For 50 years, lampposts, electrical boxes, concrete pillars, pavements, benches, planters, and retaining walls on the streets of Hong Kong could be seen as one large canvas for the “King of Kowloon” (九龍皇帝) to leave his unique calligraphy works. Sometimes, he wrote to proclaim his ancestral land ownership of the Kowloon Peninsula before the British rule, while at other times he would write about his family. Seen by many as acts of a crazy man, the “King of Kowloon” or Tsang Tsou Choi (曾灶財) was probably the most well known graffiti artist the city had seen in the 20th century. Fined by the government numerous times, insulted by neighbours, and even disowned by his own family, Tsang Tsou Choi was mocked by Hong Kong for decades. Whenever his calligraphy was washed or painted over by the authorities, he would restore the works right after. His works were largely seen as public nuisance until the 1990’s, when local artists, fashion designers, art directors, interior designers, furniture makers, graphic designers, musicians began to use Tsang’s unique calligraphy on design products. In his final years, Tsang’s works finally began to gain public recognition with successful shows both in Hong Kong and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2003, and even went for auctions at the Sotheby’s.
A decade after Tsang’s death (2007), street art in Hong Kong has already entered a new chapter. Far from the vibrancy and sophistication of London’s or New York’s, street art is nonetheless much widely accepted and welcomed by the public in Hong Kong nowadays. In recent years, the city has been frequented by international street artists, such as Invader from France, who has secretly put up his iconic pixelated 8-bit video game images all over the city. In December 2019, the popular show “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” arrived in Hong Kong and created quite a stir on the social media. The free spirit, unique artistic expression, cool character, coupled with satirical imagery, political controversy, and social criticism of street art have been welcomed by the young generations, especially in the era of social media when everybody has something to say and share.
In Hong Kong, one of the most popular areas to see interesting street art is Central-Sheung Wan (中上環). Thanks to HKwalls, the non-profit organization who has been organizing annual street art festival since 2014, several neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have already become hotspots showcasing the talents of local and international artists. In their debut year of 2014, HKwalls paired artists with properties owners in Sheung Wan and successfully added 17 street murals in the neighborhood, then another 50+ works in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market in the following year. The event moved to Sham Shui Po in 2016, Wong Chuk Hang in 2017, then returned to Central and Western District in 2018 before moving on to Wanchai (2019) and Sai Kung (2021). HKwalls has successfully brought in great artistic talents from all over the world to Hong Kong, transformed the urban scenery of old neighborhoods, and raised public appreciation of street art to a whole new level.
For a city well known of its quick, dramatic and relentless urban changes, the impermanent and transient beauty of street art suit perfectly to echo the ephemeral spirit of Hong Kong. Here if you see an interesting street art, you better document it right away. Next time around, the mural may be gone forever.
In the business district of Hong Kong, it is always an uphill battle to preserve a heritage building against the power of urban development. The former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) is a rare exception, and so as the former Central Police Station Compound just a few blocks down Hollywood Road. In the past two years, the most exciting new attraction in Hong Kong has to be Tai Kwun (大館). Consisted of 16 heritage buildings, 2 courtyards and 2 new structures, Tai Kwun is the the largest heritage and art compound in the city. Literally means “big station” in Chinese, “Tai Kwun” refers to how people used to call this former police compound over a century ago. Today, Tai Kwun is home to art and history exhibitions, outdoor performances, a 200-seat auditorium, design shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps everyone acknowledges that there isn’t much old Hong Kong left to see nowadays, that’s why Tai Kwun has become an instant hit on Instagram and made it onto Time magazine’s list of World Greatest Places when the compound first opened to the public in 2018.
