Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
By day, Liam Wong is an art director for a video game company. By night, he photographs the color and chaos of the largest city in the world.
One evening in Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red light district, Liam Wong snapped a photo (above) that changed how he saw the city: A taxi stands parked outside a “love hotel,” a place where couples looking for a few hours of privacy can rent rooms (fitted with all sorts of amenities). As the taxi driver waits for his clients, his expectant face is illuminated by the light inside the car, in stark contrast to the gloom outside.
Capturing this seemingly mundane moment while visiting Tokyo in early 2016 inspired Wong, who works as an art director for a Montreal-based video game developer by day. So for the few weeks he was in the Japanese capital, he took to the streets at night, armed with a new DSLR camera, hoping to document the color and chaos in overlooked crannies of the city.
“Every day we brush past so many other people in our day-to-day lives, walking past things we deem mundane such as alleyways, signs, and shop fronts,” he tells CityLab via email. “Interesting things are happening all the time, yet I feel we don't stop to appreciate it as often as we should. That beauty is all around us, even in the darkest corners of a city.”
While he was out exploring Tokyo, one thing that stuck out was how quickly and completely the streets filled up with umbrellas every time it rained. The locals always seemed to have one on hand, when he often found himself unprepared. “There is an art to using umbrellas in Japan,” he says. “The umbrellas pass without collision. Up, down, up down, bobbing in a rhythmic stream.” Many of his pictures (such as the one below) capture his fascination with these almost-choreographed waves in a sea of umbrellas.
Tokyo, in Wong’s photo series, bears striking resemblance to the futuristic Los Angeles depicted in director Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. That’s not an accident: Wong is a huge fan of Syd Mead, the designer behind the neon metropolis in that film. “His use of color, contrast, and composition across his entire portfolio is just awe-inspiring,” Wong says. Other films that have influenced his photos include Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and In The Mood For Love, and Park Chan-wook's Oldboy.
The reception of this series on social media has been “pretty overwhelming, yet so motivating,” Wong says. He is now working to consolidate the photos, some of which are featured below, into a book. His other work from Tokyo and beyond lives on his Instagram.