On the march with ex-soldier for Hong Kong tours with a difference
Michael Johnson arrived in the city in the late 1980s and when his tour of duty came to an end he decided he wasn’t leaving
British soldier-turned-tour guide Michael Johnson never thought he would call Hong Kong home when he first arrived here back in the late 1980s when the city was still a colony.
But the 49-year-old, who is originally from Northern England, has witnessed the ups and downs of the city through the eyes of a soldier, a father of two teenage daughters, sportsman and businessman over the past 30 years.
And that, he says, qualifies him to run his self-guided bespoke tours, showing adventurous visitors another side of Hong Kong, one far removed from the fancy shopping malls and high-end restaurants.
“When I first arrived, I thought I was just going to party for two years, play football and drink as much beer as I possibly could,” Johnson says with a laugh.
“I didn’t think I would be here for the rest of my days.”
Johnson joined the British Army when he was 17 because he “wanted something with a bit of excitement”. Before being sent to Hong Kong, he was stationed in Northern Ireland, Germany and the Falkland Islands, where the military training was “quite harsh”.
He was “absolutely ecstatic” when he learned that he would be heading to exotic Hong Kong, where he soon fell for the city’s East-meets-West culture.
Johnson, who had his share of good times in Wan Chai, a popular spot for foreign solders in Hong Kong for its nightlife, was a “work hard and play hard” young soldier. And throughout his time in Hong Kong he says he has been heavily involved with amateur football as a player, manager and administrator.
With his tour of duty as a soldier coming to an end, he wasn’t ready to leave Hong Kong so he started a new job that took him up to the handover of sovereignty in 1997. He worked in the security sector and later landed a financial role with a logistics company.
Last year, the logistics company decided to downsize, which prompted Johnson to set up his own firm, MJ Tours, which offers clients Hong Kong night tours and a Lantau Island tour that be booked at short notice.
“I knew my job was probably going to come to an end, so I was looking to see what I would do,” Johnson says.
Friends suggested he make use of his knowledge and experiences of the city and work as a tour guide. He eventually took their advice, turned part of his three-storey village house on Lantau Island into a licensed guest house – Lantau Lodge – and launched his first private tour last August.
Johnson says more and more tourists in Hong Kong are looking for “unique” experiences, adding that he does not employ others to lead the tours as he wants to show outsiders his life and how the city has made him what he is today.
“I do not employ people to lead tours on my behalf. When you book a tour with me, I will be your personal guide, in all my (some say faded) glory,” he promises on his website.
On his tours, Johnson has brought visitors to public housing Yat Tung Estate in Tung Chung new town, and visited the wet market and food centre there. The tour guide even showed off his “not so good” Cantonese by ordering food like a native.
Johnson says that many of his tour members are most surprised by the contrast between high-rise buildings in the urban area and village life on the outlying islands. “They always assume Hong Kong is just a big concrete jungle, but actually there are lots of greenery and beaches.”
Johnson says he enjoys spending his days walking around with interesting people from different backgrounds and of varying ages.
It is “an absolutely glorious way” to make a living, he says. “It’s obviously a labour of love.”
Although originally from the city of Hull, Johnson considers himself to be a genuine Hongkonger.
Asked if he has had thoughts of going back to live in his hometown, Johnson says “never say never”, but the cold weather, especially in winter, is the last thing he misses. More importantly, he feels more connected to Hong Kong than England.
His love for the city has also given him the courage to compare himself to martial arts icon Bruce Lee. Johnson jokingly describes himself on his website: “More local than Bruce Lee, but not as quite as agile.”