Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hong Kong, a neon world

When tourist think of Hong Kong, two or three things come to mind.  Skyscrapers, shopping and the Hong Kong one might be familiar from watching films.  Skyscrapers, well to my mind, Hong Kong's skyline is not that impressive, when you look at London, Hong Kong's skyline is basically dense and most building are pretty boring.  Only a few really stand out, regardless of their age and height.  Hopewell Centre in Wanchai might be old, but it still stands out.  The former Prince of Wales building, looking like an upside down milk carton, still stands out, yet is barrack and not a commercial building and finally the HSBC building and the Bank of China building which were both darlings of the 80's.  There are a few more that are still quite special, such as the Lippo complex and the New World Centre complex.  The New World Centre was demolished in 2010 to make way for a new commercial block, but the Intercontinental Hotel took over the site of the former Regent Hotel which was the smaller section of the New World Centre complex.  Sadly a great many new buildings lack imagination and/or are quite ugly.

Shopping, Hong Kong was and is still a good place to shop, if you know what to buy and where.  For a while, shopping was geared towards Mainland Chinese tourist, but so far this year, numbers have dropped and the focus has been more towards the much neglected local market.  Not everything is cheaper in Hong Kong and nor would the goods be the latest.  Be savvy and shop around and the best deals might not be in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong in cinema.  Hong Kong has been fortunate in that she has had a lot of exposure in the world of cinema.  Think Bruce Lee, Jacky Chan, Shaw Brothers and James Bond to say a few.  Hong Kong has for a long time been a major producer of films and most influential in martial arts and action films.  Sadly, since 1997, there has been a shift in filming in Mainland China and many films are joint productions.  This isn't because of a government policy to dilute Hong Kong's culture and film industry, but because it is cheaper to shoot in Mainland China and joint productions mean entry in a bigger market.  It is sad that there are not so many locally produced films, but cheesy and innuendo filled productions are a minority, so that is fortunate.

In many films, the nights seem to be lit up back neon lights that seem to go on form miles.  That is something Hong Kong is known for.  Since the 50's, neon lights have graced Hong Kong's streets, letting the passer by know there exists a myriad of restaurants, bars, shops, barbers, hotels, Karaoke bars, hostess bars, brothels, hotels that charge by the hour, massage parlours and gambling dens.  Hong Kong is a very colourful and open society, which on the surface seems closed.

With the countless typhoons over the years, I do wonder how a great many survived.  I walk around the streets of Wanchai and Nathan Road in Kowloon.  This word still exists, where the neon lights provide hours of surreal wonder and amazement.  Hong Kong's culture is very interesting and the neon lights are very much part of the cultural landscape.  Generations have passed, shops and restaurants have come and gone.  Over the decades, new neon signs go and and some go down.  One might say that neon lights are a dated affair, but it is a something that Hong Konger's have got used to.

Over the years, there does seem to be less signs in some areas.  As old buildings get demolished and new building rise from nowhere.  As one who is quite nostalgic about the past, I hope they don't  disappear.  Shopping malls have no need for neon signs and upmarket neighbourhoods don't have them either.  Neon signs light up the colourful work of working class Hong Kong.  The real Hong Kong that people know to love.

Hong Kong based director Wong Kar Wai has made a number of films where neon lights play a significant part in the background of many scenes.  Not everybody is a fan of Wong or of art house films.  But neon lights play a clever part in that not only do people associate with Hong Kong, but provide a certain atmosphere that complements the mood.  Wong's films are somewhat timeless, they are not about the trick and famous, they are about common people.  The poignant feeling of love, lost and missed opportunities.  These are things that everybody experiences and perhaps, if we're honest with ourselves.  We can see ourselves in a Wong Kar Wai scene.

Christopher Doyle was the cinematographer who worked with Wong on a number of films.  I can't help but say, that at times, my vision of Hong Kong at night was influenced by watching Christopher Doyles work.  Here's a short video about neon lights in Hong Kong…

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