A Non-Instagram Focused Second Look at Hong Kong's Famous Photo Spots


'Instagram Guide'

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Hong Kong is famed for its scenic views and industrial architecture - both mainstays for Instagram. However, with so many people flocking to the same places day after day, how much is too much?


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Constructing an itinerary for a trip to Hong Kong isn't very hard especially with the amount of resources that's available online. Yet for the most part, many (though not all) focus on the most Instagrammable places which in all honestly, is a terrible way of experiencing one of Asia's most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities. Though the beauty of these places is worthy of mention, we'd like to draw attention to how these places actually came to be and just how they've been taken over by selfie-stick and tripod toting tourists. That's not to say that Hong Kong photography trips are inherently bad, but still, let's all take a step back to appreciate the narratives behind these great 'places to shoot'.

And with that, let's explore.


Sai Wan Swimming Shed
‘The One That’s Out of the Way’

Sai Wan Swimming Shed sits at the Western tip of Hong Kong's Kennedy Town and thus takes a while to get there, but that doesn't discourage people from making the long trek. 

An oft used swimming shed has now become famous for its single wooden pier that extends out into the bay with the structure's rustic wooden appearance and seeming isolation from an otherwise cramp city is perhaps being exactly what photographers are looking for. At most hours of any day (even while its raining) there’s usually a queue to ‘use’ the pier as a set that gives out 'cool pictures for Instagram'. 

But as we’re all about focusing on backstories for this article, you'll probably be surprised to find out that this swimming shed at Sai Wan is the last functioning one in the territory. Swimming sheds used to proliferate across the island as Hong Kong's beautiful coastlines and direct access to the water are attractive opportunities for locals to take a dip. Furthermore, in space scarce Hong Kong, why would anyone want to waste precious land on building swimming pools when there was such a cheap alternative nearby? These sheds even had facilities like rental bathing suits and changing rooms. 

However, as the years worn on and Hong Kong quickened its development, the water around swimming sheds started to deteriorate as factory effluents, illegal dumping and harbour development projects started to change the water's quality. The government then decided to revoke Swimming Shed licenses for fear of residents falling ill due to exposure to heavy metals and other substances. 

These days, only a handful of locals visit the swimming shed for a dip usually in the very early hours of the morning before the crowd builds.


Choi Hung Estate
‘The One That Looks Like A Rainbow’

As one of the oldest housing estates in Hong Kong, Choi Hung was developed from a small village into one of Hong Kong's first permanent public housing projects. In that vein, Kowloon is usually designated as the 'old' part of the city as it houses many of the city's first and pioneering housing estates. Hence, the estate played an integral role in the government's effort to resettle the population and improve living standards. This was revolutionary for a city that hitherto was a patchwork of low-rise settlements. 

The estate's name is apt as 'Choi Hung' literally means rainbow in Cantonese which due to its alluring colours, quickly became a landmark in the territory not least because of how dense the area was, once accommodating around 43k residents. The estate has also won multiple awards and garnered visits from many foreign dignitaries, and you'd be surprised to know that the estate was designed by one of the territory's oldest architecture firms. Palmer&Turner has also been responsible for many of the city's iconic buildings. 

The first stop for any Instagram-focused itinerary would be to Choi Hung Estate as it was made popular not for the wet market nearby but for how the estate is painted. A stroll around the estate would also reveal the age of some of the shops in the area which have already been in existence for a number of decades. Residents are also treated to a magnanimous display of the colours of the rainbow which draws photographers and social media ‘influencers’ worldwide to the estate to take photos. What was once a community area made out of basketball courts is now a full photoshoot location.

As mentioned, Choi Hung is constantly awash with people taking photographs that it seems near impossible to get one without having other people appear in your shot. This undoubtedly has resulted in people trying more creative angles that feature basketball hoops, the vibrantly coloured court and also, benches that are adjacent to the main ‘staging ground’. 

While it is definitely a treat to be living in such a storied estate and especially one with so much vibrant colour, I wonder how Choi Hung’s residents deal with it.


Nam Shan Estate
‘The One With The Cool Monkey Bars'

Nam Shan is probably one of the least visited in this article but one of the estate’s courtyards remains a popular place to take photographs. The estate sits on land in close proximity to the City University of Hong Kong though it predates the institution by a few years and was first conceived as a resettlement project for citizens displaced by a huge fire that occured in the 70s.

As like the other pioneering estates in Hong Kong, Nam Shan features a wet market and many shops in a dilapidated condition but that wouldn't be descriptive of the quality and skill of the shopkeepers, many of which have been in the business for over 3 decades. It is this precise resolve that characterises many of the old housing estates in Hong Kong as many of them were designed to be fully 'self sufficient' in order to replicate the lifestyle and living conditions of the low rise settlements that existed in the area before these new high-rise projects.

Urban explorers trek to the location for its semi-circle monkeys bars and its iconic courtyard, the design of which is very minimal for a playground. However, there's a juicier backstory to the area. Since the 90s, there's been a rumor circulating that the estate's parking lot was haunted as a result of a string of murders and rapes that occured.

