One Year In: What It’s Like to Live In Hong Kong (Part 6 – The People and Their Culture)

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Festivals, General, Markets, Temples, The Great Outdoors

The true essence of a place does not exist without its people and the culture they create and perpetuate. When we travel, we usually only have the opportunity to experience a very small slice of this – then we craft our lasting impressions of that place and its people based on those sparse data points, filling in the gaps perhaps over time with repeat visits – but more likely just in our minds, with assumptions or romanticized (or negative) notions of what should fill those gaps. It is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of brief visits.

If you have (or create) the opportunity to move abroad, however, you then have the distinct privilege of immersing yourself more fully and (hopefully) gaining a more complete understanding of a place and its people.

After living here in Hong Kong for just over a year or so now, I of course cannot claim that I have fully grasped everything about it, not even close. And since Cantonese unfortunately was not passed down through the generations of my family, and I am convinced it is the most complicated language on the planet (other than English, of course) – I, like most expats, can only engage in the most superficial of conversations with locals who cannot speak English.

That said, I have done my best to interact – and thus learn and absorb.

When most ‘outsiders’ consider Hong Kong, they envision its skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls, and unabashed party scene. All of these still ring true as emblematic of this city. And its shopgirls (and boys), shoppers galore (although many are not locals), and partygoers are therefore, for better or worse, fundamental to the fabric of HK.

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Serving up punch at Carnival in Lan Kwai Fong (party central)

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Infamous LKF – early in the evening, while folks are still standing

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A familiar sight in HK – intensely crowded escalators leading up to Times Square, one of HK’s mega-malls

But of course, there is so much more!

The living remnants of its colorful history – the old traditional medicine shops, dried food shops, barber shops, and dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls) – are a key underpinning of HK. I have mixed feelings about the quality of the overall food scene here, but there is no question that HKers LOVE to eat. I also have very mixed feelings and admitted biases about traditional medicine. While I respect the idea of tradition, the scientist and animal protector in me struggle to accept many of its ingredients as either proven effective or even in the vicinity of ethically sourced (demand for traditional Chinese medicine is largely responsible for several species of animals now facing extinction). But again, for better or worse, these hallmarks of Hong Kong are unlikely to go anywhere for quite some time. Locals, especially of the older generation, are passionate about them.

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Flattened cephalopods – one of numerous dried seafood options in HK

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Dried goods at a traditional shop in Sheung Wan

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Freshly caught fish – drying in the summer heat in Tai Tam Reservoir

Feline relaxation on dried fish in HK

Felines love their seafood – and when dried, it also makes for a good resting spot

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A dai pai dong (open-air food stall) in Tai Hang

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One of HK’s few remaining old-fashioned barber shops – free floating in an alleyway in Sheung Wan…

...with its owner just a few feet away, doing a little people-watching

…with its owner just a few feet away, doing a little people-watching

Many HKers are also quite devout, with about half the population estimated to adhere to a religion – mostly Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism – or Christianity or Catholicism, which were more encouraged during British rule. Displays of devotion are especially apparent during important celebrations, such as Chinese New Year.

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A monk at Po Lin Monastery, adjacent to the famed Big Buddha on Lantau Island

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Avid worshippers at Man Mo Temple on Chinese New Year (if your eyes are sensitive to incense smoke, bring some goggles – you’ll need them!)

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Lighting incense at Man Mo Temple

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Street-side ‘monk chat’ (if you’ve ever been to Chiang Mai, Thailand, you know what I am referring to!)

