journal 41: Hong Kong and the 16-story Chungking Mansion

Hong Kong is a massive rush for any first-timer.  It’s even more so at any time during rush-hour.  It was amazing when I found a street, like the one above, that wasn’t completely packed with foot traffic.

Laborers throwing bags of rice from a truck; rich folk chatting away on their Blackberries; book-reading, iPod-flicking zombies pausing just inches before bumping into passersby as they come barreling into their shallow field of vision.  It’s a maze of trollies, Mercedes, buses, overhead walkways and cryptic alleys selling everything from pantyhose to Christmas lights.  And amid all this, surprisingly no other photographers.

For this trip, I made a special effort to work a my new style of photography that I have been wanting to integrate into my repertoire.  And it requires a tripod with a nice head and the ability to hold at least 8Kg of camera body and lens attachments.  So there I was, mid-sidewalk, setup and ready to shoot as the sea of people flowed around me, and I got the sense, for the first time while traveling, that I was no longer worried of being the victim of any type of robbery.

I know that sounds strange, but I am constantly on the lookout for quick hands, have an ever-present eye on my bag and know where all my camera gear is at all times.  But I suppose I took more comfort than usual in the massive swell of bodies in motion all around me.  I wouldn’t have been able to chase anyone down, shout at someone or for help or have much chance of even knowing if I was actually the victim of pick-pocketing.  But I was at ease nonetheless.

I guess that feeling came mostly because I was a point of attraction in the street.  So all the eyes peering in my direction acted as a web of security for anyone ballsy enough to approach and steal something from me.  It would probably be the equivalent of walking onto a stage in the middle of a ballet and trying to steal a tutu.  It was pretty refreshing, actually.  After all, this is no small city; and indeed no city which was unfamiliar with crime of all kinds.

But before I start a tangent, I want to discuss some items that will be shortly upcoming for this blog, blog #41, the content of future blogs and the big plans that I have for the future of the blog in general.  

For this blog, I’d like to introduce a new technique that I have been interested in since my Korea trip.  I wanted to do more of it on that trip, but I limited it mostly to gathering a style, hammering in the technique and then working on solid post-production.  This new technique is called High Dymanic Range photography, or HDR for short.

This type of photography consists of creating several frames of the same image at different exposures and capitalizing on their ability to draw from different gradients of light to maximize the feel of “being there,” visually speaking.  As you’re standing in a place, your eyes do a much better job of analyzing light as it truly appears.  The problem that cameras innately have, is that they can expose for only one temperature of light at a time.  This can be manipulated with the use of filters, multiple masking layers in editing and of course the software itself has, to some extent, the ability to draw out the other underexposed areas.

But when a camera can bracket several exposures almost simultaneously, it makes the work of getting the right all-around exposure pretty easy business.  And with new technology, powerful thinking by photographic creatives and lots of financial backing, software has come about that makes that process much easier.  But while HDR not only increases the amount of time needed to dedicate for still images on location, but adds a step in an already very tedious production process for large catalogs of images (that ultimately I have to deal with after every trip), it is much more rewarding once the final product is in.  The image at the top of this blog is the exact result of what I am describing here.  It is the way light hits the eyes naturally, exposing the under-eve locations of the scene just as would your eye’s quick and long-adapted ability to do so.

This image is another one of my favorites from the Hong Kong Collection.

This dramatic lighting comes from the multiple exposures that were created during a series of high-speed, continuous shooting that my Nikon has the ability to do, freezing the action sequence in a way that makes it possible to layer several different exposures into a single image.

But more about that later.  Another part of the plans that I have for this blog is the addition of two very exciting things.  I will be adding a discussion section of the newest gear that I am interested in like photographic equipment, travel guides and equipment, books, different websites that I keep up with and lots more to make things interesting.  And the other point that I am excited to be bringing to the blog is a photography contest!

I will be hosting a new photo contest each month with prizes for first and second place.  And lots of cool extras for participants.  But since this blog can’t handle that kind of memory (or won’t, really), I have opened up a new website that I will be announcing shortly.  There are some really great things afoot, so be sure to stay tuned for the latest on what’s happening.

And as for the blog that will be carried over to the new site, I want to also introduce new features that I have wanted to implement and that I think will really be good for the site (and that you will enjoy seeing).  Firstly, I plan on putting up lots of videos.  I liked seeing them in other blogs that I subscribe to and I have regretted not putting more emphasis on that here.  Travel videos, tutorials, discussions on the latest gear that’s out there are all going to be part of my upcoming videos.

Secondly, I will also have a member’s area where you can log on, post links to your site, get your photos seen, link to your twitter account or Facebook and even start discussions of what interests you in the worlds of travel, writing and photography.

