He is one of those people who always carries a camera, wherever he is – in town, at a coffee, at a meeting, in the car and, of course, on holiday. He remembers taking his first photo when he was 12 years old, and two years later, one of his photographs was published by “Salut” magazine. Since then, he counts some impressive accomplishments: advertising campaigns, important projects for famous magazines, photo exhibitions in Bucharest, Paris, Toulouse, Nantes, Reykjavik or Cork. His favourite photos are published on his website, alexgalmeanu.com. Alex also has a blog, another website which is updated daily, like a visual diary, and he takes care of a virtual photography museum – one of his soul projects, dedicated to historic and documentary photography.
Above all these, Alex travels. A lot. He doesn’t miss any opportunity to take a trip. Out of all the places he has seen, he talks to Best Value about Hong Kong.
Why did you choose to go to Hong Kong? What did you know about this country that made you to take the trip?
Although I’m rather a portrait photographer, I like the idea of keeping a record of the things around me – a sort of street photography, if you like. My journeys are very much related to the photographic potential of these places. I find Asia very “photogenic”. Hong Kong was a natural choice following a similar trip to Singapore. The Easter mini-vacation that I had in mind turned into a 12 days vacation in April-May.
Did you have a well-established plan before you left?
In Singapore I got this significant attraction for capturing images of highly populated cities. So I searched the places where this urban density concept finds itself in the most relevant form. And Hong Kong was a natural choice. I didn’t actually have a plan but I knew that’s what I’ve been looking for, places and buildings specific to this social organisation form.
Tell us in a few words your adventures there: what did you like the most?
What I liked is equal to what I actually didn’t like: the urban density. I was looking for crowded places, but for the exact same reason I’d say I wouldn’t go back. This urban show is equally magnificent as it is scary. You feel both isolated and overwhelmed. The way people live there is hard to understand from a European point of view. Life standards are very different. Imagine that a regular apartment measures 16 square meters, including the bathroom, the kitchen and the balcony, and such a place frequently costs over 450.000 euro. The estates, as they call the apartment buildings or the residential complexes where they live, sometimes have over 7000 apartments. So, having 14-15.000 neighbours is something quite normal over there.
There is a story of the real estate agents; they sell the window views, not the apartments themselves. It’s useless to go see different apartments, as they all look the same. The only difference is the view – that’s the only thing worth seeing and the real added value that significantly raises the cost. Nevertheless, after a while, lacking the space, the inhabitants are forced to transform the window bay into a closet with shelves, depositing different items, blocking the view – the only asset they bought the apartment in the first place. If you look at these buildings from the outside, you will see the windows blocked by boxes filled with personal stuff. A detail that makes you think.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong is the New York of Asia. It has a little bit of everything, being fascinating in many ways. It’s a wonderful place for a photographer, but also a very interesting study ground for anyone passionate about life and its diversity. Well, it’s over there that I’ve discovered one of the most interesting private initiatives regarding photographic art. A businessman passionate about photography decided to dedicate one of the oldest buildings in the city to a photography museum: “F11 Photographic Museum”. I spoke to him and he said it would have been so easy to tear down the building (a relatively small one, three floors high) and build there an enormous apartment complex, which would have brought him a lot of money (in Hong Kong there are no laws to protect old buildings as we often have in Europe), but he has chosen to keep the old construction and host exhibitions and its own collection of photo cameras.
The image of this small, old building, surrounded by new skyscrapers, is a scene that pretty clearly expresses this man’s passion and his stubbornness to keep the history of the area alive, although this means giving up many millions of euro.
Is there anything that shocked you in Hong Kong?
To see the really shocking things, you must search for “Hong Kong cage apartments” on the Internet. Imagine that, for some of the inhabitants, the properties are so expensive that it’s impossible for them to buy them. Therefore, some of the estates decided to share the apartments among several owners. Practically, each apartment hosts 8-12 metallic cages and many people own such a cage. It’s all legal, so each cage has its own address and number, mentioned in the owners’ IDs. So, you live in the apartment building number x, let’s say 5th floor, apartment 25, cage number 8. Of course, those who have more money manage to buy two such units, merging them into a sole property. They sleep in the cage above and they keep their personal belongings in the cage below. I didn’t see myself how these estates look like and I guess I couldn’t have done it without knowing someone inside. Anyway, I think a visit there would be a pretty strong photographic theme.
