Hong Kong may be a tiny speck on the map, but in terms of pop culture, it may as well be the size of Mainland China. The city dominated the Chinese music industry for much of the 80’s and 90’s, and has produced so many films that you can barely go ten meters without experiencing a cinematic flashback.
Over the years, Hong Kong has been home to some of the greatest legends in cinema, music and martial arts, and their stories, passing around an island community, have duly grown into myths. To walk the streets of Hong Kong is to wade through history, legend, and rumor.
We’ve collected ten of the locations that carry some of this magic. The good news is that most of these spots are not too far apart from one another, so you can probably see many of them in a day.
Tsim Sha Tsui
1) Chungking Mansions
The crumbling, densely populated Chungking Mansions inspired Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, providing a location for the woman in the blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) to recruit her smugglers in the first half of the film. Since its construction in 1961, the building has taken on mythological status—as a backpacker haven, as a modern day Babel, as a criminal underworld. One book refers to it as the “Ghetto at the Centre of the World.” In 2009, a Canadian woman walked in and has not been seen since then. Labyrinthine and diverse, it is impossible to confirm the many stories and rumors surrounding the Mansions, but what is known for sure is that you can buy a mobile phone there.
Located on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Chungking Mansions is all the more shocking for its accessibility. Next to busy streets and far cleaner buildings, one wonders how a place considered the centre of Hong Kong’s drug trade can flourish amongst the sanitized modernity that surrounds it. The accepted wisdom is that the building cannot be torn down because the title deeds for every unit are impossible to locate. Until then, it remains an evocative presence, a grey castle with flashing neon signs that promise, if not danger, then at least commerce within its walls.
2) 100 Canton Rd
Canton Road is a fitting location for Cinepoly Records, the record label that has been home to some of the brightest stars of Cantopop, including Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong, Eason Chan, and Jacky Cheung, one of the Four Heavenly Kings. Its output presided over a golden age of Cantopop, that arguably began around the release of Leslie’s first Cinepoly album, Summer Romance, in 1987.
In 1988, the label signed a young singer from the Mainland called Shirley Wong, who later changed her name to Faye. Faye Wong would reshape the landscape of Hong Kong music, daring to experiment sonically while flouting the strict rules surrounding hitmakers of the era. Her taste for the avant garde earned her the affectionate nickname, “the Chinese Bjork.” In 1994, Cinepoly released Random Thoughts, Wong’s first collaboration with the Cocteau Twins, which opens one of the most interesting chapters in East/West musical relations.
In more recent years, with the decline of the music industry, entrepreneurs have applied a similar star-making business model to education, minting famous tutors who give entertaining lectures to thousands of students in after school tutorial centers. The faces of these tutors appear on ads in the subway and on massive billboards. One can argue that some of them live as large and as dangerously as pop icons of previous generations, with one top star getting sued for HK$26 million for breach of contract.
3) Avenue of Stars
This garden overlooks the Tsim Sha Tsui side of Victoria Harbour, and contains tributes to some of the great Hong Kong icons, from Bruce Lee to Jet Li, from Maggie Cheung to Leon Lai. But the main attraction remains the statue of Anita Mui, which seems to capture the vitality of the beloved late performer in motion.
Anita Mui will always be part of Hong Kong’s identity. Decades in pop music cemented her status as one of the most beloved singers of the Chinese-speaking world, and, as is often the case with Hong Kong pop, this led to a successful career in acting, most notably as a ghost courtesan opposite Leslie Cheung in Rouge.
In 2003, when she knew she was dying of cervical cancer, she announced a series of shows at Hong Kong Coliseum, a location where the top Cantopop stars routinely sell out multi-week concert runs. At her very last show, dressed in a white dress and veil, she married the stage. She died two weeks later.
4) 10 Peking Road
Leon Lai-Ming, also one of the Four Heavenly Kings, had his greatest acting role in Fallen Angels, Wong Kar-Wai’s unofficial follow-up to Chungking Express. In the film, Lai’s Killer meets Karen Mok’s Blondie after hours in a basement McDonald’s. As they leave the restaurant, ascending to street level with the red and yellow glow of the logo suddenly rendered dream-like behind them, it begins to rain.
This song playing during this scene is Shirley Kwan’s rendition of “Forget Him,” a song that first appeared on the 1980 Cantonese album by Teresa Teng, the undisputed queen of Chinese pop. Kwan’s version took the original ballad and twisted it, drenching the vocals in atmosphere. This gave the song the otherworldly quality that is as essential to a Wong Kar-Wai film as McDonald’s is to a Hong Kong romance.
