The More Humble Side of Hong Kong: Sketches of Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po

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Markets, Neighborhoods

In Hong Kong, there are endless ways to celebrate any occasion (real, imagined, or adopted from somewhere else), for better or worse. However, after reveling in the Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival, Halloween, Mardi Gras, and Carnival, and before we begin our winter holiday celebrations both here and abroad, I feel it’s appropriate to reflect for a moment on the more humble and authentic (although not quieter) side of HK.

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Seemingly a world away from the the glitzy and glamorous stereotype of HK, on the western side of Kowloon, lies a grittier area nestled within the neighborhoods of Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po. Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. With that, comes both a high-energy neighborhood chock full of bargain shopping streets/markets and cheap eats, as well as the overwhelming congestion of many of its residents, often living in so-called ‘caged homes’ or tiny subdivided apartments. You may have seen examples of these in shockingly claustrophobic apartment ‘aerial’ photos taken by Benny Lam and featured on the Hong Wrong blog. Granted, Mong Kok has its more luxurious, ‘5-star hotel’ façade, but I’m more interested in exploring and understanding its humbler underpinnings and the nearby ‘authentic’ Sham Shui Po area.

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Poverty is sadly prominent in this area (and others), and with HK’s first official poverty threshold established just a few months ago, this will become more quantifiable. Right now, there are well over a million people in cosmopolitan HK living in poverty (with at least 100,000 of them living in caged homes or subdivided apartments). Prostitution is not uncommon in certain parts including Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po, and there are ‘Triad’ operations here (Chinese mafia involved in drugs, crime, and prostitution). Of course, the hope is for successful urban renewal, but as always, there are no easy answers.

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An example of the ubiquitous (and I must believe, somewhat unsafe) bamboo scaffolding, found on construction and repair sites across the city

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An old-style mailbox for the local police station. Don’t insert urgent notes!

On the (mostly) brighter side of things, this area is full of color, both literally and figuratively. Mong Kok has even been dubbed by the Guiness Book of World Records as the busiest district in the world. The area is home to the famous Ladies’ Market (selling mostly ladies’ clothing, not ladies!), a few obligatory HK malls, and numerous shopping streets often with a singular focus (e.g. one street sells only electrical items, another only flowers, yet another only fabric trimmings).

I walked through this area twice, once with Mark and then again with some new friends (special thanks to Elise for being such a great educator on the area). My visit with Mark was a mostly functional one. Indeed after multiple visits to reluctant stores on the main island, we managed to find the one store in Mong Kok that was willing to special-order an item for us – for which we are still very grateful. It was honestly the best customer service we’ve received here in HK! That said, our success was immediately preceded by a series of impatient wave-offs by shopowners who knew trying to help us would be a waste of both their and our time – no English spoken. If you experience this in some shops, don’t be offended – it’s not personal.

On my repeat visit to the area, I just absorbed my surroundings, learned from Elise, and photographed as much as I thought appropriate.

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Browsing on Flower Market Street

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A content canine resident of Flower Market Street peacefully observes shoppers from the security of his box

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Likely some crazy bargain at a market stall

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Ribbons abound…

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…as do heaps and shelves of other trimmings

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I have never seen so many different kinds and colors of beads in my life!

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Hmm…with these labeled ribbons available to the general public, makes you wonder a bit about product authenticity. And Christmas in New York?

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A ‘bird garden’ is located on a beautiful little street and is an apparent source of pride to many locals and the tourism industry. However, I found it horrifying for many of the birds, as they are mostly either crammed into tiny cages with dozens of other birds or are tethered by chains to perches.

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Mark, entering the bird garden

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The bird garden is a draw for ‘regulars’  (mostly groups of older men)

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Some HKers really love their birds – so much so that they tether their bird to themselves and walk around with them (seriously)

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Rocking a cutoff shirt in the bird garden

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The sad reality of the bird garden is that all birds are caged or tethered. This one is relatively lucky to have a home to himself

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This poor fellow was tethered by a chain to his perch, as were many of his colleagues

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These colorful beauties kept trying to clamor out of their cage…

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…and conditions for others were cramped…

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…or even more cramped

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I’m not a fan, and I wish this ‘bird garden’ would disappear, to be honest. Seeing most of the them clamoring to get out made it that much clearer that birds are meant to be free (or at least in larger spaces).

On another note, the original location of the least expensive Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan, also resides in Mong Kok and ‘boasts’ wait times sometimes exceeding 2 hours mostly for guests to experience its famous baked barbecue pork buns. I have yet to have the patience for this, but I’ve heard they’re quite impressive! This tiny restaurant has been so successful, it has expanded to become a successful ’boutique’ restaurant chain, including a coveted spot in the IFC (one of HK’s luxury shopping malls).

Continuing in the spirit of small businesses (aspiring to become larger), Mark and I often half-joke that HK is a city in which, for a fee (and probably a pretty reasonable one), you can get almost anything made for you. Well, in Mong Kok, you can add bras to the list. Yes…bras. Sold by a man, no less. Here’s to entrepreneurship!

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Custom-made bras? Sure, we do that!

I hope you enjoy the rest of my visual sketches of fascinating Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po – an area rich in history, riddled with problems (at least in certain parts), but mostly filled with hopeful, hard-working people who are integral to the tapestry and culture of Hong Kong.

