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Local residents and tourists discover the secret side of Hong Kong on tours off the beaten track.

Reporter: Yvonne Yeung

In a long, dark corridor in one of the residential blocks in So Uk Estate, British school teacher Rebecca Barron squats down and peeps through a mail slot to get a look inside a vacant flat. She is astonished to learn that the 200-square-foot flat was designated for a large family.

“I was a little shocked as I thought the apartments were far too small for families with eight to 12 people,” Barron says. She, her fiancé and her 13-year-old daughter are visiting Hong Kong for the first time and they are participants in the inaugural city tour to be organised by Secret Tour Hong Kong. The tour’s organisers aim to show the “real” Hong Kong to visitors and locals alike for free.

“I have seen how people live now and how current government policy is having a profound impact on their lives. It is what I wanted to see,” Barron says. She found out about the tour on The CouchSurfing website and was attracted to the idea of a non-profit-making tour that revealed the inner workings of the place she was visiting.

The six foreigners and five locals who follow the two founders of Secret Tour Hong Kong do not know what to expect other than that they will see hidden sides of the city. They have not been told of the exact itinerary beforehand.

Although the 11-hour tour is free, participants have to pay for the food and fees for public transportation. It begins at noon with yum cha in a Chinese restaurant in Sham Shui Po. The participants and tour organisers share baskets and plates of dim sum around a circular table while discussing Hong Kong’s housing policies over cups of tea. After lunch, they walk to a flea market in Ap Liu Street and visit the Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb Museum.

As they walk from Sham Shui Po to Cheung Sha Wan, Josie Cheng Ho-yi, the 24-year-old co-founder of Secret Tour Hong Kong, explains the architecture of the older public housing estates. Referring to a stack of notes in her hand, she reels off facts about the soon to be disbanded So Uk Estate community. Cheng even tells her own stories about growing up in the neighbourhood.

Cheng says she was inspired to start Secret Tour Hong Kong by the walking tours she joined in Europe as an exchange student. “We met many people and shared human stories with each other,” she says. Chatting with local people helped her to understand the countries she visited far better than just visiting the usual tourist spots.

The copywriter teamed up with another 24-year-old, advertising creative, Stephen Chung Chun-kit, to establish Secret Tour Hong Kong earlier this year. “We wanted to create a chance to meet and chat with people we never knew before,” says Cheng. The founders skip the usual tourist spots, shopping malls and theme parks. Instead, they take participants to rarely visited places to experience the life of ordinary Hong Kong citizens.

Secret Tour Hong Kong offers free-of-charge tours to foreigners mostly plus a few locals. In return, each participant has to write down a secret on a piece of paper anonymously at the end of the tour. The founders will hold an exhibition to display the collection later but a specific plan is yet to be drawn up.

The tours usually take place on weekends because Cheng and Ho have to work full-time during the week. Chung says it does not cost them anything to run the tours, except for their time. They spend many  hours  walking the tour routes to familiarise themselves with the itinerary and ensure that they can lead participants on the day of tour.

Although they sacrifice their time and shoe leather, the pair say the creative project is for “personal satisfaction and exploration of their full potential”. Chung is always wondering what Hong Kong actually means to the local people who live here. It is with this question in mind that he wants to show people the real Hong Kong through Secret Tour Hong Kong.

Leading the tours has helped him to realise how much he still needs to explore to get a complete picture of the real Hong Kong. “I realised how little I know about Hong Kong. I don’t know some things I am supposed to know,” he says, taking the history of Sham Shui Po and So Uk Estate as an example.

On the day of the city tour, he and Cheng lead the participants to follow a resident of So Uk Estate to sneak past the entrance into one of the blocks. While walking through the corridor of the half-vacant block, the two founders show as much curiosity about the flats as the participants do. They squat, stand on tiptoe and peep into the flats, just like the tourists.

Apart from the walking, eating is a big part of the tour. Cheng and Chung want to take participants to restaurants they would not have visited otherwise. They have afternoon tea in a soon-to-be-demolished cha chaan teng (Hong Kong style diner) in So Uk Estate at 4 p.m. Orders of pineapple buns, egg tarts, pork chop buns and cups of milk tea fill up a whole table.

“I would not have had the confidence to go into some cafes due to the language barrier or lack of knowledge,” says the British tourist Rebecca Barron, as she tucks into the local delicacies. In the evening, they go to a dai pai dong (outdoor restaurant) in Temple Street to sample claypot rice. The foreigners are nervous when the waitress brings frog claypot rice to their table. At first, they refuse to try it, but soon they are giving the dish the thumbs up.

City tours are no means exclusively for foreigners. Locals can explore Hong Kong through CityWalker@IA, another city tour group for those who love to go off the beaten track. The group targets locals and, on occasion, visitors from the mainland.

The founder, Sze Tak-on, is a sociology postgraduate and teaching assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Sze is so into local culture that he encourages youngsters to care about their city by visiting local communities and talking to the residents. Sze hopes the youngsters can observe local culture and different ways of living and, ultimately, share their experiences with their friends.

“Wanchai is like a friend, and you introduce this friend to your other friends,” the 26-year-old says. The group offers two types of free tours: “City-walking Tours” and the “Country Tours”. The former involves walking around districts in urban areas like Sham Shui Po and Choi Hung while the latter is all about country parks and rural areas like Choi Yuen Village, which is being demolished to make way for the controversial Express Rail link.

The group has been taking tours to Guangzhou as well since last year. Participants   can explore the development of the art scene in Hong Kong’s neighbouring province, which Sze says is “more successful than in Hong Kong”.

They conducted their first city tour in July 2009. Unlike Secret Tour Hong Kong which takes participants to different districts in a day, Sze and other core members of the group take participants to just one particular district or spot. Participants are encouraged to take the initiative to approach residents and talk to them during the five-hour visit. At the end of the tour, they have to share their ideas with other participants.

Sze emphasises the interaction between participants and residents. He recalls making friends and chatting with residents in Kut Hing Wai during their first visit. The residents invited participants into their own gardens and even acted as tour guides for the following visit.

After more than a year of operation, Sze is pleased to see the increasing number of youngsters showing concern about Hong Kong’s land and city planning problems. These are the issues he wanted to address from the beginning of the venture.

Sze organised a tour to Choi Yuen Village during the first phase of land clearance there. During the tour, a student participant wrote on a wall – after leaping over fences to get into the construction area – “Construction workers, please be gentle when you demolish (the wall).”

Sze hopes the village tours will make people think about how vulnerable Hong Kong’s disappearing village life is. “We can let participants see a beautiful village and a village that has been destroyed. They can then reflect on how city dwellers should live (and help protect their environment).”