Lively markets will live in my memory for years to come as one of the absolute icons of Hong Kong. I try to steer clear of the more touristy ones. And we’re quite lucky that we happen to live directly adjacent to a pretty authentic one – the bustling Wan Chai Market. Whenever I need a little positive distraction, I wander through that market. With the distinct exception of the time I stumbled upon the back of a truck holding two (very recently) gutted carcasses of enormous pigs (I will spare you the photo), our neighborhood market is a key feature that makes me really love living where we do. With its daytime hustle-and-bustle, the sheer variety of goods on offer (some I’ll never get used to, like the pig faces and sheep heads), and the odd mix of hawkers who seem both slightly indifferent yet still eager to sell – its overall energy is contagious. The sights, sounds, and smells – intoxicating, slightly bizarre, always intriguing, almost always entertaining! Ambling through its atmospheric stalls reminds me that I do indeed live in Hong Kong – and that is a very good thing.

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One of the more popular seafood stalls in Wan Chai’s outdoor market

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Vegetarians, look away – various cuts of meat (including trotters) at a stall in Wan Chai’s outdoor market

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These guys at our local fresh fruit stand work into the evening, their wares (and themselves) offering a colorful backdrop after dark

The same could be said about many of HK’s countless street markets, selling everything from fresh fruit to ridiculously inexpensive (and likely questionable) clothing, trinkets, and home goods. If you come here and never walk through one, you are missing out!

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A fruit seller at the Graham Street Market

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A very popular man – who hawks shoes and bags out of a small but always busy alleyway stall in Central

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Selling more traditional wearables at a street market in Central

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Hunting for that perfect bag…

And don’t be shy about bargaining – it is a source of all markets’ vibrancy and indeed expected in many cases, even in some stores. You’d be surprised what you can bargain for here. Mark even bargained for a high-end watch in a jewelry store after doing some price checks around the block, and I negotiated for my Nikon D810 – and yes, both are the real thing. If you’re in the spirit, the game of it all is quite entertaining. Shop clerks will sometimes feign offense and tell you a lower price is not possible – sometimes it’s the truth, sometimes it’s just a first step. More often than not, this is followed by a good-natured exchange and a few laughs – and eventually, a (slightly) better price for whatever you decided to purchase.

Up for negotiation - the bargaining process at Graham Street Market

Up for negotiation – the bargaining process at Graham Street Market

Speaking of ‘not possible’, on a more frustrating front, you’ll sometimes hear locals respond to a request with a simple ‘cannot’. This is occasionally accompanied by a slightly infuriating raise of crossed arms to drive the point home. During our first few months here, I honestly had to fight an urge to punch someone when this gesture was presented to me – particularly when a request was so simple as to be absurd to refuse it – such as swapping a side dish at a restaurant, even when offering to pay more. Now that we’ve been here a year, we have adapted and learned to laugh when it happens. When people tell you that living in Asia teaches you patience – perhaps this is one way this occurs!

Mark adopts the 'cannot' stance (for illustrative purposes only, of course)

Mark adopts the ‘cannot’ stance (for illustrative purposes only, of course)

I joke, but it is an example of narrow thinking that we have observed with some frequency here. Add to that the inexplicable queues for what-often-turns-out-to-be-nothing-worthwhile. Sometimes I do wonder what goes through folks’ heads!

One of HK's countless (and often puzzling) queues

One of HK’s countless (and often puzzling) queues

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It’s not altogether surprising, I suppose. HK is part of China after all, and for years, it was a country that celebrated blending in with and following the crowd, more than individuality and independent thought. But that is changing, and there are certainly those who break the mold. More on that in my next and final post in this series.

Like many cities, Hong Kong is characterized by extremes. This is particularly true on the money front. With the world’s most expensive real estate market (ok – by some accounts, perhaps #2), HK is often perceived as a city of exorbitant wealth. It is, partly – but of course, there are many who live on the other end of the spectrum (and many in-between). Over the course of the last year-plus, we’ve seen only a couple truly homeless people. But that doesn’t mean that poverty is nonexistent. It’s just hidden from general view. You may have read about or seen footage of HK’s cage homes and shoebox apartments – which are basically what they sound like. While some live in luxurious flats, others live in cramped quarters of relative squalor. This, by the way, is part of what has fueled the angry albeit mostly orderly protests of late (which are finally being cleared 2 months after they began). Much of the wealth that populates HK is actually attributed to mainland Chinese, not locals.

