It’s been over 11 years since the day I moved to Hong Kong, but there’s still a part of me that’s rooted in the boy that grew up in the upstairs corner bedroom in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada, thinking of nothing more than spending the rest of my life in that neighbourhood – or thereabouts. I don’t think of myself as a seasoned traveler, but I have been to a few places that would really knock the socks off of that kid back in the suburbs, and that part of me has been spending a lot of time these last few months looking back at photos and nestling deeply into nostalgia. And nostalgia is really all that’s available these days, given the near global lockdown as a result of the coronavirus.
So, driven by this haze of coro-nostalgia, I’ve decided to put those thoughts and feelings into writing by sharing some of my most treasured images here. Some photos evoke specific memories and experiences, some show cityscapes and landscapes that I find aesthetically pleasing, and some I don’t even really have a reason that I can express in words – I just like them.
I’ll start off with the image above, taken in a village in northern Guangdong province in early 2009. A family had just set off a long string of Chinese firecrackers, and the kids in the village had swooped in after the last crackle and sizzle to find any bits that had failed to go off. This village, in fact, is where my grandfather on my dad’s side grew up, before he decamped to Guangzhou and then Hong Kong amid the turmoil of World War II. I still have distant relatives living in that village and every year my dad’s siblings who are still in Hong Kong take the long car ride north to our ancestral lands. I’d just arrived in Hong Kong that year, technically not even living there yet, with half formed thoughts about reconnecting with my roots, and this little side trip into China was a quietly powerful one for me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d have any sort of connection with a place in China – I’m the son of two Hong Kong immigrants, and any idea I had of being culturally Chinese was entirely based on Hong Kong pop culture and society. This was to be the start of an ongoing personal exploration of what it means for me to be Chinese, Hong Konger, and Canadian.
This photo was taken in Taroko National Park in early 2009 on the east coast of Taiwan, after a Taiwanese college friend of mine and I walked through a long tunnel to access one of the hiking trails. This was my first time in Taiwan, and prior to that trip I had no idea how beautiful this place was, especially in and around the gorges of the island’s central peaks. There’s something eerily romantic about this image to me, with the wild mountain vegetation and greenery almost flowing around this dark portal. The tunnel is an interruption of the landscape, but it’s what makes the image interesting.
For large parts of our time in Taroko Gorge, we walked along a winding road dwarfed by the massive cliffs on either side. I remember being in the shadows through this particular section and being struck by the lighting on the opposite side of the gorge. It seemed so pure and majestic, and in a way it took my mind off of some of the worries and stresses I was carrying at the time, such as what I was going to do with my life after getting a graduate degree in a field I no longer wanted to work in. Even while I was still in Taiwan, I would take out my camera just to look at this photo, and though it has dropped a few places in the intervening years, I treasure it for what it used to mean to me.
I took this photo in Macau in the spring of 2009, and this is one of those images where I don’t really have a good reason to like it, but I do. It’s not the glitzy casinos or the Mediterranean-type piazzas for which the former Portuguese colony is known for, and it’s quite an ugly structure, really – a concrete slab built into the side of a hill overlooking the city – but I do like the lived-in feel of the place. Kids come here to run and play, and it does the job without any fuss. It’s not pretty, but it’s home.
This is another shot from that same Macau trip. It’s one of those photos that doesn’t say as much as it looks like it should, if you know what I mean. At first glance it appears to be a quite convenient juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern, with the wooden rowboat navigating the waters below the glass and steel of the Macau Tower. But that kind of tidy classification of what constitutes tradition and what constitutes the modern ignores a lot of the history and the social dynamics of a place like Macau – like Hong Kong a former European colony, but with a vastly different set of foundations. Still, I find the image pretty.
I used to like this photo a lot more, back when the idea of there being a rural Hong Kong was still a novelty to me. In late 2008 I was in the city for a few weeks before heading off to Southeast Asia for the rest of the year. My extended family on my dad’s side took a day trip to the Mai Po Nature Reserve in the wetlands by the Hong Kong-China border, and it was a beautiful day of walking along sunny paths like the one in the photo, a far cry from the concrete and pavement just a few miles down the road (and just across the border). I still love the path imagery, gently curving in between and through a leafy gateway, and I included this shot because of how I used to feel about it.