And so, if you're visiting Nam Shan at night (though that's probably unideal for photos), it'll probably pay to be on your toes. 


Ping Shek Estate
‘The One Where You Look Up'

The particular building of interest in Ping Shek was constructed with a small square atrium located in the middle of the tower and as such, if one were to place himself square in the middle of the atrium and look up, a very alluring and symmetrical shot comes into view. Since the estate’s design means that only the atrium is exposed to sufficient natural light, the rest of the building is dimly illuminated even during midday which means that photographs taken looking up have significant contrast to them at an extent perhaps only matched by the symmetrical beauty of the shot. Other estates that can offer a similar photographic experience include the Oi Man Estate and Lai Tak Tsuen.

From its design, its clear that Ping Shek is yet again one of Hong Kong's older estates. It also sits close to Choi Hung and as we know, the area was redeveloped in unison. The building with its design can seem overwhelming and suffocating especially when you notice just how walled in and dark the area the atrium occupies seems to be. This effect still remains despite the fact that the government has already spent money on improving the estate by introducing new lifts and cooling the environment around the estate by planting more greenery. 

Understandably, the estate is more popular amongst photographers interested in architecture as its impossible to have your usual OOTD alongside the picture that Ping Shek is famed for. Also, as the lifts and stairs to the various floors of the building are secured with a code that only the residents know of, its best to keep out as you're invading the privacy of the residents. Nevertheless, people have successfully gone up there, to each his own.


Instagram Pier
‘The One With The Name That’s Too Official For Its Own Good’

Located in Kennedy Town on Hong Kong Island, Instagram Pier or ‘Western District Public Cargo Working Area’ is probably just like any of their piers that are located in Hong Kong but this particular one on the waters of Victoria Harbour seems to have caught the fancy of Instagram users. The area used to be off the beaten path as the MTR's Island Line did not extend out towards Kennedy Town. However, after the line's extension was completed in 2014, and with the growing popularity of Instagram, visitor numbers to the area exploded.

Upon arrival, this long extended pier seems to still be functional but a peek inside reveals the horde of photographers that have descended on the location for photoshoots and god knows what else. The jumbled collection of shipping related objects from wooden pallets to disused containers find themselves on the pier amongst regularly planted lampposts. Though these 'features' are varied and seem to fit the industrial theme of Hong Kong's architecture, it doesn't help when they feature repeatedly in everyone's photos on Instagram. 

Despite the fact that there are many signs warning visitors that the pier is out of bounds to the public and that there are severe penalties, photographers are unfazed and continue to visit the site day after day. There's even a manned security post guarding the entrance to the pier but the guards seem to not bat an eyelid at the number of people who seem to violate the very security rules they are supposed to enforce. That being said, the place has become a public space of sorts as joggers and pet owners join the photographers in enjoying the open pier's unique atmosphere. 

The government has in the past tried to dampen enthusiasm for the site but its hard to convince the public of safety concerns when nowadays there's little going on on the pier and when the site is so conducive to creating some really creative shots. Since these efforts, the pier has won awards celebrating the importance of public spaces even though technically, only marine and cargo workers are officially allowed on its grounds. Plans to redevelop the area into a community garden has also received fierce criticism. 


To each his own

Hong Kong is undoubtedly a photographer’s heaven - one that delights and surprises with its architectural oddities and quirks. However, whereas in the past photographers were laser focused on the city's architecture itself, a whole new generation of youths have begun to shift the conversation on photography.

There are now less pictures (though the remaining ones are getting more ambitious) about the death defying towers that define Hong Kong’s landscape but many more OOTD’s from places like Choi Hung and Sai Wan.

Yet, the Instagram revolution is not without its positives. For one, it has inspired people to do more research about the places they’re travelling to and in that vein, visiting places that are ‘off the beaten path’ even though in some cases, the phenomenon has redefined what it means to be 'on the path'. We’re also seeing people moving away from stuffy tour packages that bring people to cliched attractions and downright extortionary souvenir shops. 

Nevertheless, though one may be visiting a place for its aesthetic value, perhaps it also pays to be aware of some of the history of how the place actually came to be and as a result, gain something other than a photo out of it. For example, the overwhelming density of the Housing Estates on the list could point visitors to the issues the territory faces with housing and perhaps even draw attention to the very interesting topic of the Kowloon Walled City. 

People visit these places not for the people and rarely for any other building except for the particular one that is popular on Instagram. While this is all fine and good (people are after all entitled to their own way and style of travelling), one must wander after ticking off every highly trafficked spot after spot, whether chasing the same places and photos as everyone else does cheapen the travel experience and the impact of such photos. Let's all refrain from searching 'travel Instagram Hong Kong' on Google the next time we hope on a flight. In any case, its likely that nothing will stem the tide of Instagram, but it's our hope that people taking something more than just likes and comments out of their travel experiences.

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