As night begins to give way to dawn, 40 high-performance cars pull up on an empty Hong Kong back street. While the city sleeps, their revving engines fill the air with a heavy smell of petrol.
The drivers huddle together to set the route, always at the last possible minute. One of them spots the red and blue glare of police lights and they scramble to their cars, regrouping a few miles away to continue the race.
By day, Eva is a nurse. For one night each week she is also an illegal street racer — one of hundreds in Hong Kong who are bound by their addiction to breakneck speed.
With the engine of her black Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII modified to generate maximum power, the 25-year-old is only the second woman to join an illicit club whose members include teachers, businessmen, lawyers and even a Taoist priest.
Most of them would not even cross a pedestrian walkway on a red light in the day — jaywalking is an offence in Hong Kong — but the rules of a normally ordered city are put to one side in this twilight world of street racing.
Tearing along public roads at speeds of up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) per hour, Eva is fiercely proud of her secret identity as an illegal racer — one that she never plans to reveal to her parents.
“They cannot imagine what racing is because I’m a girl and I’m a little girl in their eyes ... So I will not tell my parents. I don’t want to bother them.”
While illegal street racing is a global phenomenon, rife in cities from Los Angeles to Sydney and Kuala Lumpur, in Hong Kong it is as much about being part of a racing community as it is a battle on the road.
“Every day we do the same thing, the same time. And then suddenly we can have our time to drive together,” says Alex, 27, who has been racing for four years.
Blazing down a clear road normally clogged with traffic unleashes the tension of living in an overcrowded city, he explains.
All other cars are obstacles “when you’re driving at 250 kilometers an hour,” the jewelry trader says.
“All of them are walls. I’m the one who can win, win the road ... I’m king of the road.”
Alex didn’t overtake anyone on this particular morning, after noticing an unmarked police car following friends ahead, but drove at more than 200 kilometers hour on a road where the speed limit is 70.
A dangerous, selfish act
The potentially devastating consequences of racing are far from the minds of the drivers comparing cars after the “morning drive” — the seemingly innocuous term they use to describe breaking the rules of the road.
“When I’m driving very fast, I feel I’ve combined with the car. The car is part of my body. I am in control,” says one 36-year-old, even though like most racers she knows at least one person who has had an accident while speeding.
Hong Kong police said there are no figures on injuries caused by illegal racing and there have been no related deaths in recent years, but stress that one fatal case would be one too many.
“Road racing is a highly dangerous and selfish act that puts other members of the public in severe danger ... What we want to try and do is to make sure that the road is safe,” Inspector Ngai Chun-yip, who heads the illegal road racing unit in the northern territories of Hong Kong, told AFP.
Last year there was an eight percent rise in the number of illegal racing complaints compared to the year before. Ngai led 291 anti-racing operations, increasingly using online videos uploaded by racers to help track them down.