This was in Hong Kong in the weeks leading up to Christmas in 2008. I feel like I can recall the exact feelings I was living in on that day, being in the city on my own for the first time and thinking about Christmas without family, the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the haze over the harbour, the faded city skyline in the background, and the two gentlemen resting by the decorative shrubs and flowers along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. This was before I’d decided to move to Hong Kong, but even then I had a feeling my life was going to be different from what it had been.
One casualty of Hong Kong’s reputation as some mega/future/neo-dystopian city (and it is all of these things) is the fact that it actually has wildlife. Every year there are reports of wild boars loose on the streets below the glittering skyscrapers of the Central district, or pythons found nestled into toilets or under porches in the outlying islands. The mountains of the New Territories are the domain of Hong Kong’s wild monkey population. This was late 2008, the day before I flew out to Singapore, and it was just me and the monkeys on an overpass, admiring the setting sun together. I’m a big fan of setting suns.
Spring 2009 and I was back in Hong Kong. The Dragon’s Back is a popular hike on the eastern end of the island, and I love how big and heavy and massive these hills look. You wouldn’t guess that the city’s skyscrapers were just a few hundred meters away from this point. There’s a nice dreamy haze in the background that reminds me so much of spring and fall in Hong Kong too, though, yes, it’s probably not great for the lungs.
This is the village of Shek O, one of the end points of the Dragon’s Back hike. It’s one of those old fishing villages that dotted Hong Kong’s coastline for hundreds of years before the city’s modern transformation. What I like about this photo is just how compact the idea of this village is – there’s the small collection of white and pink buildings built up on the shore, the eastern hills in the background, the sun setting beyond the ridges, and the baby blue bridge connecting the village to a small island. Four-and-a-half years later, Ashley and I ended up taking a few of our engagement photos on that bridge.
Okay this is the last of the Hong Kong photos, taken one morning at Hong Kong Park, an urban oasis just a little uphill from the banks and government buildings of Central and Admiralty. It’s a woman in a black dress standing in the shade of an outdoor hallway, taken through an octagonal entrance way – simple and clean and doesn’t really say anything except maybe how precious it is to find our own spaces of quiet and solitude in this city.
In the spring of 2010, I did a short trek in the Annapurnas region of the Himalayas in Nepal with three other friends from Hong Kong. I’ve got a lot of photos of majestic mountains, jungle river valleys, and other spectacular views from the heights, but this one still stands out to me. There isn’t a particularly strong emotion that I connect with this image, just a memory of how lively and dynamic our usually quiet and lonely trek became for an hour or so that day as we were overtaken by this horde of goats on the mountainside.
I really love this shot. Taken on the gentle slopes of Poon Hill, a hill station about an hour’s hike uphill from the village of Ghorepani, it shows the sunrise in full bloom coming up over the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges, including the sacred twin peaks of Machhapuchhre. We had woken up in the early hours of the morning to start this mini hike, and it was still quite dark by the time we reached the top of the plateau. I remember when the sun began rising, though, and the mountains across the valley took on more depth and definition, and then the light began filtering through into the jungles and rivers below. Then this moment of magic happened, filling our view of the landscape with a wonderful warm and golden light – so worth the hike! It was one of those moments where I felt an instant connection with the strangers around me, united in our appreciation for what we were witnessing. I’ve experienced it a few times since, but this was probably one of the first instances.
This is another shot from the sunrise on Poon Hill. I can almost feel the warm waves of sunlight washing over me. I really dig the minimal-esque look of this photo, too – the clean lines of the mountains and foothills, the limited colour palette of dusty blues and yellows, and that magical light suffusing the photo, hinting at something sacred or divine just beyond the hills.
These are the placid blue waters of the South China Sea, taken from a beach in the Perhentian Islands, a small archipelago off the coast of the Malaysian sultanate and state of Terengganu. In the summer of 2011 I flew out to these islands with three other friends to get our PADI Open Water certifications. Every morning we’d walk out onto the beach in front of our seaside accommodations and look at this view. It brings to mind feelings of being up early in the morning and looking forward to the utter lack of responsibilities for the day ahead, except to swim in the ocean and look at the pretty fishies.
