Hong Kong Diary 3b: Temple Street Night Market

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Temple Street Night Market is an icon of Hong Kong, a mecca for hardcore shoppers and foodies alike – and as the name says, it only opens at night.  Good news for us, as we wanted to shoot the night lights and atmosphere.  Arriving at our hotel from Shau Kei Wan, we spent a while at the harborside promenade shooting the Symphony of Lights again, then took an hour’s much-needed rest; not only had we walked all day, we had to come back during the rush hour and so spent the entire train ride on our feet. 

Did I mention we were tigerishly hungry?  No?  Well, whatever the condition of your appetite when you enter the Night Market, be assured that it will be in excruciatingly hyperactive mode within minutes of wandering in!  A whole section of the market is devoted to streetside dining, where just about anything edible seems available in just about any Chinese style of cuisine.  Soy-basted ducks and geese hung on racks everywhere, live groupers and other fish swam in aquariums, pails or basins along with lobsters and fat crabs, and there were plates of beautiful shellfish everywhere.  Unless you totally hate Chinese cuisine, it’d be impossible not to find something to your taste here.

Cat and I finally decided on a place to eat, not so much by the menu as by the fact that the waiter spoke English.  One thing about dining here: have an idea already what you want to eat! There’s a great throng of people waiting to be seated, and any hesitation is taken as a sinful waste of time by the busy restaurateurs.  I took matters into my own hands and ordered something I thought we’d both like, as well as feeding my spice addiction: a dish of crispy Szechuan-style chicken.  The dish arrived smothered with crunchy bits of fried garlic and dried red chilies, steaming hot and with a fragrance that might’ve been detected by the wolves in Mongolia.  And yes, it was that good.

Dining at the Temple Street restaurants as a couple however is not the optimal way to do things.  Far better to come here as a family or troop of friends, for only thus can you order a wider variety of dishes.  We discovered the table beside ours was occupied by a Filipino extended family; at first we had no idea, as they were just so busy munching on a profusion of seafoods that I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  Then a waiter walked between our tables carrying a crab dish that made both me and the guy nearest me on that table exclaim in Tagalog.  Voila! Instead friends!  And yes, they did call the waiter over on his way back to order the same crab dish for themselves.  Another nod to Pinoy pride: a lot of diners, including many Caucasians, were washing down their vittles with golden San Miguel beer.  What can I say? Good food deserves good beer.


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The Night Market is also a great place to shop for Chinese handicrafts as well as toys, watches, jewelry and other gewgaws, provided you’re prepared to wade through a crowd and haggle aggressively.  I was prepared to do neither, having in fact not an iota of inclination for shopping, but I did want photos of the merchandise.  It was challenging to squeeze in and find a space to shoot, and even more challenging to get a stable shot what with people bumping me from every direction, but I did manage a few.   It was near midnight when we got back to our hotel, tired, but very happy with our experience.

Hong Kong Diary 3a: Victoria Peak, Shau Kei Wan


Day 3 of our Hong Kong escapade began as the previous days, with no sunrise but just an increasing level of brightness filtering through the overcast.  Nevertheless, we decided to push through with the planned outing to Tai Ping Shan, formerly known as Victoria Peak.  I have to say I do like Tai Ping Shan better – sounds more picturesque.  On the way from Kowloon to the Hong Kong side, I found a shot that would perfectly illustrate the conditions for the day: this vividly painted ferry was almost the only spot of color amid the gray seas and skies.


As we waited to board the historic tram going up Hong Kong’s highest peak, I took the opportunity to lean over the rails and get this perspective shot.  This is where I got to really appreciate the hilliness of Hong Kong’s terrain – from the very start the tram’s tracks were already at a dizzying, almost 30-degree incline. 

