Classic Hong Kong Action Movies Courtesy of YouTube

When I was a kid in high school you used to hear whispers about a certain type of movie. Action movies. From Hong Kong. And they were unlike anything you could see in a pre-World Wide Web North America.

The granddaddy of all these was The Killer and as teenagers we scoured the video stores of Ottawa in search of it. I still remember seeing it and recognizing that this was a very different type of cinema than what was going on at the local Famous Players.

Fast forward 20 years: there are no more video stores, these movies still can’t be found in iTunes but we’re now in the wonderful world of YouTube.

And thus, here are links to a variety of classic HK movies that you absolutely need to watch.

Let’s start with The Killer:

After that, it’s on to my personal favourite, Hard Boiled, a classic of Gun Fu. The opening scene in the tea shop is just incredible:

There’s also the movie that started the John Woo & Chow Yun Fat collaboration: A Better Tomorrow.

Now let’s switch gears to some classic Jackie Chan. For Chan, Crime Story is a rare serious movie, based on the story of kidnapped executive Teddy Wang and with final scenes filmed in the emptied Kowloon Walled City:

Enjoy these movies; I guarantee you won’t be wasting your time if you watch them.

Hong Kong Notes

1.

Hong Kong is a ridiculously busy city. It is packed with people. Despite having a population of only ~1/4 Tokyo, it has a mere fraction of the usable space. It’s a city built on mountains ringed by seas and as a result, there are people everywhere:

Slightly blurry photo of people in causeway bay

People in Causeway Bay

2.

I’m guessing that the population of Hong Kong has exploded over the past few decades because nobody seems to know how to live effectively in a big city.

It’s a terrible city to grow old in. We watched a teenager bowl over an old lady and then not even apologize; he just didn’t care.

Similarly, if you wanted to create a perfect random number generator (not an easy thing to do), you could do so by trying to guess which way a person on the street will turn as you approach them. Sometimes it’s left; sometimes right. They also walk on all sides of the sidewalk so there’s no cultural norm you can learn to figure out which way they’re going to go.

You do not relax in public in urban Hong Kong.

3.

It’s also a city where nobody talks but everybody yells. People here are loud and don’t so much talk as shout. Especially the older women; they yell at talk to their husbands who silently walk ahead of them, head bowed.

4.

But don’t get me wrong – Hong Kong’s a great place. And you can relax, you just need to get out of downtown Hong Kong and Kowloon.

One great place to go is Tai O (ferry from Central to Lantau; bus to Tai O), where descendants of the Tanka people fish and live in houses on stilts.

Stilt Houses in Tai O

I was last here in 2006 and tourism has now arrived. There are now signs that guide you around the village – although they’re a bit hit and miss.

One path takes you to a lookout where you can purportedly watch dolphins. Except that someone took down or never installed the sign to the actual lookout; the path instead takes you to a water filtration plant.

Similarly, one of the sights is “the old police station”, except that it’s not marked and under restoration. When you get there, there’s no sign, but there is a trail.

As you follow it you get quite confused. The trail is new and looks like every other trail on the island. But there’s also a sign saying that you’re about to trespass onto a military base. However, you’re still looking for that police station – and maybe it’s on that military base and there are no soldiers around. And hey, now a really scary looking dog is barking and running towards you. Time to shuffle backwards and get ready to run because that dog is getting closer and it looks hungry. I guess the police station isn’t here after all.

5.

The other very relaxing thing to do in Hong Kong is to hike. The islands are mostly forest and are criss-crossed with trails. We actually spent half of our time hiking.

One day was spent going up the peak, around it and then dropping down to Aberdeen via Lok Fu Ko (check). It’s a great hike as you pass through jungle on one side of the mountain, more temperate forest on the other and then suddenly the city appears again:

Aberdeen

Similarly, after going to Tai O we hiked along the coast to Tung Chung (where you can catch the train back to Kowloon/Hong Kong). It was interesting as what is marked as a ‘road’ on the map is actually a concrete path at tops a meter wide. You pass through villages that contain only a few houses and not a single service. It’s a reminder of what Hong Kong was and how far it has come.

There were also a few more entertaining examples of how they’re attempting to improve tourism. In one nameless village there was a sign to the ‘beach’. We walked down and found ourselves on a tiny little strip of sand that overlooked the takeoff runway for the airport.