Yangmingshan National Park is located just outside of Taipei and is known for its hot springs and nature trails. I was there in late summer of 2011 with some friends, doing a little bit of hiking and looking forward to soaking in some hot springs in the evening. At one point in the afternoon, which had been bright and sunny for the most part, a massive wave of storm clouds rolled in from the horizon, engulfing the hilltops of the surrounding countryside. I quite like the moment in time captured in this photo, with the storm front having already moved in force over the lush terrain, the verdant green hills of northern Taiwan still visible beneath the clouds, and the brilliant blue of the remaining sky defiantly holding onto its own little corner.
That same trip, we took a car ride over to Jiufen, a beautiful coastal area in the hilly northeast area of Taiwan. The village is wildly popular with tourists, having served as the inspiration for various settings in Asian film lore. Outside one of the entrances to the village is a bus shelter looking out over the jagged coastline and the Pacific Ocean, and that’s where I took this photo. It was late afternoon/early evening on a hot and humid day, and the sunset just drew out these luscious lavender tones, blurring the lines between sea and sky.
The last week of 2011 was a blur for me. I’d spent a quick weekend in Singapore with family to celebrate Christmas and to help my sister get settled into her new life there, and then after a couple days of work I was off to Shanghai to bring in the new year with other friends flying in from Hong Kong. I’m a big fan of cityscapes and skylines and this photo of the Pudong district really captures that aspect of Shanghai for me. There’s something about the faded look of the towers and buildings across the Huangpu River that brings me back to the crispness of the winter weather at the time, walking along the Bund with good friends and looking forward to another year of doing life together.
In April of 2012, Ashley and I took our first holiday together with two other friends to the province of Yunnan in China. Our main goal was to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, but we spent a few days in the charming Lijiang area beforehand, and one afternoon we caught the Impressions Lijiang cultural show just a little bit outside of town. Yunnan is one of the most multicultural parts of China, with dozens of ethnic groups and indigenous peoples within its mountainous borders, and the show is meant to highlight some of that cultural diversity. What it also highlights, however, is the massive, snow-capped peaks of the impressively named Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Ashley and I have talked about printing out and putting up some of our travel photos at home for years, and though we’ve yet to actually take any meaningful action to do so, I’ve always had this one in mind at the top of the list. Even now it kind of takes my breath away.
There’s a place called Yak Meadow on one of the grassy plateaus of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain where you can take a rickety cable car up the heights and presumably hang out with said yaks. Unfortunately there were no yaks when we went, but there was this incredible view. What I love about the photo is that it conveys so much depth and distance, the towering mountains giving way to this broad, lush valley that stretches on and on. It creates this yearning in me to walk down into that valley and start a journey, like something out of Lord of the Rings.
This is one of my all-time favourite photos. It was taken on the first day of our two-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest river canyons in the world and a top item on my China bucket list. I mentioned Lord of the Rings above, but this image has some serious Misty Mountains-vibe to it, or even perhaps the gloomy ranges that fence in the land of Mordor. And with the texture of the rocks and the orange-white highlights of the dried grass, it really looks like we’re really walking in a painting. Plus, I always like a good path to guide the eyes through the image, and the shadowed cliffs and peaks in the background are the very definition of foreboding. I seriously love this photo.
From the doom and gloom of Tiger Leaping Gorge in spring, we go to a bright and airy Seoul in the fall. This photo, taken on a spontaneous long weekend trip to the South Korean capital, reminds me of the many deep and life-giving friendships I’ve been blessed with during my time in Hong Kong, as well as the transitory nature of community in a global city. Ashley and I are the only ones in this photo still living in Hong Kong as work and family reasons took the other portrait participants away to New York, Seattle, Singapore, Seoul, and Tokyo, though the Tokyo-based friend has since temporarily moved back to Hong Kong due to the coronavirus.
Skip ahead to the end of 2013, when Ashley and I went to Vietnam for our honeymoon, just outside Da Nang. I took this shot on our last day at the resort, after we’d just completed a cooking class in the afternoon. I’ve always liked the symmetry of this photo, with Ashley being the lone dynamic element in my frame, the only person in my world. This started a brand new chapter for the two of us – from this point on, my travels basically became ours, and she has a much more prominent presence in the photo albums that came afterwards.
This is also where I’ll bring this particular post to an end, having pretty much covered the single and dating stages of my life while living in Asia.