August 15th, 2010

Rethinking Urban Renewal in Hong Kong

This is a feature story that was originally published in the July 2010 edition of Muse magazine. The photos accompanying this article were taken around the Graham Street Market in Central.

Standing in the soggy heat of a late spring afternoon, Katty Law reflected on the irony that it took a movie a mere two months to do what she has been fighting to achieve for two years. “We’ve been talking about Wing Lee Street for so long,” she said, looking up at a rusted balcony on this sleepy street in Sheung Wan. “But we couldn’t convince the government to save the whole street.”

That was before the makers of Echoes of the Rainbow picked the street — with its single row of tong laus built just before and after World War II — as the perfect backdrop for their weepy drama about a shoemaker’s family in 1960s Hong Kong. After the movie won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, dozens of photographers, schoolchildren and sightseers started visiting the narrow street, recording the details of an urban scene that has become nearly extinct in Hong Kong. As the crowd of pilgrims grew, heritage advocates raised their voices and a group of architects, engineers and urban planners joined in, urging the URA to preserve all of the buildings on Wing Lee Street.

Government officials were listening. In a surprise announcement, the Secretary for Development, Carrie Lam, announced that Wing Lee Street would be withdrawn from the urban renewal site. For Law, co-founder of the Central and Western District Concern Group, the announcement was only a temporary respite from the overall battle to persuade the government to rethink its entire approach to urban design. Her aim is to get the government to encourage development that is sensitive to the environment, that enhances the city’s streetlife and sense of community and that respects Hong Kong’s history and heritage. “Right now, developers can do whatever they want, and they’re facilitated by the government. We need planning controls,” she said.

Hong Kong is being furiously remade by major redevelopment projects in nearly every part of town. The Urban Renewal Authority (URA), a quasi-public organization that facilitates redevelopment by purchasing multiple properties to sell to developers, has plans for more than 50 areas throughout Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The largest project, which will redevelop Kwun Tong’s town centre, will cost more than $20 billion and displace 4,829 people and 523 shops. Meanwhile, a recent policy change by the government has lowered the percentage of flats private developers need to buy in an old building before they can force the remaining owners to sell. That has led to a spate of private redevelopments throughout the city’s ageing neighbourhoods. Finally, plans are being hatched to develop vast tracks of empty land like the former Kai Tak Airport — a huge area that could come to define the future landscape of Hong Kong.

The question now is what path will Hong Kong’s development take? Few people seem satisfied with the status quo. Heritage issues, sparked by the demolition of Wedding Card Street and the Central Star Ferry pier, have moved to the forefront of public concern. So have worries about the environment. Revelations of off-market sales at URA-backed developments have stirred anger against the authority, whose mandate is now under review by the government. Developers have taken flak for misleading buyers about the size of their flats and for loading new buildings with expensive clubhouses that are rarely open.

“Heritage conservation is linked to good urban planning, which is linked to good traffic planning, pedestrian flows, good parks and appropriate buildings that allow airflow and sunlight,” said John Batten, an art critic and urban design activist who works closely with Law. Good urban design, he said, requires a holistic approach, one that considers society, the environment, culture and business in equal measure. For most of Hong Kong’s history, however, urban growth has been driven largely by profit. With growing public concern over the city’s heritage, culture and quality of life, that might be about to change.

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Three years ago, Lee Chi-man, a computer animator, began matching old photos of Hong Kong with new ones taken in the same location. He now has more than 700 of these then-and-now compilations on the photo-sharing website Flickr. Each one is a vivid demonstration of just how much Hong Kong has changed over the past century. Shantytowns have disappeared, buildings have grown taller, the city has evidently become cleaner and more prosperous.

But many of the changes leave a nagging sense that something has been lost. In one typical compilation, Lee contrasts a late-1960s shot of Possession Street in Sheung Wan with one taken at the same location last April. In the old photo, the street is filled with pedestrians; shops spill out into the street and a hawker stall is visible in the near distance. Laundry hangs out to dry on balconies and the sidewalks are shaded by arcades. In the new shot, the street has been widened and the pedestrians largely replaced by cars. Grey metal railings separate the sidewalks from the street. The balconies are gone; bay windows and air conditioners take their place. The arcades have disappeared, too, leaving the sidewalks exposed to the sun and rain. On one side of the street, a blank wall has taken the place of first-floor windows.