One more comment on hiking in Hong Kong. Along the way you are going to pass hundreds of Golden Orb Weaver spiders. If you are scared of spiders that can easily span six inches, don’t hike here:

Golden Orb Weaver Spider eating bug

6.

One of the most unique experiences we had was at the aviary. The birds are great…

Bird at aviary

…but much more interesting was running into hordes of rural Chinese school kids visiting the city. We’re pretty sure that many of them had never seen white people before because they kept staring at Wendy’s blue eyes.

A bunch of them actually wanted their photo taken with us. We felt like the strangest pop stars of all time, being mobbed by this crowd of Chinese tweens. We probably could have stayed for ages taking photos with every single one, but we had to let them go after a few minutes.

7.

The food in Hong Kong is great. Yes, there is every type of western food if you want it (and we gave in at times), but the real joy is the dim sum and noodles.

We had dim sum at a random place on Tung Choi road in Kowloon. It was great – except for the soup dumplings which were lacking. The rice noodle dishes were perfectly cooked and almost fell apart between our chopsticks; the lamb and pork inside were delicious. We also enjoyed that the char siu rolls came with a light dusting of sugar on the outside.

Dim Sum

There are also great noodle dishes to be had – and in Kowloon they’re cheap; this one only cost about $3:

Egg Noodles

There’s nothing like a great dish of egg noodles topped with a couple of pork slices.

Another amazing culinary aspect of Hong Kong is their love affair with baked goods. There are bakeries everywhere. In the subway. On the streets. Right next to one another.

Every morning we would purchase something from this place right around the corner from our hotel:

Bake Shop

They had a great mix of western favourites like croissants and all sorts of sweet Chinese buns. You can get buns topped with baked pineapple or minced pork, stuffed with custard, red bean paste (an asian favourite), cherries or roast pork.

And we never saw the place empty; there was always at least one person in the store.

8.

I mentioned earlier how Hong Kong is packed with people and has little space. This means that they’re building up and the apartments are small.

This was hammered home to me when we got to our hotel room. It was only 6’ 3” wide. It just so happens that I am also 6’ 3” tall.

I know you’re doing the math in your head and wondering how I slept. The answer is: “snuggly”.

Me in tiny Hong Kong bed

Our room was at most 10 feet long, meaning that we actually had less room than we would have in a prison (cells are 8’ x 8’). However, it was cheap and clean and we’re on a budget.

9.

In case you weren’t sure whether China is out to dominate the world, the government propaganda television commercials will remind you that they are. There’s a lovely one that starts with a few kids farming only to have the landscape evolve into a modern town with fancy factories, wind power and lots of smiling, orderly, servile people. Pan to a battleship cutting through the sea (racing towards Taiwan?) and then a solitary climber bagging a peak. Subtle it is not.

10.

Despite their self-held inexorable rise to global dominance, the locals are not without their moments of self-doubt. On the way to the airport there’s a massive billboard that reminds us all that “even a confident man sometimes needs reassurance”. In the context of status-obsessed Hong Kong it’s quite entertaining.

Kowloon Walled City (Park)

It’s not on most tourists agenda, but I would highly recommend that if you go to Hong Kong you check out Kowloon Walled City Park.

It’s not the park that’s so interesting, rather it’s what used to be there.

First, some history. In 1841, the Brits took over Hong Kong Island. Understandably, the Chinese were concerned about losing more territory, so they took a small Kowloon fort (dating from 1810) and upgraded it to a walled garrison in 1847. The actual walled area was tiny; only 6.5 acres.

In 1872, the British banned gambling from Hong Kong. The enterprising gamblers simply moved across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. It was the beginning of that city’s notoriety.

In 1889, the Brits took over the New Territories and gained the land surrounding Hong Kong Island. The Chinese troops were expelled and that was the end of the rule of law in the “Walled City”. Squatters moved in.

In World War II, the Japanese tore down the walls of the city and used the stones to extend the airport runway (the walled city is almost right next to the old airport).

In the 1950’s, heroin boomed and a lot of it was produced in the Walled City and exported throughout the world. Along with it came strip clubs, brothels, casinos, opium dens and – tastiest of all – dog meat stalls.

