Lulu Wang Discovered Hong Kong’s Hidden Neighborhoods, Noodle Shops and Speakeasies While Shooting ‘Expats’

The atmosphere of Hong Kong permeates Lulu Wang’s “Expats” the crowded streets, the muted colors, the stained-concrete high rises, the neon

Published Time: 09.06.2024 - 22:31:28 Modified Time: 09.06.2024 - 22:31:28

The atmosphere of Hong Kong permeates Lulu Wang’s “Expats”: the crowded streets, the muted colors, the stained-concrete high rises, the neon. Anna Franquesa-Solano’s cinematography seems to even pick up the humidity. Then there’s the cool, clean, sterile apartments and neighborhood of the expats living on “The Peak.” Victoria Peak is a lush, plush mountaintop peppered with sleek modern buildings, leafy jogging trails and very expensive cars ferrying its privileged residents to and from engagements.

“I think both in terms of the geography — the physical traits of the city and the social traits of the city, we wanted to show the range of both, because Hong Kong is so small, and yet you have jungle and city and ocean all right next to each other,” says Wang. “I would turn out my window one way and just see lush, green jungle; turn the other way and it’s the harbor; you look over there and it’s the city skyline. So that was so miraculous, like just the relationship between all three of those things.”

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She wanted to show huge disparity of wealth in Hong Kong, as well as the city embracing the East and West, its British colonial past and its present dealing with the politics of mainland China. “Ultimately, we wanted Hong Kong to be its own character.”

The series is set in 2014, so Wang and her crew looked at photos from a decade ago to re-create certain elements that are changing and even vanishing, like Hong Kong’s trademark neon signs. The changes are noted in a scene between Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) and Charly (Bonde Sham) at the historic Mido Café, which, with its large neon sign, looks like something right out of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”“That was one of the locations that is nostalgic,” says Wang.

In the café, Mercy says, “The neon lights are so cool. It’s so old school.” The waiter replies, “Tell that to the government. Hong Kong is dying.” Wang says that was a line that the owner actually said to her. “And after we finished production, I thi -

nk a year later, the restaurant closed.”

“Expats” filmed all over Hong Kong island, from the Peak to the wealthy Admiralty neighborhood to a striking scene on the world’s longest escalator, the Central Hillside Escalator Link.

Nicole Kidman’s Margaret escapes her glossy life on the Peak in a worn-down rented flat in the Mei Foo private housing estate on Kowloon. Besides being architecturally interesting, says Wang, “It’s a local neighborhood where you really wouldn’t ever see any Westerners.”

The cast and crew fell in love with the restaurants and community of Tai Hang, which is where the production was based during the shoot. Although it borders Causeway Bay, with its large population of expats, Tai Hang, Wang says, was occupied mostly by locals. In fact, the noodle bar in Episode 1 was modeled on a “this noodle shop that has been there for ages. We fell in love with the food, and we fell in love with the location of it on that corner. It just felt very cinematic.”

She mentions Mustard Café and Chin Jor Fan Tong as two Tai Hang restaurants that became regular hangouts.

Wang was most surprised by the speakeasies operating after the daytime street market stalls, which sell fresh produce, are shuttered. “You look for a black door. And the only way that you know that this is the right place is that they have a doorbell. You ring the doorbell, somebody comes, and if it’s not full, they’ll let you in. That was really fun to discover.”

Despite the Chinese government imposing tough censorship laws on Hong Kong, and the crackdown on some freedoms after the Umbrella Revolution depicted in “Expats,” Wang says, “The people of Hong Kong are just so sweet and generous and kind and hopeful.”

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