City Weekend

Fancy a walk on Hong Kong’s dark side? Take this alternative city tour

From notorious housing problems to income divides and political tensions, two local guides offer a peek at the underside of a glamorous city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 11:29am

Wooden planks, discarded signs and plastic sheets line one side of a bridge along Sham Shui Po’s Tung Chau Street Temporary Market. The blanket of relentless humidity is as heavy as the sombre silence of a tour group led by guide Alla Lau Sui. They are there to see the makeshift dwellings of the homeless – a feature the area is notorious for.

“Hong Kong is a really deceiving society,” Lau says. “It makes sense that tourists only go to the touristy places. From this perspective, Hong Kong seems like a perfect city: it’s crowded, it’s busy, but it’s also glamorous. However, this is not the full story. I think it’s important that we, the local people, are honest about our home.”

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Hong Kong Free Tours began operating in August 2016. It was founded by Michael Tsang Chi-fai, who worked in the finance industries of America and the Netherlands before quitting his job to set up his tour company, comprising just Lau and himself.

“When we started these tours, one of the first things we were certain of was that we didn’t want to do a generic touristy thing,” Tsang says. “The two main messages we want people to take away from this are what has been always in the hearts of Hongkongers.

“Firstly, the political developments that we focus on in the Hong Kong tour; secondly, the housing problem and the wealth disparity that we explore in our Kowloon tour.”

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Tsang and Lau take turns leading visitors on the agency’s eight walking tours, sharing their personal thoughts, anecdotes and images with guests. Some tours are free while some cost about HK$200. Each tour typically lasts between two and three hours.

The “Kowloon free tour” takes participants around street markets and dense tenements of the area, beginning near Mong Kok’s Fa Yuen Street and ending at the Sham Shui Po wet market.

In addition to explanations of Hong Kong’s heritage and stories behind various landmarks, tourists are exposed to makeshift shelters of the homeless. They can expect to be told of the city’s notorious housing costs, and the cruel reality of caged homes.

“Most tours of Kowloon will take you to Ladies Market and Temple Street, but we are not a normal tour,” Lau says to her group before the start of their journey.

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“I will show you the ‘dark side’ of Hong Kong – how people really live.”

As part of her commentary, Lau adds that the government’s poverty line is HK$3,500, with 1.3 million residents surviving beneath this. She points to those living in the makeshift dwellings behind her, saying that 40 per cent of them have paying jobs.

“The minimum wage in Hong Kong is HK$34.50 an hour, we don’t have standard or maximum working hours – if your boss asks you to work 18 hours a day, you have to, and it’s not illegal,” Lau says.

On Sham Shui Po’s Kweilin Street, Lau points out various caged home advertisements plastered on walls, and a nearby building that conceals them from public eye.

“People see the skyscrapers and fancy malls and touristy sites, and think that Hong Kong is glamorous and perfect – we have low taxes, a free market. On the surface, the city is wealthy and thriving – but they don’t see that people suffer, that all this glamour is built at the expense of the poor,” Lau says.

While the Kowloon tour explores the city’s underlying socio-economic issues, its counterpart, the “Hong Kong free tour”, dives deep into the history of the city and explains the political tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The tour leads visitors around landmarks in Admiralty and Central, beginning with the Legislative Council complex and a discussion of the 2014 Occupy movement.

Lau participated in the 79-day civil disobedience movement that brought sections of the city to a standstill.

Under the shade of a tree next to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Building in Central, Tsang pauses to explain the feelings of doubt and distrust Hongkongers felt leading up to 1997 when the city returned to Chinese rule, as well as how the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, in Beijing affected the city.

“I’ve shared with you what happened in 1989. If I was telling you this story from inside the PLA building; if I was telling you this story on the mainland, I would not be here today. Hong Kong is the only place in China that we can still talk about this openly.

“One day if you do not see me or my website anymore, then maybe you will know what happened,” Tsang says to a circle of shocked faces.

“This is our history from a Hong Kong person’s perspective, about what has happened in the past 70 years,” adds Tsang. “This is a story you will never hear if you go to a history museum.”

Hong Kong-born Lau joined Tsang as a tour guide in October 2016 after completing her master’s degree and former role as a research assistant.

“It’s such a waste to have people visit Hong Kong and leave without actually getting to know the city,” she said.

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The group also leads other tours based on heritage, such as their “Dragon’s Back” hiking tour, New Territories biking tour, a “delicacy tour”, and the “Temple Heritage Tour”.

According to the Tourism Board, visitors increasingly come to the city under their own arrangements, rather than as part of a tour group. As of May 2017, 94 per cent of Hong Kong’s visitors identify as independent travellers.

Brian King, associate dean from Polytechnic University’s school of hotel and tourism management, agrees that the industry is changing not only in Hong Kong, but around the world. He says there is a shift in how tours are conducted and the kind of tours visitors are looking for.

King says tourism is increasingly about a behind-the-scenes approach and going “beyond stereotypes and beyond the official line”. He adds: “It’s caused by a growing willingness of tourists to understand how [locals] live.”

“[Hong Kong Free Tours] promotes a different aspect of Hong Kong that isn’t available via other channels,” King says. “From what I can see, what they’re doing is a great contribution to tourism here.”