5) Kowloon Walled City
Jackie Chan is Hong Kong’s great overachiever. The ebullient martial arts star, actor, singer, and producer holds the Guinness World Record for most credits in a film, as well as most stunts performed. His Hong Kong-based films have showcased every corner of the city, and he titled one of his albums “Hong Kong, My Love.” Bet you didn’t know Jackie Chan made albums, did you?
In his film Crime Story, a climactic scene which involved explosions was filmed in Kowloon Walled City, a lawless enclave that had been conquered, and was scheduled for demolition. Today, the area, which was once deemed too dangerous even for police to enter, is marked by a plaque and a green space.
6) 41 Cumberland Road
Bruce Lee lived in this Kowloon Tong mansion with his wife and young children for the last year of his life. After his death, they moved to the States, and the building passed first into the hands of film mogul Raymond Chow, then the billionaire Yu Pang-Lin. Yu planned museum in Lee’s honor, but couldn’t reach an agreement with the government. The property is currently a love hotel.
Some Hong Kong dynastic trivia for you: Lee was the great nephew of Sir Robert Hotung, the “Grand Old Man of Hong Kong.”
7) Old Kai Tak Airport
In the prequel to the massive hit film Infernal Affairs (remade in Hollywood as The Departed), the old airport Kai Tak is the location for a pivotal plot point. This second film in the trilogy features Shawn Yue and Edison Chen in the triad and cop roles originated by Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Though it’s best never to speak of legendary actor Leung’s music career (it’s a mystery how that level of charisma doesn’t translate from one form to another), Lau is one of the Four Heavenly Kings who ruled the nineties, and still continues to draw crowds—he has a sold-out fifteen date stand at the Hong Kong Coliseum in December 2017. Chen had a promising career fusing hip hop influences with Cantopop, but that ended when he became the center of the biggest sex scandal in Hong Kong history.
Central and Admiralty
8) Central Escalators and Lan Kwai Fong
The snack bar in Chungking Express was located at 3 Lan Kwai Fong, and is now a 7-Eleven and sex toy shop. Meanwhile, the building where Tony Leung’s Cop 663 lived, visible from the Central Mid-Level escalators, is now a giant hole in the ground, awaiting redevelopment.
Fans of the film may be cheered by one thing: the 7-Eleven in question is to be found on the trail of the “7-Eleven Challenge”—a game where you drink a beer at every branch of the store from Sheung Wan to Lan Kwai Fong. There’s quite a few, and the point of the game is to not die. You can sing “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas, the de facto theme tune to Chungking Express, while you play it.
9) Mandarin Oriental
Two of the great tragedies in Hong Kong pop occurred in the same year. In 2003, a few months before the death of Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung leapt to his death from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He had been suffering from depression.
As well as being one of the most celebrated pop stars and actors of his time, Cheung was an icon for the LGBT community in Hong Kong. He was one of the artists credited with introducing gender fluidity into Cantonese pop, helping to define the aesthetic of the genre, which always sat comfortably in the context of queer culture.
Leslie always seemed to embody the spirit of the city, and even the manner of his death had a peculiarly Hong Kong bent to it. Anyone who has grown up among the city’s skyscrapers and giant residential towers has been haunted by the thought of tiu lao tze sat, meaning “suicide by jumping from a building.”
Every year, on April 1, Leslie’s fans apply for a special permit from the government to gather outside the Mandarin Oriental, under the window from which he fell, bringing flowers and tributes to the man whose legacy lives on.
Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, created an opportunity for music and politics to intersect. Kay Tse’s pro-democracy song “Egg and Lamb” became an anthem of the revolution, asking whether it was better to be an egg thrown against a wall, or a lamb kept in a field. Meanwhile, the pop star Denise Ho, one of the artists who wrote and recorded “Raise Your Umbrella,” was arrested and escorted by police from the Admiralty site of the protest. Both artists reported a severe loss of income since their involvement in the protests, as they were shunned by the Mainland Chinese market.
One unlikely player in this saga was the saxophonist Kenny G, who was forced to make a public statement after he snapped a selfie with the protests in the background. After a fierce backlash to the photo in China, one of his major markets, he tweeted, “I was not trying to defy government orders with my last post. I don’t really know anything about the situation and my impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong.”
The protesters also adopted “Under a Vast Sky” by Beyond as their song, a poignant choice of a classic song by the city’s greatest rock band, who lost their singer in a stage accident in 1993. A fierce advocate for peace and unity, Wong Ka Kui would have likely loved the Umbrella protests.
Proceeds for this piece went to Mission for Migrant Workers, supporting migrant workers rights in Hong Kong.