When I first met him last summer in a Mongkok café, Lee explained that he started putting together the images as a hobby, but the more he saw of how Hong Kong has changed, the more upset he became. “I’m 36 years old and the city where I grew up is no longer there,” he said. “I don’t understand why we are trading our old streetlife for new development.” He told me about how, when he was growing up in Hung Hom, he used to accompany his father to the ferry pier to fish and ride his bicycle. Now the water is gone, reclaimed for two upscale housing estates that sit behind high walls.

Hong Kong’s urban development, like that of any city, has always been driven by two forces: population growth and government policy. Until the 1960s, Hong Kong was a city of low-rise, tile-roofed shophouses and tenements. The crush of refugees that arrived after 1949, when the Communists won the civil war in mainland China, led to terrible overcrowding. Families built ramshackle houses on hillsides, where they were vulnerable to fire and landslides. Others lived on balconies, in hallways and on rooftops. In the early 1950s, the Housing Authority was set up to build housing for the poor, and the Housing Society was given the task of building housing for the middle-class. Building regulations were changed to increase density. Despite these efforts, the 1961 population census found that 68 percent of Hong Kong’s population was inadequately housed, either in squatter settlements, rooftop shanties or in cubicles.

Rich streetlife compensated to some extent for the era’s deplorable living conditions. The streets were marketplaces, living rooms and playgrounds all at once. In 1974, the Royal Asiatic Society sent photographers to document the neighbourhoods west of Pottinger Street. Their photos, now collected in the book A Sense of Place: Hong Kong West of Pottinger Street, form a portrait of the city through its streets: children playing in small alleyways, see lai examining eggs at the street market, schoolchildren lining up to buy congee from an itinerant hawker.

Things began to change in the 1970s and 1980s, when large property development companies emerged, with a preference for buildings that were bigger and taller — and thus more lucrative — than anything Hong Kong had seen. Government-led urban renewal was introduced in 1988 with the creation of the Land Development Corporation, an organization that would eventually become the Urban Renewal Authority. Almost all of the old districts of Hong Kong Island, with the exception of the central business district, were slated for renewal. “The whole point was to look for urban development opportunities, not to improve living conditions,” said Hendrik Tieben, an assistant professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Tieben is one of several academics who have studied the transformation of old Hong Kong neighbourhoods as part of an urban design workshop for graduate students. He is critical of the urban renewal process. Urban renewal projects have been planned for Sai Ying Pun since the mid-1990s, only a few of which have materialized. “The fact that for over 15 years there was an urban renewal scheme announced that never materialized contributed to the identity of the area being dissolved,” he said. Buildings were left to decay as owners waited to be bought out for redevelopment. “The plan has always been for the upgrade of the neighbourhood, but not for the residents — they were expected to move out.”

The few urban renewal projects that did move ahead featured designs that put them at odds with the surrounding area. Sitting in his university office, Tieben showed me photos of one development that faces the street with concrete walls. Even though it includes public open space, he said, its cloistered design makes it intimidating and unappealing. Almost no one uses it. The problem isn’t new development in and of itself, he adds — many new buildings blend in perfectly with the street — it’s with “the whole urban renewal process” of assembling large parcels of land to be redeveloped by a single developer.

Tieben’s colleague, Woo Pui-leng, points to the URA’s latest Sai Ying Pun project, Island Crest, as an example of where urban renewal goes wrong. The bigger the building, the less human-scaled it becomes, she said. “Within the level of seven stories you can see human facial expressions. Three to four stories up, you have a direct engagement with what’s happening below. There are eyes on the street.” The lowest apartments at Island Crest are several stories above street level. Even worse, the First Street side of the development consists of massive blank walls, air conditioning vents and service entrances. “Maybe it’s quite pleasant if you live on the 50th floor, if you have that kind of money, but when you go to Sai Ying Pun now it feels like there’s a big hole,” said Woo. “It’s quite awful to walk to the street there.”

Island Crest’s relationship to the street is more than an aesthetic concern. If the streets become unpleasant, people will walk less, which increases their reliance on pollution-generating forms of transport like cars and buses. The sheer bulk of buildings like Island Crest block airflow, said Tieben, which traps pollution and increases the ambient temperature of the surrounding areas, increasing their reliance on air conditioning. This kind of vicious cycle is one reason why roadside pollution in Hong Kong has become noticeably worse in recent years. Statistics from the Environmental Protection Department show that pollution levels were “high” for 80 percent of the time in the first quarter of 2010 and “very high” or “severe” for nearly 14 percent of the time. In the first quarter of 2000, by contrast, pollution levels were high for 51 percent of the time and very high for just over 1 percent. There were no days when roadside pollution was classified as severe.