A overt display of wealth...

An overt display of wealth…

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…and the habitats of those less financially fortunate

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The fascinating, but much less flashy, side of HK – in Mong Kok

The concept of wealth is certainly idolized here – perhaps more so than in other cities. At least it is talked about more here, from what I have observed. Money is an awkwardly common topic of conversation among many. Status is overtly showcased by those who have it (or wish to suggest they have it). ‘Peacocking’ in all its shallowness and superficiality is all too common – from way-too-obvious brandishing of designer bag logos to talk about one’s ridiculously expensive car (that could be only driven with justice somewhere off the main island) to the not-so-casual mention of which luxury apartment building one lives in or one’s wealthy/famous friends. But I can’t say this is really attributed to pure locals, as I have actually observed it more commonly with expats and mainlanders.

Sometimes that competitive spirit manifests in a more fun manner, though. HKers enjoy a good competitive sport, whether dragon boating, horse racing, or racing miniature motorized boats at the local park. Less fun competition? Trying to get your kid into the best private international school (or so I’ve heard).

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The culmination of months of training – dragon boat races on Victoria Harbour

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Racing tiny motorized boats at Victoria Park (hey – there are stranger, and much worse, pastimes!)

Distinguishing elements of HK are its rich natural landscape and, with the exceptions of a brutally humid summer and a brief, slightly brisk winter, quite temperate weather overall. HKers embrace this and revel in the outdoors whenever possible. For some, this means hiking on one of its numerous trails. For others, it simply means hanging with friends or even exercising in the local park – perhaps even a nighttime game in the rain. For yet others, it means prolonged cocktailing on one of HK’s miniature or sprawling rooftop terraces. The common thread? Usually socializing of some sort.

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A great spot to take a breather and people-watch in Central – a local favorite

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Basking in lovely autumn weather – and grabbing gourmet treats at the Harbour Artisanal market in Tai Hang

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Summer heat be damned – this generation still gathers to play cards and games near Blake Garden in Sheung Wan

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Mark tries to work off brunch - on the periphery of

Mark tries to work off brunch – on the periphery of Stanley

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Rain, shmain – if you stop doing things in the rain in HK, you won’t accomplish much! At the Southern Playground in Wan Chai

And HK loves to celebrate! There are numerous festivals, some with deep cultural or historical roots, others created more recently (some more for the sake of having a good time than anything else). These near-constant parties can be found in parks, in the streets, almost anywhere. The party culture is embedded, and you are expected to participate!

HK is a fun place to live, whether you’re a kid, a grandparent, or somewhere in between. There’s something for everyone, as long as you put yourself out there and take advantage. And almost universally, family is a focal point for many of these festivities, often spanning generations.

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Soaking up the colorful art displays at the Arts in the Park festival in Victoria Park

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Don’t ask, I really don’t know…hey, art is subjective!

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Clowning around at the Dragon Boat Festival in Victoria Harbour

Clowning around at the Dragon Boat Festival in Victoria Harbour

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The annual Tai Hang Fire Dragon Parade – a hot, chaotic, fun mess that is a highlight of the Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival celebrations

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The more delicate side of the Fire Dragon Parade

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Enjoying souvenirs from the fire dragon himself – incense sticks that are plucked off the beast after the parade and handed to eager spectators

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Spectating the spectators is half the fun!

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Bright lights, big spectacles – it’s all good…

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HKers love their bright neon lights – one of the displays at the Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival in Victoria Park

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Families here are also extended – in a way. Almost everyone has a helper. Labor here is so inexpensive, anyone with a moderate amount of money can employ a helper to take care of all the mundane tasks of daily living, including everything related to child care. There are several hundred thousand helpers in HK, roughly 1/2 of whom are Filipino, 1/2 Indonesian. They comprise a fraction of HK’s population but are quite heavily integrated.

