Hong Kong by day, Hong Kong by night

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By Simon J. Lau

Hong Kong has long been my home away from home. As a child, my parents would send my brother and me there during the summers to spend time with our extended family. We spent our days enjoying dim sum in Causeway Bay, swimming at the public pools in Victoria Park, and catching sand crabs along Repulse Bay. The time we spent in Hong Kong then remains among my fondest childhood memories now. However, during the early periods of 19th century British occupation, Hong Kong bore more resemblance to a patchwork of fishing villages than it did to the metropolis it is now. Over the next 150 years, the British invested heavily into public infrastructure, government, and commerce. But, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that Hong Kong gradually transformed into the world class city that it is today.

My mother was born in Hong Kong and my father and his family emigrated to Hong Kong from China. My father’s family was part of the mass influx of Chinese refugees that left mainland China during the Chinese Civil War. Both my parents grew up in Hong Kong during the tumultuous period between 1950 to 1970. During the 1950s, Hong Kong was just recovering from World War II, specifically the ravages of Japanese occupation. This, combined with the growing refugee population, further strained Hong Kong’s recovering public services and infrastructure. As the refugee population exploded, the housing shortage was exacerbated by the devastating 1953 Shek Kip Mei fires that destroyed many shantytowns along the Kowloon Peninsula. Soon after, emergency plans were created to quickly develop and transform the urban housing structures to accommodate the growing population. These plans led to the creation of many of the industrial high rises that still define much of Hong Kong’s urban landscape today.

For example, the Choi Hung Estate was approved by the Hong Kong Housing Authority in 1958. All 10 complexes were completed by 1964 and it remains one of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing facilities. It is further distinguished by its colorful exterior paint, a salient feature of these complexes since its beginning. It should be noted that Hong Kong public housing is distinct from public housing found in America. Nearly a third of Hong Kong residents reside in some form of public housing. Further, unlike the stereotype that we find in America where public housing is synonymous with crime, Hong Kong public housing is by-and-large safe facilities. Said differently, Hong Kong public housing is nothing like Pruitt–Igoe.

Another example of these mid-century industrial high rises include Montane Mansion in Quarry Bay. These 2,200 closely knit units mostly face one another to create a central atrium. This is such a popular photography destination that shortly after I visited, the property management introduced a photography ban to reduce unwanted guests from visiting. I should consider myself lucky, as these may be some of the last legitimately shot photos taken before the ban was introduced. All things considered, although the 1950s was a turbulent period in Hong Kong’s history, it attracted the labor needed, and compelled the government to invest in the resources required, to grow Hong Kong’s economy for the following decades.

Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, underwent rapid industrialization between the 1960s to 1990s. These four economies, otherwise known in academic literature as the Four Asian Tigers, initially grew their economies through manufacturing. For Hong Kong, the 1960s and 1970s was a time where it distinguished itself in technology, watches, and textile manufacturing. In fact, Hong Kong remains one of the largest manufacturers of denim today. At the same time, Hong Kong began to build out and further assert itself as an international financial center. These programs attracted ever greater foreign investments. When compared to other major cities in the Far East, in particular Japan, Singapore, and Shanghai, it can be argued that Hong Kong remains the most important financial center in Asia. As an aside, the Bank of China Tower featured prominently here, was where my brother worked when he lived abroad in Hong Kong for two years. It’s a beautiful building, but according to him, the layout near the tip of the tower is poorly designed and cramped.

History aside, Hong Kong remains my favorite city outside of San Francisco. It is the city where I feel the most at-home. Still, each time I visit Hong Kong I feel there is so much more for me to see and do. For my most recent visit, I made every effort to photograph as much of the city’s gritty nightlife as I could. Among these is a photograph of three servers and cooks bringing orders out for customers at a local eatery. This was my favorite photo from my travels through Asia. It retains much of the old school Hong Kong charm that I recall from my time as a child, but also captures the intensity and modern spirit of the city that I enjoy so much now as an adult. It’s an image that nicely links Hong Kong’s past to its present.