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‘Baking’ yams and eggs on the street

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Not for the faint of heart…nor vegetarians

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Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po are home to a few ethnic minorities

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Dried sea creatures and other ‘stuff’ for sale in a local market

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Dim sum and other savory treats cooked at a local market

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That classic Asian fruit, durian – so smelly and offensive to some,  it’s illegal to publicly cut open in some countries. To me, the odor is reminiscent of rotting feet – not that I really know what that smells like! But many are addicted to its taste (excluding yours truly – no offense to durian-lovers!)

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Calligraphic signs like these are prominent throughout HK – but seem especially dense in this area

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This area is populated by a variety of ethnic minorities, including Pakistanis, who add to and diversify the local culture…and apparently the half-shirt trend has made its way into some of these circles, as well!

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Possibly the poshest ride in the area

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Making, drying, and selling Chinese sausages

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For more information on Mong Kok, click here and here.

For more information on Sham Shui Po, click here and here.

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

33 thoughts on “The More Humble Side of Hong Kong: Sketches of Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po”

    • I’ve seen bits of the luxury-hotel side of it, but I chose not to focus on it – nothing differentiating really, from what I saw. But you’re right, I should clarify this doesn’t represent all of MK!

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      • Yeah, it’s probably much more commercial, but I’ve always found the area around Lady’s Market to be interesting. Just how it gets crazy crowded feels very ‘Hong Kong’

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  1. Hi Deb, was curious after saw your comment about Durian, have you ever ate Durian before? I believe you grew up in US, right? I’m just trying to understand on the opposite preference of Durian in some different countries/region.

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    • Yes, I’ve had it several times, both in the US and in the mainland. Maybe it’s better here, but I just can’t quite get myself to try it again. 🙂 Nothing personal – just a taste difference.

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  2. Nicola says:

    Your photos are beautiful, they really catch all of the colours and the vibrancy of the place. Glad we could share that fun day – look forward to reading your future HK blogs.

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    • Hi Nicola! Thanks so much for stopping by and your kind words. It was lovely to share the experience with you and the rest of the group. I appreciate you reading and viewing!

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  3. I’ve been trying to see this part of Hong Kong more myself, as well. I only live a 10-minute walk from the Ladies’ Market and I went there for the first time recently. I prefer the HK that doesn’t revolve around designers and fanciness 🙂

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  4. Wonderful post and pictures! Truly amazing colours, too. I was planning to do photowalk of the same area sometime – to me this is the essence (good and bad) of Hong Kong life. There area is just steeped with so much history and tradition. You’ve captured it well. And don’t get me started on the durian, I love that stuff! Try durian ice cream, it just might change your mind! 😉

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    • Thanks so much, Peter! It definitely feels like the ‘real’ Hong Kong. I hope to see your visual perspective on the area sometime. And ok, I will give durian ice cream a try – I do love ice cream in general, so you never know! 🙂

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  5. your photos remind me of this book i just received as a gift when i was in HK. the book is titled: “Sketches of Hong Kong” by Lorette Roberts. http://www.amazon.com/Sights-Secrets-Sketches-Paintings-Hong/dp/9889732815

    it includes so many great paintings and sketches of everyday life in hong kong… all the little details and nuances of people, things, places, shrines, boats, homes, anything and everything. i looked to see if you can buy it online but it looks like it’s not in print anymore. maybe you might come across it in HK sometime!

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    • Yes, they are fascinating..although the interesting exteriors belie the often-depressing realities inside (many individuals and families living in poverty)

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  6. Excellent post and photos ….i walked around these neighbourhoods by myself a couple of times when we were in HK last summer …. Very interesting part of the world

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  7. *Sigh* This brings me back! I loved exploring the grittier parts of HK when I was there this summer. I admit it was not the safest thing to do by myself but I never got into any trouble. The markets in Sham Shui Po was one of my favorite places to look around because of all the beading, lace, and craft stalls. Your photos are so much better than the ones I captured. I’d like to think that not having many pictures of it was a good thing because it meant that I was really in the moment and not worrying about documenting everything.

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    • That area is such a treat to visit – gritty, colorful (more so than I expected), authentic. There’s always a right time to photograph and a right time to put the camera down – and it’s a subjective call. 🙂 Nothing wrong with just enjoying the moment and blending in.

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  8. These are fantastic photographs! Ashamed to admit that I’ve only briefly trolled the streets of Mong Kok twice and I’ve been here four years. (I judge myself.) I suppose it’s the gritty and stark, naked contrast to the part of the city I live that makes it an uneasy reality to confront. Having said that, the two times that I ventured into that part of Hong Kong were ones that I enjoyed – the first was to get art supplies for Hubby (they’re still backed up in out closet, untouched!) and the second time was to show a visiting friend around. Both intense in their own ways and both an experience at the end of the day. Don’t you just love that about Hong Kong? 🙂

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    • Thank you so much! I’ve been there a couple times now, and yes, gritty and very different from the more glitzy, glamourous side of HK. Some really don’t like it there, but it’s an integral part of the city and reality for many. Much more colorful and vibrant than I expected, but with a lot of sadness behind the walls, if you will. I feel badly for those who live a very tough life there. But selfishly, I find it fascinating and culturally rich in its own way. I love HK for so many reasons, and this is definitely one of them! Contrast, diversity, intensity!

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