Yau Tsim Mong
Yau Tsim Mong is the district of Hong Kong extremes. The streets are packed from one side to the other with market stalls and the pressed flesh of thousands of people. The sky has been replaced by layers and layers of signs (real and AR) mixing Chinese characters with English text scrolling horizontally, vertically, and anywhere else they can possibly fit. The din of thousands of rapidly spoken Cantonese conversations is overwhelmed only by the scents of dim sum and herbal tea stands. Over your head, a slow artificial rain falls from shuddering, crowded air conditioners hanging precariously from tenement windows. Yau Tsim Mong is the real heart of Hong Kong.
The neighborhood of Mong Kok is a claustrophobic crush of high-rise tenements, packing within its walls the highest population density in all of Hong Kong. Every form of space is in short supply in Mong Kok, because even the spaces between the high-rise housing blocks are crammed with a panoply of physical and virtual advertisements. Not only do hundreds of digital and neon signs jut out from every story of every tenement, overlapping in a dizzying array of animated pictographs, but the area’s augmented reality overlay is insane.
Mong Kok’s AR qualifies as a spam zone. If you go through here with your PAN open, you will be assaulted by banners in every centimeter of your plane of vision, many of them screaming at you in Cantonese. Don’t even be tempted to check out any of these advertisements; I’ve been told they’re a fantastic way to catch some exotic commlink virus cooked up in Asian or Russian hacker dens. If you keep your PAN well-hidden or turn your wireless off, though, Mong Kok can be an exciting place. Entire street markets full of local electronics (not all of it counterfeit) and knock-off designer clothes can be found here, selling their wares at ridiculously cheap prices.
South of Mong Kok, the smaller but not quite as densely packed neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei has earned a reputation as the “poor mystic’s market.” Street stalls full of “arcane goods” — some authentic, some not — haggle reproduction scrolls, rare animal parts, pressed flowers, strange herbal tea mixtures, frightening demon masks, and everything else under the Awakened sun. A small temple to the seafarers’ god, Tin Hua, sits landlocked thanks to reclamation of the nearby bay, but it watches over the Bird Garden next door, an open air market that sells bamboo cages of every variety of songbird. And just a few blocks away is the Jade Market, a crowded array of jade trinkets and jewelry, perfect for looks or for alchemical enchantments.
South of Yau Ma Tei, on the very tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, Tsim Sha Tsui (say that three times fast) has become more or less an extension of the corporate culture of Hong Kong Island, a cleaned-up parallel to the district’s wilder neighborhoods. It is also Hong Kong’s premiere tourist town, a sanitized and safe version of the truly exciting corners of this sprawl. Hotels and restaurants stand along the “Golden Mile” of Nathan Road, but they fall a bit short of the glitz and glamour of Wanchai-Causeway.
There’s a palpable undercurrent of siege mentality and fear among Tsim Sha Tsui’s residents as they try to keep the crime and refugee influence at bay. The hotel doormen in their fancy suits, mostly uneducated working stiffs hired to keep other poor people from ever setting foot in the hotel, serve as a symbol for the entire neighborhood—a veneer of sophistication trying to disguise a tough core.