Exploring Bali’s inland charm

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To view our full gallery or to purchase prints, please visit our album here.
By Simon J. Lau

Bali may very well be the most charming place in Asia. Its distinct food, diverse landscape, and vibrant culture make it a small wonderland of sorts. I spent each morning walking along the beach in Kuta and Seminyak. This leisurely stroll gave me time to catch up on my plans for the day, and an opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of the beaches along the island. During the evenings, I explored the larger island, including a food tour of local Indonesian cuisine, and an off-road tour of the rice paddies in Ubud. But, perhaps one of my favorite days in Bali was the private night tour of famous landmarks and night markets. Each of these experiences were worth writing home to.

To me, there is no better way to explore a culture than by way of its food. My food tour in Bali was both a treat and a learning experience. It was here that I learned some of the larger distinctions between the Balinese and their fellow Indonesian nationals. For instance, Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country. Nearly 90% of Indonesians are practicing Muslims (CIO – World Fact Book 2017), a fact that I’ve been well acquainted with for quite some time. Bali, on the other hand, is a Hindu region. Most of Indonesia’s Hindu minority live in Bali, and more than 80% of Bali residents are practicing Hindus (Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics). These distinctions are manifested in Bali’s food culture. For example, pork is a meat most practicing Muslims wouldn’t eat. However, it is a common ingredient in many Balinese dishes. In fact, babi guling, a Balinese roast pork dish, is popular in the region. I was also introduced to my new favorite dessert: the Indonesian pancake. This pancake comes in both a savory and a sweet form, but the savory experience was one that blew my mind away. As I write this, I am still searching for an Indonesian pancake restaurant anywhere in San Francisco.

Still, my most vivid memory was the time spent with a street vendor as he prepared a kerak telor, a spicy Indonesian omelette, for me. This gentleman had put in a full day of work at his factory job only to setup his sidewalk stand at night as a second job. As with my experience in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but see many instances such as these where the perseverance and hard work of people shined through. I hope my work here brings some depth and color to the resourcefulness of these individuals and the many others like them.

Before Bali became famous for its beaches, it was well known for its agriculture. In some ways, its agricultural capabilities once rivaled some of the more well-known regions in Europe. For example, during Dutch occupation in the 1800’s, the British naturalist, Alfred R. Wallace, compared Bali’s irrigation system to the “pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe” (The Malay Archipelago). Today, Bali’s agriculture remains an important part of the economy and the irrigation system remains an integral part of its rural infrastructure. When I visited the paddy fields in-and-around Ubud, I was greeted by miles of irrigation systems that wrapped every plot of arable land. Fast moving bodies of water flowed throughout this system and eventually fed each paddy field. This experience helped me ground what I had read of Bali’s history, and relate it to its current agrarian infrastructure, an exercise I’ve found valuable in learning how regions evolve and cultures develop.

I found the most lively areas of Bali to be the night markets. I have a soft spot for night markets, especially wet markets, and I love night photography. Bali, in particularly, had some amazing night markets that included large outdoor wet markets. These vibrant scenes were wonderful photo opportunities for me. Furthermore, one aspect of Balinese culture that made photographing in Bali so much more fun than in other areas is that the Balinese are generally gregarious people and receptive to having their portraits taken. In fact, there were several instances where I took photos of one stall vendor only to have the next vendor ask me to take his or her photo. It was a welcomed change from what I’m used to.

For my last night in Bali I found an opportunity to schedule a private night tour which included several stops at notable landmarks in the area. My favorite of which, and featured here, was the Bajra Sandhi Monument. This landmark is relatively modern, built in 1987, but it is intended to illustrate the history and struggles of the Balinese people. By the time we arrived here, it was late at night and raining. I wasn’t optimistic that I’d get any usable photos of this monument. But, to my surprise, these may have been the most stunning photos I took throughout my time in Bali. Seeing these photos makes me realize that as much as I love to photograph people, I’ll always be drawn to night photography of cityscapes and the structures we tend to pass by all too quickly during the day.

Of all the places I visited last winter, Bali may have been the most difficult place for me to craft an itinerary. On one hand, Bali is famous for its beaches and water sports, but I was far more interested in photographing and exploring its distinct food, diverse landscape, and vibrant culture. Fortunately, I was able to cobble together a diverse experience that met, and in some cases, exceeded my expectations. So for those who intend on visiting Bali, my recommendation is to veer off the well-worn path to explore Bali’s inland charm. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.