_MG_5995 I was also very glad that Cat and I had visited the HK Museum of Art before the Tai Ping Shan outing.  Had we not done so, I might’ve spent most of the time on the peak moping about the lack of sun.  Instead, I found myself eagerly looking forward to working the fog into my photos.  Inspired by the minimalist yet highly evocative ink paintings I had seen, I again set my camera to Monochrome and overexposed most of my shots  by a stop or more.  Hiking the peaceful trails leading down the slope from the Peak station let me discover some nicely layered landscapes, which I tried to capture in the Chinese painting style. 

_MG_6007 The atmosphere of the fogbound trail was great; some say fog saps the spirit, but I found rather that going into the mist came with a strong sense of adventure.  What lies beyond the bend? I have no idea! That’s why I want to go there!

_MG_6061 _MG_6028 I had meant to work in black and white throughout my trail walk, but as I rounded a bend I was faced with this exquisitely textured wall of moss-covered rock.  I looked out over the fog-bound hillside, saw that I’d already gotten the best angles as far as I could see, and so wistfully set my camera back to color mode.  Another lesson from the Nan Lian Garden; be as the bamboo, Grasshopper, and shoot your surroundings the way they’re asking to be shot.

When at last Cat and I were ready to leave the Peak station, we made our way to Shau Kei Wan.  Our research had indicated this was a fishing village.  Ha ha. No more fishing village.  The galloping pace of Hong Kong’s real estate development had gotten there before our online guides could update their info, it seems, but we did find an older, cosier commercial area that again lent itself well to being shot in monochrome.  The people were kindly and took with amusement to our shooting everything, some even posing with a glee that felt almost Filipino.  I was only asked to desist once, when I entered a roadside shrine.  In respect to their religious taboos, I bowed and shut off my camera. 



We made our way to the waterfront, where we found fleets of sampans plying the Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter as taxis and fishing boats.  The smartly dressed passengers on this water taxi, talking into her snazzy new cellphone as the boat came in to dock, was so iconic of the continuity of culture here that I just had to shoot them.   By this time Cat and I were getting rather footsore and hungry, so we headed back for the nearest MTR station for the long trip back to Kowloon.

Hong Kong Diary 2: Meditations at the Nan Lian Gardens

Monday, February 22, 2010

_MG_5871 I had high hopes for our shoot in the Nan Lian Gardens, and I was not to be disappointed.  This despite waking up to a cold, foggy morning, so hazy I couldn’t even see the top of the building next to ours.  As we ate breakfast, though, I was treated to a wildlife drama right out of Nat Geo right outside our window; a falcon making a kill!  I’d noted the raptors patrolling over our hotel since our arrival, but never saw one up close.  Now as I sipped my morning coffee my eye was drawn to a flicker of rapid movement outside. 

I looked out just in time to see a panicked pigeon swerve into a window bay, zooming up inches from the glass, with a falcon in hot pursuit.  But the pigeon made a fatal mistake, underestimating the falcon’s climb – it zoomed above the pigeon, folded its wings, then dropped like an avenging angel.  I of course was hooting and cheering like an English football fan, while Cat, still without her contacts, saw nothing but brown blurs.  Ah well.  I took the sight as an omen for the rest of the day, and I was right.

_MG_5710The Nan Lian Gardens, we found, were located right beside the Chi Lin Nunnery, and was easily reached by taking the MTR from Tsimshatsui Station to Diamond Hill, with a change of train along the way.  I lost a few dollars here though, as I failed to realize that you could change train without having to exit the station; we bought a ticket to Mong Kok, planning to buy tickets again to get to Diamond Hill, but as it turned out we could’ve gotten a ticket for the whole trip several dollars cheaper.  Oh well, it’s called learning. 