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One of HK’s thousands of helpers, taking a break with friends in Victoria Park

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Helpers enjoy their own market in Victoria Park – chock full of slightly modernized versions of traditional clothing

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Particularly on Sundays (their one official day off), these domestic workers seem to take over the city – spending time with friends in a multitude of public spaces, even the Ikea ‘living rooms’!

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Helpers often live with families in minute slivers of space that most would consider the equivalent of a closet. These women are often a primary source of income for their families back home and so put up with sparse living conditions. Unfortunately, there are occasional reports of abuse, one of which was widely publicized earlier this year – likely only a small sample of what really goes on behind some closed doors.

But many lead a relatively content life here and become a very key part of families – indeed an important part of the overall culture of HK. That is in part due to their own contributions to local culture, but also in part because they alleviate the burden of many parents here – freeing those parents to engage with the city a bit more than they could otherwise.

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A helper spends some quality time with the little one in her care at Stanley Beach

Before we moved, I wondered what HK would be like for yet another family ‘extension’ – pets! I assumed that HK might be frighteningly similar to the mainland in its treatment of animals – which is to say (with the exception of caring pet owners themselves), not very well, and quite infamously, even as a potential food item. As a pet owner myself, I was concerned if I would have access to the basics of decent pet food and veterinary care. Needless to say, my concerns were completely unfounded! Pets here lead pampered lives. Specialty pet stores, vets, and pet spas seem to dot every neighborhood here, and owners treat especially their dogs like – well, essentially miniature, furry people.

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Spoiled pooches watch with envy as their owners enjoy Sunday brunch near the Island East Market

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Really? Don’t dogs know how to swim??

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Very, very happy dogs – drying off after frolicking in the ocean at Stanley Beach

I suppose I am not perfectly objective about my closing thoughts on the culture of HK. But I still think it’s fair to say that expats are integral to the city. They still comprise a small percentage of HK’s total population, but they (I should say ‘we’) are visible almost everywhere, at least on the main island. I’d like to believe we are contributors to HK society – and certainly add diversity to the city. Even those who do not actively work here play a part in supporting businesses and the overall economy. But most locals are relatively ambivalent about expats – neither negative nor overly enthusiastic about their presence – unless they are seen as a target customer, of course, in which case they may be treated like (temporary) best friends.

As an expat, one challenging fact-of-life to adjust to here is the constant efflux of expats. Expats cycle through HK it seems in a flash – so one must get accustomed to building friendships that quickly become long-distance. The silver lining? There are always new folks to meet (and no, they don’t all work in finance). And the world can be small if you make it that way – you never know what reunions can occur when you travel. I’m pretty confident (and happy) that some of the friendships we’ve started here will continue for years to come, even with those who have moved beyond HK’s borders.

And let’s not forget about all you visitors…you help HK thrive!

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Div, G, Mark, and me caffeinate at Unar Coffee Company in Tai Hang

Overall, Hong Kong is a fascinating amalgam of old and new, east and west. Elaborate festivals, temples filled with heady incense smoke, markets abuzz with activity, over-the-top shopping malls, artsy corners, hidden little gems – and people fuel all of it. Despite its stereotype, its heartbeat is not perpetually fast. It has its celebratory and party moments, and there can be crowds – but it’s not overwhelming. It’s all relative, I suppose – but coming from NYC, sometimes HK feels downright slow to me. But even if you find HK to be a bit hectic, know that it also knows how to chill out – as long as you do. Quiet and peaceful nooks can be found if you know where to look. You can escape the masses, massive skyscrapers, and mega-malls – and quickly. Head for the mountains or the beaches, or another island adventure nearby.

Along the way, you’re bound to encounter some interesting folks – locals or not. And as I always say, people make the place. Take a few moments to absorb and immerse – and you might be charmed, too. Or at least have the experience of a lifetime.