The story of Tai Kwun dates as far back as 1841, the year when the British first set foot in Hong Kong. On the slope of Tai Ping Shan in Central, Captain William Caine who also served as Chief Magistrate and Head of Police and Gaol chose the current site bounded by Hollywood Road (荷李活道), Old Bailey Street (奧卑利街), Chancery Lane (贊善里) and Arbuthnot Road (亞畢諾道) to build the city’s first prison, police station and magistracy office all in one compound. Expansions and alterations of the splendid compound gradually establish the authority of the colonial police force upon the public. Most buildings were erected before 1925, despite expansions and alterations continued to transform Tai Kwun well into 1950’s. For 160 years the compound served as Central’s law enforcement hub until 2006 when the compound was finally decommissioned. In 2007, conceptualization of the Tai Kwun revitalization project began to take shape. Construction and conservation work began in 2011 and took 8 years to complete. After spending HKD 3.7 billion from the Hong Kong Jockey Club charity trust, Tai Kwun finally opened its doors in May 2018.
As a child having lived for a decade at the intersection of Old Bailey Street and Chancery Lane just 10m away from the Blue Gate of Victoria Prison, entering the walled compound that has been off limits to the public for the last 160 years has been quite special to me. I used to walk past the prison along Chancery Lane and imagine what might lie on the other side of the high stone wall topped with pieces of broken glass. As the revitalized Tai Kwun unveiled its mysterious face, my childhood curiosity has finally been fed. It is delightful for me to see that Tai Kwun has been carefully preserved, restored and everyone, including me, can finally see, touch and enjoy whatever that are taking place at both sides of the prison walls.
Just a few kilometres north of the Syrian and Lebanon border, atop a 650m hill in the Homs Gap between the Mediterranean and the Syrian interior stands one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers. Proclaimed by Lawrence of Arabia as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” Krak des Chevaliers was built by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, Saint John of Jerusalem, in the 1140’s after capturing an earlier fortress on the spot during the First Crusade. Housing 3,000 knights to protect pilgrims and trading caravans in the Roman Christendom, the castle remained as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitalier until 1271 when it fell into the hands of Sultan Baibars of the Mamluks, and then to the Ottomans from 16th century onward. The castle was abandoned in the 19th century, and soon the locals established a small village inside the complex until 1927, when the French bought and restored the castle. Before the civil war, Krak des Chevaliers was a popular tourist destination for international tourist groups, cruise groups, independent travelers, art and architecture students, etc. During the civil war, the castle was taken by the rebels in 2012, and was used as a military command centre, weapon storage and a transit base for Lebanese fighters. The government force recaptured the castle in 2014 and allowed UNESCO and foreign press such to assess the war damages: blackened walls in the Knight Hall, bullet holes, graffiti, rubble allover the inner court, but the biggest loss was the destruction of the main stair. After a series of ongoing restoration, the castle has reopened recently for visitors again.
Before reaching the castle gate, our van stopped by a roadside lookout for a distant view of the famous Krak des Chevaliers. Even from a distance we could already appreciate the intact outer walls and well preserved guard towers. The castle was protected by two layers of wall. We entered the castle through an entrance on the lower level, then walked through a vaulted ramp, and reached the inside of the fortress. Another ramp led us up to the core area, where the Knight Hall and Gothic church (later converted into a mosque) stood. We climbed the guard towers one by one to check out the surrounding scenery. Krak des Chevaliers was certainly the day’s highlight.
From a distant look, Krak des Chevaliers stands as the perfect Crusade castle out of a fantasy movie. Situated in the Homs Gap between inner Syria and the Mediterranean, the castle location has always been strategic for the region.
The moat, imposing walls and talus of Krak des Chevaliers survived the civil war.
Inside the complex, the main Medieval stair is gone forever due to damages from the civil war.
The Knight Hall is one of the world’s best preserved example of Crusader architecture.
The gallery facade of the Knight Hall suffered damages from the war as well, including burnt walls and broken arches and columns.
The inner court of the castle was littered with rubble in 2014 when the castle was recaptured by the government army.
In 2006, the castle’s inner court was largely peaceful and intact.
