July 14th, 2009

Reclaiming Public Space

Vernacular street art

Top left photo by John Batten; others by Christopher DeWolf

The brown leather chesterfield sits incongruously amid the parked buses, concrete paving and grey metal railings at the Tai Hang bus terminus. In the afternoon heat, a cat stretches over the length of the sofam but after sunset, it’s where bus drivers and passers-by sit and relax.

This kind of improvised street furniture is what arts writer and heritage activist John Batten calls vernacular or “nonchalant” art, an umbrella term for the everyday objects, street life and informal interventions in public spaces that are close to the heart of this city’s character.

“Hong Kong is a place that’s open to free expression, which is reflected in the clutter of our public spaces, our footbridges and ferry forecourts,” says Batten. “All of these bits of vernacular art and architecture are part of who we are. People overlook [such] simple things. But if you take them away, what are you left with?”

This Saturday, in an attempt to raise awareness about the importance of these “bits of urban vernacular”, Batten will explore the unique aesthetic of the city’s public spaces with “Hong Kong’s Street Art: Signage, Advertising, Architecture and Public Space”, a lecture that forms part of the University of Hong Kong’s Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities.

As commonplace as market stalls, street art and drying laundry might seem, Batten says they reflect and define Hong Kong’s urban identity. Once you start looking, you see it everywhere, he says, and people have made slight adjustments to the environment to benefit others.

“Where I live [in Sheung Wan] there’s a long staircase and old people are exhausted when they get to the top. So over the years they’ve put chairs on the staircase, and they shave down the legs so that the chairs can sit straight on the slope,” says Batten. Such impromptu interventions in public spaces are common here, he says.

Photographer Tse Ming-chong, whose work often deals with the urban landscape, agrees that Hongkongers have a particularly close relationship with the city’s public spaces, something he has often captured in his images.

“Because there are so many people living here and houses are small, I see a lot of people converting public space into their own private space,” he says.

“People are doing intimate things in public spaces. When you put a chair in a public area, that converts it into a more private environment, which leads to closer relationships than you would expect in public. That’s one very strong aspect of life in Hong Kong, especially compared to Europe or the US.”

Adapted from a slide show that he often shows as a guest lecturer to students at the Hong Kong Art School, Batten’s presentation at the University of Hong Kong focuses on everything from pawn shop signs to graffiti.

Batten says much of Hong Kong’s vernacular art has emerged from the way that people have adapted to the city’s “often brutal” landscape.

Residents and shop owners on the treeless streets of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, for instance, compensate for the lack of greenery by putting their own potted plants on the pavement.

Throughout the city, barbers, watch repairmen and booksellers work out of tiny stalls in alleyways. Pointing to a photo of a doorway in the Wan Chai street market that has been transformed into a makeshift fruit stand, Batten says: “You can do whatever you like on these streets. There’s no one to stop you.”

Another photo shows a produce stand erected in front of an old shop shutter on which laundry is drying. “There’s a certain casualness. I love that. There’s a beauty there, in the patina on the old folding doors, the baskets of produce.”

But it’s more than just unconventional beauty — it’s an expression of local culture.

Graffiti, stickers and stencils are ways that people engage with their environment, says Batten, who points to the lanes around Times Square as being a particularly fertile ground for street art.

Along with paste-ups from prolific artists such as Start from Zero, there are poignant political messages such as the stencil drawing of tanks, accompanied by lyrics from a pop song – “It’s him, you and me” – that appeared a few days before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“This is our heritage,” says Howard Chan Pui-hoe, art curator of the Community Museum Project, a non-profit organisation that documents the visual culture of Hong Kong’s public life.

“People always find a way to get around all the rules and regulations of public spaces. For example, [in old areas], craftsmen use part of the pavement for their work. Normally, there’s a kind of silent agreement between them and the people who use the rest of the pavement. But we don’t see this kind of thing happening in newly built housing estates.

“Right now, public space is overregulated. It’s being gentrified to an extreme extent.”

Indeed, as much as Batten hopes to draw attention to the art of the everyday he worries that many urban renewal projects and property developments neglect the street life that gives Hong Kong its character.

“When a property developer takes over a block of land, they’re usually doing something with a podium, where people walk around three or four storeys above street level,” he says.

“On the ground level, it becomes a very controlled environment. Now there’s just one owner, rather than many owners and individual shops. Suddenly there’s nothing there. You’ll see security guards and signs saying ‘Do not poster’. The consolidation of property in Hong Kong is leading to a degradation of the visual streetscape. We’re losing our ground-level happiness.”

Hong Kong’s Street Art: Signage, Advertising, Architecture and Public Space, will take place at 11am, Saturday, July 18th, in the Main Library, University of Hong Kong. Admission is free.

This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on July 14, 2009.


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