The gardens were a revelation.  Only the tall buildings peeking above the garden’s surrounding trees betrayed the presence of modern Hong Kong outside.  Within, winding paths led around a tranquil little artificial lake with pagodas, artfully arranged rocks, and enormous, languid koi.  All around were exquisitely shaped and trimmed pine trees, flowering plants, and bamboos.  There were no sounds of street traffic to be heard, only the calls of birds, the gentle gurgle of falling water, and soft instrumental Chinese music.  _MG_5705

The sensation of entering the garden was exactly like that of plunging into the waters over a coral reef – from a world of noise and chaos into a welcoming blanket of utter harmony.  The incredible Zen of the place seeped through the very soles of my feet and through my hands into my camera.  I soon lost sight of Cat as I went into a kind of meditative trance, walking, absorbing, shooting. _MG_5718I found this waterwheel that reminded me of the scene from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, moving me to set my camera to Monochrome mode.  From there I wandered into an enclosure housing some rock-and-sand arrangements reminiscent of the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto (which I swear to visit someday).  More black and white, naturally, and I found my light lying prone on the floor to get my shot.  A guard spoke to me in Cantonese, which of course I couldn’t understand, so he told me in English I wasn’t allowed to do that.  He was very courteous, far from the brusqueness I’d been told to expect from the Hong Kong Chinese. 

_MG_5813After shooting the sand gardens, I got very absorbed studying the ancient textures of the bonsai outside.  Rather than shoot the bonsai as a whole, I dug into the textures and the way the light was playing on them for my subject matter.  I had the luck to have the sun coming out at just this time – the only time I’d see the sun on the whole 4-day trip. 

With the sun out, I decided to see if I could get another shot of the golden pagoda. I ran out just in time to catch the sun’s glints on the gilded surface, after which the cloud cover closed again, and stayed that way the rest of the day.  There was still no sign of Cathy; I was sure she was lost in the same blissful state as I.  I found I was now at the bridge leading to the Chi Lin temple complex itself, so I went in and took some shots of the architecture.  Then, feeling hungry, I went to look for Cat.

_MG_5783 _MG_5867_MG_5863 Cat of course wanted to shoot in the temple too, so we decided to delay lunch in favor of doing a few more shots.  That eventually took another two hours, during which I rested a bit and shot a few more details of the temple’s architecture.  Sadly, photography was forbidden inside the main temple.  Too bad, as I’d seen a beautifully lighted statue of Sakyamuni within, and the sounds of chanting betrayed the presence of monks that I also would’ve wanted to shoot.  Well, this was their place, and if they say no shoot, I’ll respect that.  

We headed back for the train station, which was fortuitously located right by the Hollywood Plaza mall.  Cat and I were both absolutely ravenous by then, so it was into the mall first for lunch. I could tell Cat was really hungry – normally it’s her role to steer me away from expensive-looking places, but now she would stop at every restaurant we saw and ask if I thought it was a good place to eat.  Good thing the Zen harmony I’d absorbed in the gardens was still with me, as I was able to resist and coax her into the food court.  Cat got a Japanese curry, while I, recalling the dumplings from the previous night, got myself some more Shanghai noodles and xiao long bao.


We’d originally planned to do the Nan Lian and the Yuen Po Bird Garden in the same day, but by the time we finished eating it was 4pm and getting even more darkly overcast.   We finally decided to postpone the birds, and instead shopped in the Hollywood Plaza for digital photo frames for our parents.  We caught the train back to Tsimshatsui Station at 5pm, and found Cat’s brother Martin resting at the hotel.  After a brief rest ourselves, we all trooped out to the harborside to shoot the signature night skyline on the Hong Kong side and await the Symphony of Lights show.

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The fog never let up, so thick that we couldn’t see the top quarter of the famous Bank of China building.  I also saw that it would greatly diffuse and brighten the lights, so I made sure to underexpose a bit.  I liked the golden cast I got using a Cloudy white balance setting, then switched to Sunny and a faster shutter speed for the laser show. 

It was cold, almost Europe-cold to me thanks to the wind chill factor, and damp.  I could only imagine what Cat was feeling, as Cat doesn’t have a high tolerance for cold.  I found out soon enough; as soon as the light show was over, Cat clapped her icy hands over my ears.  I yelped.  No, I shrieked.  Like a little goosed girl.  Laughing, we headed back to the commercial district for hot noodles.  Lots of hot noodles.