Seen from the southeast tower of the castle, the village of Al-Husn dominated the scenery below the castle. The word “Al-Husn” literally means “The Castle.”
Covered ramps connect the inner court is with the outer areas and main entrances.
Before leaving, we had one last photo of the castle. The image lived long in my memories, especially when I acknowledge how delicate political situations could become in this part of the world, such that a 900 year old cultural heritage could be gone forever upon a few brutal missiles.
Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.
The moat, blue brick defense wall and guard towers of the 500-year-old Kat Hing Wai Walled Village (吉慶圍) remind visitors that villagers in the New Territories were once living in the danger of rival clans, bandits and the most important of all, pirates. For self protection, many villages in the Ming and Qing Dynasties constructed defensive walls around their homes. Walled villages mushroomed in the New Territories, creating walled compounds for specific family clans. In the 20th century, many villages demolished their walls or had them partially removed, while most houses have been replaced with modern homes. With a relatively well preserved moat and wall, Kat Hing Wai is actually quite a rarity. Measured roughly 100m x 90m, Kat Hing Wai is one of the better preserved walled villages in Hong Kong. Built during the era of Ming Cheunghua Emperor (1464 – 1487) with the 5m defensive wall constructed in the 17th century, Kat Hing Wai was a close knitted community of the Tang clan.
Outside Kat Hing Wai Walled Village, a small part of the original moat has been preserved.
For security reason, only a small opening serves as the entrance for the walled village.
Most houses in the walled village have been replaced by modern houses.
The central lane leads to the temple hall.
There were a wooden desk and a religious altar in the temple hall.
The altar table contained a built-in incense container.
Antique ritual tools could be found on the altar table.
The temple hall opens directly towards the only entrance of the walled village.
We didn’t see anyone during our brief visit of the walled village.
Almost all buildings have been replaced by modern buildings. The original character of the walled village has been somewhat diminished in the modern era.
Some older houses still had traditional banners on their outer walls. These banners usually advocate good fortune for the entire family.
“Kar”, the Chinese character for family, illustrates the importance of family bonding in a traditional walled village.
When looked closely, traditional touches could still be seen at certain houses in Kat Hing Wai.
In the past, the four cannon towers were the tallest structures in the village.
Today, the defensive structures of the walled village have been undermined by modern buildings. Even the well known Kat Hing Wai Walled Village has no exception. This is the harsh reality of contemporary Hong Kong.
Getting up early was the key to beat the crowds. Our goal was to reach Amber Fort (or Amer Fort) before 8:30am. From our hotel in Jaipur, we had no problem flagging down an auto-rickshaw to cover the 10+ km to the valley of Kalikho Hills. The trip took roughly half an hour. At 8:15am, the majestic Amber Fort bathed in the morning glow came in sight while our auto-rickshaw approached Maota Lake. After getting off, we had the option of walking uphill to the fort or riding one of the 103 elephants to approach the hill fort in the maharaja’s way. Dozens of Indian elephants carrying foreign tourists on crimson howdahs zigzagged their way up to the arrival courtyard is a common sight at Amber Fort every morning. Yet, recently complaints filed in court had exposed the ill treatment of the elephants. We decided not to support the elephant owner. Walking uphill to the main gate Suraj Pol was a causal 15-minute walk. At the arrival courtyard Jalebi Chowk, we were soon overwhelmed by the enormous scale and exquisite details of the architecture. First built in 1592 by Man Singh I on earlier fort structures, the citadel was further expanded by Jai Singh I in the 17th century. The fort and its palace complex remained as the political centre of the region until 1727, when the capital was moved to Jaipur.
We get off the auto rickshaw right by Maota Lake, the main source of water for the Amber Fort. The fort and its reflection glowed under the morning sunlight.
We gave up the idea of riding the elephants and walked uphill on the same path as the elephants.
Many tourists preferred to take the exotic elephant ride to reach the fort.
