It’s not always easy to capture the story of Hong Kong. Like a bookstore, the city houses an eclectic agglomeration of personal anecdotes written in its people, history, and culture. In a polychromatic metropolis that beats every second, there are millions of stories to be captured, and millions of photographic opportunities to be seized. Paying homage to the local culture, young writer, Karl Lam, narrates the story of old Hong Kong through the lens of his Leica D-LUX camera.
Sing Kee, Central
My day starts off in the concrete-laden labyrinth of the central business district. In the corner, a group of old men sit on red stools, chattering amongst themselves. An “ah-yee” (meaning aunt in Cantonese) stands behind the counter, clad in a gingham apron. This is not an average cafe, it is one of only 25 dai pai dongs left in the city. Streetside food stalls are rendered obsolete by the ubiquity of modern artisan cafes in the gentrifying neighbourhood.
Here, I’ve used a larger aperture to allow just the foreground to be in focus, highlighting the granular texture of the fish balls, while the saturated golden-brown colours radiate warmth and softness. To me, this is an incredibly important opportunity to show the colour and liveliness that these dai pai dongs still hold. It’s about capturing minuscule details that are invisible to society. “Let emotion and life permeate the surface of the photograph,” I recall my friend instructing me beforehand, “It’s all about the story behind the scenes.”
Pak She Street, Cheung Chau
It’s noon as we make our way to a neighbouring island, Cheung Chau. No more than 23,000 people inhabit this island, many of them descendants from ethnic Hoklo migrants, fishermen tribes from eastern Guangdong, and Fujian migrants who sailed here in the late 18th century. Occupying only 2.5 kilometres of land southwest of the mainland, it’s known to the locals as Long Island due to its dumbbell-like shape.
As we approach Cheung Chau, my eyes dart to the squalid white-washed houses, somehow tastefully stacked atop the quaint sylvan tops. Where there is a pattern, it seems to be irregular, dilapidated rectangular and square blocks compressed together. Gone are the glossy BMWs and SUVs of the city. In fact, four-wheeled cars aren’t even allowed on these narrow lanes, and people here travel only by bikes and rickshaws.
I photographed the working men and women of Cheung Chau, depicting the fisherman’s duties with great candour. The lifestyle of these people is physical and laborious, yet these quiet moments are not usually associated with Hong Kong. This scene conveys a story of contrasting lifestyles in the city.
Ping On Bao, Cheung Chau
Cheung Chau Island is also made special due to its annual Bun Festival, a Taoist sacrificial ceremony held on Buddha’s Birthday. At the centre of it all is the famous Cheung Chau bun. The steamed festival delicacy is made from a white sponge cake, filled with lotus-seed paste. I gently nod to the shopkeeper and fish out a ten-dollar note. He tells me that these are “ping on bao”, referring to the red calligraphy stamp that symbolises peace and prosperity.
Pak Tai Temple
A left turn takes us to the Temple of Pak Tai. Local Hoklo fisherman erected this Taoist sanctuary in 1783, in honour of the god of the sea, Pak Tai. In the dimly-lit cavern, I spot several antiques and one in particular stands out. It’s the sceptre of the Song Dynasty, an 800-year-old iron sword rumoured to be able to bring calm seas. My peers and I gently trace our hands over the murals and memorabilia adorning the brick walls. There, I shoot one of my favourite works, Waiting by the Temple.
The photographed man seems to be waiting for someone – his wife, friend, or companion. A delicate string of prayer beads rests on his rough, calloused palm as he leans against the wall in a pair of blue rubber slippers. As his foot lifts in mid-air, I set the shutter speed to 1/500. This allowed me to capture every inch of his movement in absolute clarity. When shooting in high light intensities, I use an ISO 200 – no more, no less – which results in bold and exposed productions, adding emphasis to the vibrancy of the Taoist architecture. It’s a profound serenity in the photograph, one that harmonises with the atmosphere of the temple.
Star Ferry Pier, Central
Dusk falls as we head back to the city centre. We board the Star Ferry as we watch the skyline of steel and glass beams illuminate at night. Hong Kong exudes unique energy that compares to no other city in the world. “That’s the thing with photographers,” I hear my friend saying, “Our photographs are crucibles that withstand all metamorphoses. We’re authors by nature, born to capture beautiful stories.”
Explore More of Cheung Chau
Cheung Po Tsai Cave
Unleash your inner adventure seeker and head down to the rocky shoreline of Cheung Chau, in search of Cheung Po Tsai Cave. Notably the most famous nook in the city, this cave was used to store 19th century pirate Cheung Po Tsai’s loots and treasures. Po Tsai, one of China’s greatest and most notorious pirates, is known for once commanding 600 ships and 50,000 men. Not a bad accolade but unfortunately for us, no treasure chests have been found. Nevertheless, if you’re feeling lucky, then why not explore? The cave is a short trek over the rocky shore, and you’ll appreciate the getaway from the hustle and bustle of the island centre. For this claustrophobic expedition, you’ll need a torch, sturdy shoes, and a good friend to rely on.
Kwun Yam and Tung Wan Beach
No trip to any outlying island is complete without heading to the beach. Cheung Chau is home to not one, but two white sand beaches – Kwun Yam and Tung Wan. Both are public beaches, with facilities like changing rooms and snack kiosks readily available. Tung Wan Beach, overlooked by the Warwick Hotel, is a popular spot, especially on weekends. Stay until sunset for the Instagram shots as the views looking out to the sea are the best.
Slightly smaller but no less important, Kwun Yam Beach is ideal for a bit of action with friends and family. Surfing is big in Cheung Chau, so if you’re up for the challenge, head to the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre nearby, which offers windsurfing, kayaking, and water sports equipment for rental. You’re bound to have a good time, so bring along your SPF and a volleyball and you’re set!