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A popular wedding spot – Hong Kong Park

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A classic director diva moment – on the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui

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Some fishermen still handle their trade the old-fashioned way here – in a small boat off the coast

Quite possibly the happiest policemen I've ever come across - checking our wakeboarding boat driver's license - and taking a moment to flash some pearly whites

Quite possibly the happiest policemen I’ve ever come across – checking our wakeboarding boat driver’s license – and taking a moment to flash some pearly whites

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Ali – one of Mark’s good-spirited wakeboarding coaches – ‘feeling blue’

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All images © 2014 deb fong photography

 

Related posts:

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 5 – The Sweet Side of HK Swings West)

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 4 – The Sweet Side of HK)

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 3 – The Food Scene)

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live In Hong Kong (Part 2 – Cocktailing and Wining in HK)

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live In Hong Kong (Part 1)

 

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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!

16 thoughts on “One Year In: What It’s Like to Live In Hong Kong (Part 6 – The People and Their Culture)”

  1. john sicat says:

    Hi Deb, As always, I enjoyed your recent blog, especially the part about flashing one’s wealth…the dude at the rooftop bar that was bran’n about his fancy cars w/in seconds of meeting him…LOL!!!

    Happy Thanksgiving! What are the turkey options looking like out there? 🙂

    John

    Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2014 12:02:23 +0000 To: johnsicat@hotmail.com

    Like

    • Hey John – thanks for reading! I know, I was thinking exactly about him when I mentioned the car point 🙂 Hilarious (and a little sad)!

      No turkey for us this year – but that’s ok. Hope you and Nidia have a lovely holiday!

      Like

  2. fatladysays says:

    Great photos! I especially love the Fire Dragon Parade ones. I was there as well but didn’t manage to capture them as well as you did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! You are so kind :). That parade is crazy but fun to watch (and photograph)! Appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment

      Like

    • Thanks so much, Marta!! Yes, kids are always so much fun to photograph – uninhibited and authentic :). Thanks for reading/viewing and commenting!

      Like

  3. Loved reading this post, Deb. You have a way with words (and of course with the camera). was laughing out loud at the queues for nothing…. and that infuriating “C A N N O T”. Singaporeans say it too but with a headshake and not that gesture.. which just makes it worse. i am in awe of your street shots… i find it very hard to photograph strangers… but they seem to pose happily for you. absolutely loved that director-diva moment 🙂

    Like

    • Thank you again, Kan! I am so glad this post resonated with you 🙂 sounds like you know where I am coming from!

      I agree, street portraits can be really challenging but almost always worth the attempts. With some exceptions, the worst that happens is someone says no, which I always respect. A past mentor of mine really helped encourage me to be more forward, and it has paid off in spades. Not just for photos, but also the experiences and interactions that surround the images ;). Thanks again for reading and posting such lovely feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great post! As usual for you. I enjoyed going through the photos and your commentaries, almost as if I was experiencing life in Hong Kong myself. You have a keen eye for the human condition and psyche.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such a lovely compliment, thank you so much! You have made my day, honestly. It is one of my goals, to help readers feel as if they live here. As always, I really appreciate you reading and viewing!

      Like

  5. Kenny Yuen says:

    Found your site by accident and find the posts endlessly fascinating. Moved from HK to Philly at age 9. Things described seem both familiar and distant. I must admit it was a little tough to read your beautiful tribute to your dad . My late wife passed at 42 and only had 12 years to leave an impression on our son. I have a 4 year old daughter now after remarrying and hope I can have that kind of influence on her in my lifetime. Thank you.

    Like

    • Kenny, thank you so much for reading and taking the time to write such beautiful comments. I am honored that my posts have touched you. And I am sure you will have a wonderful influence and impact on your children – for me, it was my dad’s honest love, guidance, and kindness that left the strongest impression – enough for a lifetime even beyond his years. Thanks again for stopping by!

      Like

  6. Pingback: Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 1) | HONG KONG FONG

  7. Pingback: Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 2) | HONG KONG FONG

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