Would you return to Hong Kong?
I would go back because there are many things that I didn’t get to photograph. Apparently, 12 days are not enough to cover everything.
How are the people there?
Chinese people are pretty strange from my perspective. They don’t have the European manners. I don’t think you will see very often a man opening a door for a woman, or any other basic courtesy gestures. Of course, I can’t generalize, but this is the sensation that I had. Probably, if I were to consider the cultural differences, it would be easier for me to accept the way things are. Nevertheless, I met extraordinary people as well, like the guy I was telling you about, the one that put together that photography museum.
What about the food?
The food is also a bit strange. I mean it doesn’t seem to have a certain refinement; everything is pretty basic and maybe a bit to much “pork belly”. You can easily think the cooks use pork meat for every dish. I had quite limited options considering that I’m trying to avoid meat.
Tell us a story that you remember from your trip to Hong Kong.
I saw a beautiful blonde on the street, while I was having a coffee on a narrow alley in the so-called old centre of Hong Kong (Soho – Mid-Level). She looked very familiar. After a few moments of hesitation, I realized I certainly knew her. I ran after her and, indeed, I saw Beatrice, a model I have been working with a lot in Bucharest and who lives in Hong Kong for a few years now. We saw each other again the next day, we had lunch together and went for a foot massage, a local type of massage that I avoided until then, but that proved to be quite an interesting experience. It was nice seeing Beatrice again, it was nice to speak Romanian in Hong Kong. And she helped me out with many useful insights.
What would you recommend to friends who want to visit Hong Kong?
A nice place to stay is Mid-Level-Soho. This is, let’s say, the old centre of the city. It’s a less crowded area, with narrow streets, historical buildings, many bars and coffee shops and an interesting network of private art galleries. It’s worth taking a walk and having a coffee at Common Ground (one of the few places that sell “speciality coffee” in Hong Kong). In the evening you can go to Aberdeen Street Social, a cool place, with very good wine, where many Europeans go. The best place for a sunbath is Repulse Bay. The sunset here is a real spectacle. Victoria Peak is the highest point of the island, with a sensational panorama over the gigantic buildings that make Hong Kong famous. You should visit the restaurants on the streets of Wan Vhai and also the F11 Photographic Museum I mentioned earlier. Of course, there are many things you can do here; it’s difficult to make a résumé in a few phrases.
You would tell your friends to stay away from…
I don’t think there are things that you should avoid in Hong Kong. Everything is part of the whole experience. It’s great to actually feel this human density, sometimes overwhelming; it’s OK to understand how people live, what are the difficulties they encounter. I don’t necessarily see things like a tourist; I try to be realistic, non-judgemental. I know that most people want to get away from their daily problems when they go on vacation. They want everything to be nice and comfortable. Hong Kong is not such a place. But if you can understand it objectively, it’s a fascinating city.
How is Hong Kong different from other countries in Asia that you visited?
I’ve been to Singapore, Bali, Thailand and now Hong Kong. I don’t have a wide Asian experience but I’m working on it J. Hong Kong is a financial centre and a powerful business area, you see it everywhere. It has an impressive architecture; it offers this unique experience of a very crowded place, it’s very diverse, very photogenic. Having this in mind, you can’t really say Hong Kong is a holiday destination. But I love travelling in the real meaning of the word – less like a tourist, less spending time on a lounge chair, in the sun, on a dream beach. But Hong Kong is a destination that should be on every traveller’s list, that’s for sure.
You are a fashion and portrait photographer. What kind of pictures you take on vacation?
When in holiday, I like to capture the bits of life around me, from local customs, to architecture, social habits or my personal experiences. I like to believe that I don’t take vacation pictures, as I believe the role of a photographer is to capture life, as it happens in his immediate presence.
What kind of photos did you take in Hong Kong?
I took all sorts of pictures, without a certain plan. But I can say Hong Kong invited me to a sort of architectural photography, probably in a more consistent manner that other places did. Bali, for example, it’s an open invitation to capture pictures of local people, while Hong Kong exposed itself to me in a preponderantly architectural form.
Photo: Alex Galmeanu