Hong Kong’s Wild West

West Kowloon

Last Sunday, Clara Lee and her nine-year-old daughter Hoi-ching were wandering through the craggy grass and gnarly trees that make up the West Kowloon site of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.

“It’s big here!” exclaimed Hoi-ching. “I don’t often go to the countryside.”

“Actually,” said her mother, “this is not the countryside. We’re in the city.”

Hoi-ching looked up, perplexed. “But it feels like the country.”

She could be excused for being mistaken. After it was created from landfill fifteen years ago, parts of West Kowloon were developed with malls and highrises, while a narrow strip of waterfront was recently converted into a public park and promenade. But most of it was simply fenced off and left fallow; land reclaimed from the sea was gradually reclaimed by nature. With the totems of Hong Kong finance soaring at either end of the site, it’s an odd experience to wander along a dirt road past wild grass, untamed shrubs and the sound of crickets buzzing in the sun.

West Kowloon

“What appeared to us about the site was the rawness, the idea that there’s this public space with the most optimum views of Hong Kong but also raw nature,” says Marisa Yiu, the biennale’s chief curator. “But we actually had to fight for it. We were originally given the very manicured waterfront promenade, but after walking through this wild bit [that was fenced off from the public], we fought pretty hard to get a permit to open it up.”

More than two dozen exhibits are scattered across the biennale site, including some interactive, site-specific installations that comment directly on its quasi-rural state. One of them is Second Skin, created by Academy of Visual Arts professor Peter Benz and several of his students.

The premise is simple: most Hong Kongers have become so disconnected from nature that they’re afraid to really engage with it. So Benz decided to “domesticate” some of the bits of wild forest in West Kowloon by dressing up trees all over the site in bright pink skirts.

“This is a place that is fairly wild by Hong Kong’s inner-city standards,” says Benz, as he walks with one of his students, Sophy Shi, through a field of shin-high grass. “I was inspired by a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who said, ‘One only understands the things that one tames.’ We’re dressing up the barbarians. We also wanted to highlight, in some way, that even if it seems wild, this site is actually quite artificial. It’s created from landfill and before the biennale, it was actually used as a tree nursery.”

During the day, the nylon skirts look a bit like tents. At night, many are lit from within, and they take on the appearance of Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns. Benz’s students made all of them by hand — even though none of them had sewn before — and each skirt is tailored for a specific tree.

“Our project is more fine arts than the others, and we wanted to do something really contextual,” says Shi. “When I look at them, it makes me want to interact with them. I like the contrast with the trees. And they’re pink! It’s my favourite colour. I want to go play with them, take pictures, look at the details.”

West Kowloon

West Kowloon

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday December 23 2009at 09:12 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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