There’s a residential block in Kowloon City in Hong Kong called Chungking Mansions. It’s known for having the cheapest lodgings in the city. The ground floor is full of immigrant workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while the rest of the building is made up of offices and cheap accommodation. The ground floor has everything: fast food restaurants, shops, phones and SIM cards, exchangers, markets and tourist centres. Around the entrance to the building you find Chinese traders selling dildos and pornography, while just outside, immigrants offer coke, weed, fake gold and watches for sale.

While I was in Hong Kong I rented a 5 sq. meter room in the building for a few days, from a shady, unwelcoming and dodgy Indian guy. I say dodgy because he would only rent the room for a day at a time, since the price could change the next day. Yes, that’s right. Usually hostels know what the price will be tomorrow in advance.

There were lifts in the mansion block and as soon as I arrived I made a beeline for the top floor, where I found the door to the roof was open. And so began my two day long rooftop adventure in Hong Kong.

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Looking down into the courtyard from the Chungking Mansions rooftop.

Being surrounded by human traffic in the middle of the busy, condensed streets and the crowds of people rushing around you doing their unnecessary shopping, makes you want to retreat to a private space. However, Hong Kong is famous for a lack of such space. Everything, from the tiny rooms to the narrow streets, reminded me of how much I dislike small spaces.

160 years as a British colony saw Hong Kong inherit the same construction principles as the UK. Just like in the UK, residential and business blocks in Kowloon City have their own main access (or two) and a couple of emergency exits at the back of the building. Like in the UK, the first (ground) floor is used by retail units, usually with their own access from the main door. Access to the residential part of the building (usually taken up by the other floors) is via a separate door to the side of the stores. In Kowloon these doors are often open.

Another way into the buildings is via alleyways. Hong Kong is famous for its alleyways, where you catch glimpses of people taking a break or washing dishes at the back of restaurants. Entering the alleyway might make people suspicious about what you’re doing, but in my case I acted cool, taking pictures, before smoothly sneaking in by the emergency exit, as if it was my home.

The best views are seen from the tallest buildings, but the taller the building the greater the head spin.

I figured that looking up and going around the building before heading to the roof was important. The views in Kowloon can sometimes be underwhelming and some building have no lifts. Security cameras in foyers without a concierge are just for emergency purposes and are rarely checked. Taking the emergency staircase at the back of the buildings is a good move and on hot summer days these are often left open for ventilation, and plenty of these buildings have no security cameras at all. However walking up was a tough workout.

Getting to the 30th floor.

The rooftop offers a rare, behind-the-scenes, view of a building, revealing its ugly side, the side that’s not usually visible from the bottom. Exposing its faded walls and wonky pipework. As in the UK, pipework is installed on the outside of the building. What is more interesting is the fact that metal bars are fixed on all of the building’s windows.

Since buildings in Hong Kong tend to be 30-50 stories high and the population so dense, flowers boxes are not allowed on the building facades for fear that they might fall.

On well known or crowded streets the doors are usually locked and in Hong Kong Island, the buildings are primarily private and used by larger companies so they definitely won’t let you in. Unless you are a particularly skilled brain fucker. However, residential blocks are easily accessed. Compared to Kowloon City though, Hong Kong Island has fewer residential sites.

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The pleasure of reaching the top after climbing all the way up. Another rooftop. So many that I lost count.

There are some exceptions, like at posh residential blocks that have their own main door with a concierge. These can also be passed. Before I went in I would look at the mail box numbers, choose one, and then tell the concierge or security guy (in English) the number of the flat I’m heading to and that I’m visiting a friend who lives there. Not everybody in Hong Kong speaks perfect English, but so as not to show their difficulty understanding a tall white guy, they will let you in. Their job isn’t really to remember people’s face but to look after the building. So it works.

They might follow you to the door, but more likely they will watch you in the lift via the security cameras and if you alight at a different floor to the one you said, then they will ask you to leave.

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Reaching the rooftop and catching a private view of the sunset is a priceless experience. Despite the sounds of the noisy city below it’s pretty peaceful up there. All the cars and people, full of their daily problems, look so small and insignificant from this vantage point.
The roofs of Hong Kong are a kind of heaven for any lover of St. Petersburg rooftops, and a playground for all photographers.

From the rooftop I got to experience the views local residents see from their windows everyday, and it cost me nothing. I’d sit back, appreciate the view and stay for a little bit longer. Catching snapshots of daily life that the locals don’t really appreciate as they go about their business; women collecting their dry laundry or kids playing with soap bubbles. Health & Safety laws in places like the UK would never allow such things.

But yes, sometimes fuck-ups do happen, occasionally the view is shit, or you get caught. One time I ended up sneaking into a new construction site, the backdoor was open and so I walked in. The lift wasn’t working and I had to take the stairs. I noticed plaster stains on the floor and eventually on the 8th floor I bumped into the site foreman, who remarked that he hadn’t seen my face before and asked if I was one of the site staff. I responded that curiosity had brought me there, he simply smiled and showed me the way out. Gaining access to construction sites is quite straightforward, unless it’s a major development, where they won’t let you in very easily.

Another potential fuck-up is that you never can tell exactly what’s contained on the roof until you get there. It could be hiding a utopian spa resort or a dystopian zombie apocalypse. From the top you can see all the city’s secrets; the damaged and patched roads, the piles of rubbish in alleyways and back gardens and even the growth of other slum-like houses on adjacent rooftops. I’m fascinated by everything that the city has to offer, but some things might not be visible at first sight and require a bit more effort to discover. Seeing things from this angle reveals so much more of the city for residents and travellers alike.

We often lack of creativity when we travel. Following a guide book or travel blog and walking along an ever widening, well trodden path. We’re afraid to fuck up, afraid to think individually. A holiday gives us limited time and we find it hard to deviate from the security of that safe path. The result? We end up having a carbon copy of our advisor’s experience. For example, taking a selfie next to the pyramids… with a million other tourists lining up to do the same. We end up with the same picture as everyone else and yet we call this experience “personal” and “unique”.

A Hong Kong specific example is of the billions of pictures taken from viewing platforms in Hong Kong. There are few official city view points in Hong Kong but none of them are free. Well, obviously. One of them is the Victoria Peak viewing platform, the view from which is, I have to admit, stunning. Since the dawn of British colonial rule, the Peak has hosted the city’s most exclusive neighbourhood and is home to the its richest residents. Local Chinese weren’t permitted to live here until after WWII. Now, since anyone can access the 500m hill, for the cost of admittance everybody can appreciate the view of the city and battle through the large crowds of people that all want to capture the exact same picture.

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In addition to the Peak Tower’s observation platform, there’s also a shopping mall filled with restaurants and museums. The aim being to get people to spend the day there and their money, rather than just appreciate the view. In fact, the view of the city at night is way more spectacular than during the day.

Victoria Peak also offers other paths to views across the city, but they aren’t so scenic as they lead to the back of the peak and primarily give views towards the sea.

It’s true that seeking out rooftop views is more risky than seeing the guaranteed views of paid-for attractions. They aren’t safe or stress-free and so they’re probably not for everybody, especially not those who go to Hong Kong to spend money on attractions and shopping. Rooftops are for the more adventurous spirits, who have a yearning to discover something new. While they might not guarantee the perfect view, they definitely guarantee privacy and a truly unique experience. And the search for a better view is never ending, the only question is “where next?”

Now that I’ve left Hong Kong, along with the iconic neon lights at night, the Star Ferry and the street markets surrounded by a concrete giants, I will forever remember the experience of seeing all this from the rooftops. Take or leave travel guides, but you can be sure they will never advise you to reach for the rooftops.

 

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