choy and see you in a month's time.

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