Hong Kong Diary 1: Hong Kong Here We Come!

_MG_5635Hong Kong.  While most of us Pinoys know it as Asia’s mega-shopping center, home to Disneyland and Ocean Park, Cat and I were able to discover and immerse ourselves in its quintessentially, timelessly and truly Chinese side, thanks to a bit of online research.

When Cat announced that her dad was planning to bring the entire family to Hong Kong for a four-day holiday, the very first question in our minds was, ‘All right, everyone and their grandmother has shots of Hong Kong, so what will we shoot?’  Okay, I’ll have to admit that was the second question in my head -- the first being ‘What dimsum do they have there that I haven’t tasted yet here, and where do I find them?’.  So we researched.  Three destinations quickly became of prime importance: the Nan Lian Gardens and the Chi Lin Buddhist Nunnery to which it was attached, the Temple Street night market, and the Yuen Po Bird Garden.  All were on the Kowloon side, which was also where we had booked our hotel. 

Speaking of hotels, ours, the YMCA Salisbury, far exceeded our expectations and had the perfect location for us independent adventurers.  First, it was near the Hong Kong Cultural Center and two museums, the HK Space Museum and the HK Museum of Art, and beyond them, a fine harborside promenade.  Second, it was a literal hop skip and jump away from a shopping and dining district, and third, it was another hop skip and jump from the MTR subway stations.  As if that wasn’t good enough, the accommodations were surprisingly cozy; we had come in expecting a typical YMCA dorm, and found a pretty posh room waiting for us.

_MG_5605Arriving on a Wednesday as we did, we decided to spend our first day taking advantage of Hong Kong’s free museum day.  First, however, was the matter of lunch.  We walked to a nearby mall, passing some rather interesting signs along the way (grin), and ended up in the mall’s basement food court.  Having a camera with me, I of course ended up shooting some stuff before deciding what to eat.  Inevitably, it was dimsum.


It was past 2pm when we finished with lunch, and from there we walked to the museum row. We had originally planned to hit three museums, but the Museum of Art had so much fascinating stuff we wound up staying there the whole afternoon.  There was a great collection of art there, from the earliest dynasties right up to the present.  I was particularly enthralled by the samples of classical Chinese ink paintings, the visions of which would later inspire my black and whites at Tai Ping Shan.  On exiting, I was struck by the beautiful lighting on this statue of Kwan Yin; it’s not every day that a literal goddess deigns to pose for you, so I of course shot her. 


As we  left the Museum of Art, we took a quick look across the harbor hoping the foggy conditions we had arrived to would clear in time for the nightly Symphony of Lights; alas, no such luck.  In fact we would see the sun only once during our four-day stay.  Off to dinner then, with the entire family at the Crystal Jade restaurant in the Harbour Centre.  As we went in I found the mall all decked out in preparation for the coming Lunar New Year.


We had Shanghai-style thick noodles, xiao long bao dumplings, sweet and sour fish, a fried rice dish with multiple kinds of grain, and this dish of steamed cauliflower and broccoli.  Everything was so good, it disappeared before I could shoot it! At least Cat snagged this veggie dish for me so I could go at it.  White balance was a bit difficult in the restaurant’s mixed lighting, but there was some nice hard light broken up by some nice metal bead hangings, which gave my dish good highlights.

_MG_8088The big winner for the evening however was the xiao long bao.  These ‘small steamer dumplings’ packed minced pork and herbs and an absolutely heavenly dollop of broth in their dough wrappers.  I liked them so much I decided I had to have them again before we left Hong Kong.

Cat and I ended our first night in Hong Kong  doing the exact same thing we did on our very first date – we spent the time shooting.  I let Cathy have the tripod, so nearly all the shots taken that night were hers.  A perfect evening, doing exactly what we love most.