I want to form a community where I, and others, can come and keep up with others out there traveling, writing and doing what they love (and all those who live vicariously through them).  But I will be discussing that more in upcoming blogs.  For now, though, I have the great Hong Kong to blog about.  Don’t worry, I will be talking about my newest favorite gear in this blog as well.

Lastly, I have several books slated to be published next year and, as well as portraits and landscapes, I will be hosting them on this and my photography site.  I will give some of them away as prizes and will also host books by other authors like me trying to gain more exposure.  I will, of course, be doing this overseas, so you’ll have to be willing to wait a few weeks for delivery if you’re the lucky winner.  But I will get you your prizes, I promise.

But I don’t want to stray too far from the norm of the blog just yet.  So in light of the mention of my interest in discussing books, I wanted to point out one that I purchased while I was in Hong Kong.  It’s a great read and it’s written by Gordon Matthews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who’s taken a really interesting avenue for his research.  He’s stayed at least one night at the Chungking Mansions each week for the three years preceding this book (and I am willing to bet, a few more).  In his book, Ghetto at the Center of the World, he describes the Chungking Mansion as a dilapidated, 16-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district.  It’s home to a remarkably motley group of people including traders, laborers, asylum seekers, drug dealers, prostitutes  and even foreign workers who return home once every few months.

Of course, I stayed there as well.  And I have to say, the research alone that went into this book had to be pretty entertaining.  Every night there was some really amazing activities afoot right outside the gates.  The on-duty security guards mostly laughed along with the residents at what was happening.  But I didn’t feel unsafe (mostly) while I was there.

I can say, though, that this little building that would be boarded up and locked down for fear of collapse in many other countries, was a truly amazing oddity to be sandwiched amid the looming towers in the multinational headquarters of the world’s financial mecca.  Multinational corporations and global companies might barely even lift a proverbial eye brow in its direction.  But this dusty edifice probably had more character attraction on one floor than several of its goliath neighbors put together.

Anyway, it’s a great read if you get the chance to pick it up.  But what better way to paint a picture of my experience in Hong Kong.  It was really great.  And the people were something unexpected, too.

As far as the city goes, from the cobbles in the alleyways to the marble floors at Starbucks, this, like many other huge, Asian cities, was basically a huge shopping mall.  But the people were what made it surprising.  Mostly they kept to themselves.  But when bumped into (which was a rare occurrence indeed) there was always a hand wave and an apologetic look which was normally followed by an “excuse me.”  And that reminds me, everyone speaks English in Hong Kong.  So if you’re on your way there, you don’t have to worry about brushing up on your Cantonese first.  But while you might not want to carry all those extra pieces of luggage through this unforgiving maze of concrete, you may want to overpack your wallet.  This place is EX-PENS-IVE.  And by no means should you take that lightly.  You will go through more money here than most other places you’ll go.  Make no mistake about that.

Not only is the exchange rate very difficult to quickly calculate mentally, it’s also difficult to bargain with people here because they’re so used to catering to so many currencies that they will try and work into other denominations to make it sound like a better deal.  Talk about a headache.  My calculator was the first thing to materialize when I approached any booth, table or counter — long before the money came out.

The trip wasn’t that long, really.  All I had to do was get my residence visa worked out for Taiwan and check into my Myanmar tourist visa for my next visit there early next year.  So the rest of the time was spent in book stores, checking out the sites, photographing amazing street action and, oh yeah, the best part: sailing through Victoria Harbor and Kowloon Bay.  I have wanted to do that for so long.

Downsides to HK: if you’re not used to walking on inclined planes, you’ll be dead within hours of arriving.  That, or you’ll simply never get anything done.  Walking is everything.  And everything is slanted vertically.  So start your hikes early in preparation for a visit.

Upside, you can get anything you want here (and I mean that literally).  And for being in Asia for the last three years, it’s nice to get an American cheeseburger and fries with real pickles and real ketchup/mayo and all the trimmings.  Quite enjoyable.

Don’t forget to drop by the website,, and check out the new Hong Kong gallery.

Until next time, happy trails!


4 thoughts on “journal 41: Hong Kong and the 16-story Chungking Mansion

  1. Kyle: the pix are awesome! That new technique combined with your photography talents really create something special. Wow!

  2. Wow, off to yet another part of the world, new “toys” to play with, and bringing your new wife to share in your experience! I’m very grateful to be aware of you and your adventures and love reading your descriptions and admiring your new style of photos. Thanks so much for sharing with the world…..
    Best of good fortune to you both…..

    • Thanks Linda! I hoped that you would chime in. No one’s said anything about the additions of gear/travel suggestions. Maybe I will put it as an aside in future blogs. Did you get my email response to your last comments? Also, in about a month, Danielle and I will be headed off to the Philippines for a few weeks. I think we might even do Singapore-to-Dili on the last week to complete my visit to every country in Southeast Asia! I will be sure to post something else before we go.

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