Amber Fort is situated in a valley of Kalikho Hills, 11km northeast of Jaipur.
The progression of elephants making their way up and down the fort has become a common scene at Amber everyday.
We entered through Suraj Pol Gate into Jalebi Chowk, the arrival courtyard of Amber Fort.
We got our admission tickets at Jalebi Chowk and headed up a grand stair to the Singh Pol (Lion Gate). Through the gate we entered into the first palace courtyard that was dominated by Diwan-i-aam or Hall of Public Audience.
Built in 1639, the elegant Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience is an open pavilion that served as an audience hall.
The Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience is a beautiful piece of Rajput architecture.
From the courtyard of Diwan-i-Aam, we entered the inner palace through the beautiful Ganesh Pol Gate.
The three storey Ganesh Pol was built in 1640. It marks the main gateway into the inner palace.
Beyond Ganesh Pol lies the Aram Bagh or Pleasure Garden. The garden is flanked one end by the Sukh Niwas or Hall of Pleasure and the other by Sheesh Mahal or the Mirror Hall at lower level and Jas Mandir or Hall of Private Audience at upper.
The Sukh Niwas or Hall of Pleasure marble rooms of Sukh Mahal were cooled by water channeled in the walls and floor.
Across the courtyard from Sukh Niwas stands the Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Hall.
The Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Hall was the private chambers of the maharaja and his queen. Small pieces of mirrors and glasses filled the ceiling and walls. The space was particularly atmospheric at night under candle light.
The last courtyard we came to was Man Singh I Palace Square, where the Zenana once lived. This is the oldest part of the palace. The Baradari pavilion in the middle was the meeting place of the royal ladies.
From the Suhag Mandir at the upper level of Ganesh Pol, royal ladies could look out into the Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience.
A cleaning staff at Man Singh I Palace Square.
The Baradari pavilion at the centre of Man Singh I Palace Square.
From Amber Fort, we entered a tunnel and path that was supposed leading to the ramparts of Jaigarh Fort further uphill.
Posts on 2018 Rajasthan:-
Day 1: Jodhpur
DAY 1.1: IN TRANSIT TO RAJASTHAN
DAY 1.2: PAL HAVELI & THE OMELETTE MAN, Jodhpur
DAY 1.3: SPLENDOR OF THE SUN FORT, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.4: SUNSET OVER THE BLUE CITY, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.5: SADAR MARKET AND GHANTA GHAR CLOCKTOWER, Jodhpur
Day 2: Jodhpur, Osian, Jaisalmer
DAY 2.1: MARBLE CENOTAPH JASWANT THADA, Jodhpur
DAY 2.2: MEDIEVAL STEPWELLS, Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, Gulab Sagar, & Toorji Ka Jhalra, Jodhpur
DAY 2.3: PILGRIM OASIS IN THAR DESERT, Sachiya Mata Temple, Osian
DAY 2.4: SUNRISE AT THE FIRST GATE OF GOLDEN FORT, Jaisalmer
Day 4: Jaisalmer
DAY 4.1: RESERVOIR OF THE GOLDEN CITY, Gadsisar Lake, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.2: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 1, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.3: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 2, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.4: DESERT HERITAGE, Hotel Nachana Haveli and Thar Heritage Museum, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.5: LAST STROLL IN THE GOLDEN CITY, Jaisalmer
Day 8: Bhangarh, Abhaneri & Agra
DAY 8.1: ON THR ROAD TO AGRA
DAY 8.2: HAUNTED RUINS, Bhangarh, Rajasthan
DAY 8.3: CHAND BAORI, Abhaneri, Rajasthan
DAY 8.4: THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 8.5: FRIDAY MOSQUE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Day 9: Agra
DAY 9.1: CROWN OF THE PALACES, Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.2: AGRA FORT, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.3: RAWATPARA SPICE MARKET, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.4: SUNSET AT MEHTAB BAGH, Agra, Uttar Pradesh