Unchartered territory

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Mary Hui chats with Nicole Chabot and Ira Chaplain about their new book on the beauty of that ‘unknown’ area, Kowloon

We all know Kowloon. It’s busy. It’s colourful. It’s packed with markets, apartments and people. There are beautiful landscapes. There’s the sex industry. There’s the masses of Mainland tourists. But how much do we really know the ‘Nine Dragons’ district? One author says there’s much more hidden away and it’s up to us to go and discover it. “I see Kowloon as an exploding thesaurus,” says Nicole Chabot, author of new picture-led tome Kowloon: Unknown Territory, “as in there are so many different adjectives you could use to describe it.”

But this area of Hong Kong isn’t the most well-thumbed thesaurus in town, according to Chabot. Strangely, Kowloon continues to be somewhat of an obscurity for scores of residents and visitors, she says. “Kowloon remains unknown to many Hong Kong islanders,” says the author. Before she embarked on the research for the book, Kowloon was also an ‘uncharted territory’ for her, she claims. Now, after exploring the district extensively, she admits: “Kowloon – and, by extension, Hong Kong – has really opened up to me!”

There’s more to Kowloon than meets the eye, says Chabot. “It’s the abode for tourists, a business locus and a place where locals come together in a really dynamic relationship,” she says. “Beneath the sleek and shiny veneer runs a perpetual flux between the old and the new, the mainstream and the alternative, the rich and the poor. It’s a place where themes of community, consumerism, art, food, fashion and sex are played out daily.”

Chabot explains all these ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ quantities to Kowloon in the new book, which hits the shelves handily in time for Christmas. And American award-winning photographer, Ira Chaplain, who fills the tome with 128 pages of beautiful, full-colour photos, tells the rest of the district’s story in pictures. “There’s so much colour in Kowloon,” he says. “So much hasn’t changed over the decades – but so much also changes by the day and even by the hour.”

The new book is certainly bright and beautiful. Capturing Kowloon from the pedestrian’s point of view, at times Chaplain embeds himself invisibly in the crowds and at other times he follows his subjects as they manoeuvre through the streets, markets and communities. He says he’s been rewarded with a ‘nostalgic taste of being a traveller again’. “I used to feel that, to achieve that, I had to leave the country,” he says. “Not so!”

As a Hongkonger with a lineage reaching all the way back to a Song dynasty emperor, Chabot has a unique window on Kowloon. “My early guides were old Hongkongers who shared their memories with me,” she says, prompting her to ‘contemplate the changing cityscape, the Hong Kong of today and the Hong Kong of the future’.

Also guiding Chabot in the production of the book was a mixed Eastern and Western ancestry, placing her at a nexus between two cultures. “I loved the local discoveries such as the cha chaan tengs, the dai pai dongs and the street food – but could relate to foreign enclaves such as the people of Chungking Mansions, from South Asia and across Africa, and the Thais of Kowloon City.”

With so much diversity, it’s hard to determine where Kowloon starts and ends. A little tellingly, perhaps, sex figures prominently at the end of the book – a reminder that, for all the neon lights, there exists the shadow of prostitution. “In fact,” Chabot says, “sex is much more a part of Hong Kong than art – and as much as food.”

Whether that’s the case is a question for debate. For now, those seeking out a piece of Kowloon to call their own have this book to
start them off. “The book,” says Chabot, “is a tribute to Hong Kong and the lives of the ordinary people here.”

Kowloon: Unknown Territory is published by Blacksmith Books, priced $180. 

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