Hong Kong travel guides instruct their readers to "look up" when wandering the streets of this city, promising that here the traveller will find a world populated by rooftop gardens, cafés, bars, and trendy shops selling second hand vinyl and books. But even with a new found confidence, buoyed by recent success navigating public transport, I was nervous about wandering into the gloomy doorways of Mong Kok, one of Hong Kong's many red light districts.
With space finite and demand for it high, the city's towers are not only for banks and flats, but often host a hotchpotch of tailors, jewellers and iron mongers living harmoniously side by side. As the number of red lanterns decorating the city increased in anticipation of Chinese New Year, the possibilities for urban exploration seemed endless. I had a long weekend and a partner in crime released from his office shackles, so we decided to go off in search of Hong Kong's hidden gems.
According to more experienced travel writers, many of these are to be found on one street in Mong Kok. Unfortunately, instead of a mysterious alley full of colonial buildings fallen into disrepair, everyone in an already overcrowded city seemed to have descended on this large stretch of it. For those who know Hong Kong better than I do it was Sai Yeung Choi Street South, which I now know is home to one of the city's most famous markets.
Crowds of people surrounded the street's assorted buskers, which varied from Cantonese rock groups pumping music out of tall speakers, to a woman stationed with her cello competing for the attention of passers-by, and an older Chinese gentleman elegantly singing "Like a Rolling Stone" without dislodging the chewed down rollie settled in the corner of his mouth. Although this wasn't the quiet street full of secret wonders that we had the right to expect, swallowing our disappointment we ploughed through the busy streets looking up, and trying not to fall over.
Photo by Evie Burrows-Taylor
Two hours later ... and we were on the same street - it really was very long. As we approached the final stretch, trying to keep each other's spirits up, the only promising signs we spotted pointed to locked doors.
Close to giving up, we found the sign for a café and an open door - I hoped against hope it would stay open late, sell beer, and if I could be granted one more wish, play good music. Trudging up the steps, I felt encouraged by the smiling faces of patrons of the hotel located on the first floor. However, the second and third floors looked less promising and disturbingly reminiscent of a Hammer Films hospital - then again, I thought, our success would be tainted if it came too easily. But on the fourth floor we found the same, with one exception: a small yellow sign was stuck to the door. Hoping it would be some kind of prohibition style clue I walked closer, but the card read: "Melissa (Russian)". It seemed like the right time to throw in the towel.
Some readers may be wondering why we decided to find obscure locations on a public holiday. Even restaurants that are open until the last patrons leave at 4am were sporting darkened windows, and signs declaring a two week holiday for staff, so why would tiny cafés be open? Well, they weren't, and we suffered for our foolhardiness. The only bar positioned higher than ground level with its doors open looked like it should remain a secret, for everyone's sake, except its triad owners.
Aside from the lingering sense of a day ill spent, this adventure broke my long-term resistance to smartphones and three days later I bought one, just for the maps.