Social media has changed the way we travel, these days visual content is king, and thanks to visually-driven platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and the like, some places in the world have no longer become secrets, and in some cases have skyrocketed in popularity as a travel destination.
Off the top of my head, I can think of my trip to Flores in Indonesia and Padar Island in particular which was largely driven by photos of the surreal landscape showcased which made the rounds on the Internet, and many other travellers I met discovered that part of Indonesia in particular after seeing it on the Internet.
Interestingly though, I feel like there are few places in the world where this phenomenon has affected everyday places like it has in Hong Kong.
Many of the touted Instagram spots in Hong Kong are part of the fabric making up everyday life for locals, such as housing estates, recreational areas, streets in Central Hong Kong with murals on them, and even a swimming shed.
I visited all these spots to see what they were like in the flesh, so take this guide as a list of said spots and some thoughts about them after visiting them.
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Choi Hung Estate
I had to start this list off with the iconic rainbow estate named after the word rainbow in Cantonese, which has become one of the photos you see of Hong Kong on Instagram.
Many photos I’ve seen of this estate were pristine photos with the estate gleaming in the sunshine; the palm trees and colourful basketball courts in the foreground providing the perfect photo op.
I visited this estate twice, the first was on a late Saturday morning / early afternoon.
To get to Choi Hung Estate, step off from the Choi Hung MTR station and follow directions to the exit leading to the estate.
Right at the exit was the block of flats, though not where the photo op is, and we turned left and simply followed the crowd which led to a multi-storey carpark where I saw plenty of camera-wielding Instagrammers heading up and down the staircase of the carpark.
“It must be at the top,” I remarked.
True enough, there it was.
Remember that this was a Saturday morning, and my jaw dropped when I ascended up the stairs to a view of the basketball courts completely taken over and everyone using every bit of the court and the benches around for their modelling playground.
It was at this point that I wondered how the aforementioned people who posted their pristine photos of this estate and court got their photos without a single soul in them.
Were they just lucky?
Did they wake up at the crack of dawn just to get their photographs?
Did they just edit them all out?
But the most important question that ran through my mind was wondering how the locals felt.
Are they happy their estate has become so popular?
Do they feel a sense of pride?
Do they think it’s annoying that a basketball court and common recreational area for residents has become a playground for tourists and photographers pushing them out of spaces meant for them?
Are they ambivalent?
Or are they completely unbothered now that they’ve become so used to it?
The second time I headed back was a weekday evening, just before sunset.
I was happy to see that all the basketball courts were filled by school-going local teenagers who hadn’t even changed out of their school uniforms and dress shoes and playing ball among their group of friends.
Local residents were out and about, some resting on benches people watching, some taking their children out who were running around.
I even shook hands and said hi to a little toddler, before quickly realising I don’t know enough Cantonese to keep the kid entertained.
The Instagrammers were still around, but only occupied one court.
I took as many photographs of the local boys playing ball as much as I could as I felt it was a better representation of local life in the estate, this estate just happened to be a very colourful one which made for nice photos.
WHERE | HUNG MUI AVE, NGAU CHI WAN, HONG KONG
Possibly even more popular and photographed than Choi Hung Estate is the estate by the name of Montane Mansions.
Named Monster Building, Montane Mansions were featured in Hollywood blockbusters like Transformers 4, a reflection and representation of the densely packed urban environment Hong Kong is known for.
I too visited this estate twice, both on weekdays and the first in daylight, and the second at night.
The famous photograph can be taken from the inner courtyard of the estate looking up.
Interestingly, there weren’t half as many people here compared Choi Hung Estate, and the second time I visited at night, there weren’t any people out with their cameras at all, though I did stumble on a couple shooting their wedding photos, which I thought was cool.
Most people have their shots taken standing on the platforms at the estate, and there was a bit of an informal queue the first day we visited in daylight.
At the time, construction work was going on round the block, and the construction workers shared the space with tourists, local businesses and shops, as well as the housing estate’s residents.
This space was a lot smaller, and again, looking up, I still wondered how the locals felt about their estate gaining fame and exposure.
The popularity of the estate has led the management to put up signs that restrict photo and video taking, though the lack of enforcement means most people ignore them.
Still at the back of my head, I couldn’t help thinking that these windows we were looking into and shooting are actual apartments and not empty museums, and all the windows pretty much had their curtains drawn with good reason.
I’ll probably never get answers to my questions until I get to know people living in these housing estates.
WHERE | 1028 KING’S RD, QUARRY BAY, HONG KONG
Sai Wan Swimming Shed
Located at the western end of Hong Kong Island on the periphery of Kennedy Town is a swimming shed by the name of Sai Wan, which has become a popular spot to watch the sunset.
Some photos I saw of the shed online before going over looked surreal with the colours of sunset meeting the waters.
The entrance to the swimming shed is an inconspicuous narrow one which I would’ve completely missed if my friend hadn’t pointed it out.
We headed down several flights of stairs made of stone, and passed a humble, actual shed run by a bunch of elderly local men.
The main attraction though, was the metal walkway heading out into the sea, and a queue had already formed by the time we reached.
It felt a lot like the Blue Boat House in Perth, Australia, which was almost exactly the same thing— tourists lining up to take photos in front of this boat house on the water.
In fact, when we’d gotten to Sai Wan Swimming Shed, there was a yoga / swimsuit model posing for a photographer shouting out directions to her while she was on the metal walkway while he stood several metres away on the rocks.
Said photographer had some expensive gear with him, an almost telescopic lens, and the duo even brought a make shift tent where she changed out and into a series of outfits, and continued to ignore the poor tourists who’d been patiently queuing for their shot.
But unlike the Blue Boat House in Perth, Sai Wan Swimming Shed is operating for it’s primary purpose, which is for swimmers to head into the waters away from the jagged rocks making up the shore.
At one point, one of the elderly men running the shed grumpily made his way past the iPhone and DSLR holding tourists to use the walkway to go into the sea.
I never made it till sunset to see if the oft-photographed shed really did look like that at dusk.
Still, it did look nice enough in the day and was certainly a nice (read: different) view of atypical Hong Kong, and the sea looked inviting in the sunshine.
WHERE | VICTORIA RD, MOUNT DAVIS, HONG KONG
Murals of Graham Street and Antique Stores in the Wall
Hong Kong isn’t the only city in the world to use murals and commissioned work of artists to liven up city walls, so I didn’t make a conscious effort to see the murals, but did pass by an antique store in Central that caught my eye.
I’d seen another travel blog list it as one of their must-see Instagram worthy spots in Hong Kong, but didn’t make the effort to seek it out, and instead stumbled on it anyway when I headed to Man Mo Temple, one of Hong Kong’s most famous temples.
Just beside Man Mo Temple is a road that slopes downwards and just on that street is a side entrance to an antique store that isn’t all that different from your average Chinese antique store.
The wall was tiled and shaped like a Chinese coin amulet which really caught my eye, and thankfully hasn’t quite caught on as a must-have photograph so there wasn’t a line of people waiting to have their photo taken in front of someone’s store with no intention of ever patronising said store.
WHERE | 132 - 134 HOLLYWOOD RD, TAI PING SHAN, HONG KONG