Since there was no rule of law, hundreds of mom and pop factories opened up in the city. Noodles and candies were made, as well as 80% of the territories fish balls. The tallest smoke stack in the entire city was in the building; 13 stories tall, but you couldn’t tell from the street.

Perhaps the oddest unregulated industry of all was dentistry. In the 1970s, the streets outside were lined with dental clinics:

Dental Clinics in Kowloon Walled City

From the ’60s on wards, the population of Hong Kong boomed and the Walled City followed suit by building up. The whole complex was a giant network of buildings built one on top of the other. At it’s peak, there were 40,000 people living in over 500 buildings on only 2.7 hectares. This entire warren was navigated by 20-30 alleys; there were only 3 working elevators and no running water (It was quite a business to sell water to residents). The tallest buildings were 16 stories tall.

There had been many attempts to tear the site down over the years, beginning in the 1920s by the Brits. In the late ’80s it was finally agreed that it was time to tear the damn thing down as it was becoming a threat/embarrassment to the city. Eviction started in 1992 and in 1994 the site was torn down. Here’s a shot of what it looked like before it was destroyed:

Kowloon Walled City in 1990s

Also, a few years before demolition, a German camera crew shot a documentary about it. Fascinating:

The site is now a park and interpretive center. Where people used to shoot up, locals now do Tai Chi in the morning.

Yamen in Kowloon Walled City

The interpretive center has a few gems in it. Before demolition, the government hired a team of Japanese anthropologists to create a cross section of the site, demonstrating what life was like inside it. Here are some shots of their drawing. Keep in mind that most of these apartments are ~200 square feet in size:

Cross Section of Walled City Cross Section of Walled City

There’s also a bronze model of the site which gives you a sense of how it must have stuck out from the rest of the neighbourhood:

Bronze Model of Walled City

Bronze Model of Walled City

When they were demolishing the site, the wreckers discovered that the original fort, and the cannons (from 1802) next to it, were still there. The entire city had been built around them. They’ve preserved the building (called the Yamen) and it’s now the home to the interpretive center and the heart of the park:

Yamen

Well worth a visit.

Hong Kong: City for Sale

Hong Kong – and especially Kowloon – is a city of markets. You can buy almost anything.

There’s a flower district…

Flower market on Flower Market Road Vendors on flower market road

…a bird market…

Bird market on Yuen Po Street

Bird market on Yuen Po Street Birds at bird market

…and a fish market.

Fish market on Tung Choi Street

In fact, you can go down to the local food market and the butcher will sell you pieces of an animal that you didn’t even know you want:

Pig face and hearts at butcher

This makes for a fascinating trip around the city as you walk from market to market. The first three markets in this post are all within walking distance of each other. If you approached them from our hotel, you’d also find yourself walking through the leather interiors, sewing and building materials districts:

Metal Shop in Kowloon

However, all this selling comes at a price. After a while, Hong Kong begins to feel like Manhattan with mountains instead of cultural institutions. You begin to realize that this is a city that exists solely for the sake of commerce. It’s the market for the market’s sake.

As Hong Kongers become very wealthy, they’re adopting some of the shallower trappings of an upwardly mobile society. You can see this in the incredible number of subway ads for plastic surgery:

Hong Kong Beauty Ad Hong Kong Beauty Ad

Hong Kong Beauty Ad Hong Kong Beauty Ad

Hong Kong beauty ad

Hong Kong botox ad

Hopefully this isn’t the new look of Hong Kong.

Kowloon Street Signs

One of the unique features of Hong Kong – and Kowloon (where we stayed) in particular – are the street signs. They’re ubiquitous and they hang over the streets, offering each store’s wares.

You can almost think of them as parasites that anchor on the sides of buildings and try to drown out the sky from locals underneath.

The fact that they’re in an inscrutable language makes them enjoyable; I’m sure if I could read them (Restaurant! Cheap clothes!), the allure would be lost.

Signs on Tai Nan Street Neon Sign in Kowloon Kowloon Signs Kowloon Signs Kowloon Signs Kowloon Signs Kowloon Rain Rainy street scene in Kowloon Kowloon neon sign Street signs in Kowloon Kowloon signs Kowloon signs