Many of the critics I spoke to told me that big-ticket redevelopment also hurts Hong Kong’s social and economic environment. In its current form, urban renewal is a kind of government-sponsored gentrification, replacing cheap shop space and apartments with luxury housing and high-rent retail. Instead of being given a flat in the new development, residents are either compensated with cash or moved to public housing, usually in the New Territories. They probably couldn’t afford to stay even if they wanted to: the going rate for an apartment in Island Crest – which advertises itself as being in “Island West” rather than Sai Ying Pun – is almost $15,000 per square foot. The block it replaced, by contrast, was made up of flats in a large variety of sizes and prices, not to mention shops that included ethnic grocery stores and traditional rice merchants.

In response to questions, Island Crest’s developer, Kerry Properties, sent me a statement by email: “The stunning and modern exterior design (…) makes it an iconic development along the waterfront in Island West. Its green public open space on Second Street not only beautifies the entire environment and creates a city garden for the neighbourhood, but also widens the distance between Island Crest and its surrounding buildings. There is also a covered atrium connecting First Street and Second Street, which provides extra convenience for the public.”

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Just how much can be lost becomes clear as I wandered through Central with Katty Law, passing through some of the URA’s redevelopment areas. At the corner of Gage Street and Graham Street, in the heart of the Central street market, we stopped next to a seafood stall. Behind us, shrimp squirmed inside a styrofoam container. Law pointed up at a six-storey building. “This will be replaced by a two-storey wet market,” she said. “What worries us is who will manage it. If it’s a private developer, the rents might be too high. And what about during the construction? The dust and noise will be so much the shrimp will jump right out of their box!”

She turned around and points at three pre-war shophouses. “Those are the buildings that will be preserved for a so-called ‘old shop street,’” she said with a grimace. We continued along Gage Street, past vegetable stalls, butcher shops and a green hawker booth that stands vacant. Across the street is an old seven-storey tong lau that has been renovated and turned into a serviced apartment; it will be excluded from the redevelopment, Law said. We pass a piece of graffiti by local artists Graphic Airlines. “不殺市集” (Don’t kill the market) it read.

This is familiar territory for Law, the daughter of a Hollywood Road antiques dealer. She grew up on Caine Road in the 1970s and has spent her entire life in Central. “I lost my school to property developers,” she said, recalling the original location of the Sacred Heart Canossian School. “It was a beautiful school. I’ve witnessed this kind of development all my life. I can physically feel it — the pile-driving goes on and on and on.” I ask her how Central has changed over the years. She told me how the tong laus and small apartment buildings of her youth gave way to huge towers. “It’s like a screen coming up. The streets became like canyons. The new buildings don’t even have shops at the bottom, just the entrances to car parks, and if there are shops being built, they’re usually quite expensive. The old neighbourhood feel has disappeared.”

Turning onto Hollywood Road, we passed a row of Chinese banyans growing out of an old stone wall next to the former Central Married Police Quarters. “We had to fight to save these,” she said. Until a few years ago, the government wanted to sell the old police quarters to private developers, and the trees would have given way to garage entrance. When Law found out, she took her two children and joined the campaign to save the trees. When the campaign succeeded, Law turned her attention to the rest of the site. That marked her transition from housewife to activist.

“It’s tiring, but we can’t get too stressed, if only to preserve our sanity,” she said. “In recent years, we’ve seen the blossoming of groups like ours. Wherever the URA goes, we have seen the rise of concern groups. The government is serving the developers more than they are serving the needs of the people. That makes people upset. The entire urban renewal process is geared towards profit-raising. It’s a bulldozer form of development that doesn’t allow things to change in a gradual or organic manner.”

In recent months, the URA has been on the defence against critics of its practices. Although it takes on money-losing projects at the government’s behest, most of its initiatives are quite lucrative, and it ensures a healthy profit for the property developers it works with. The relationship between the URA and developers has often been controversial. Last year, it was revealed that New World Development had sold several flats in the Masterpiece, a URA project in Tsim Sha Tsui, to business associates, before they were made available to the public. When the flats came on the market, they fetched more than $30,000 per square foot. Many were snapped up by investors looking to cash in on a resurgent property market. Newspaper stories describe planeloads of mainland tourists given free visits to Hong Kong in the hopes that they would buy property in the development.

The URA declined my requests to interview its director of planning and design, Michael Ma. When I asked a spokesman about how much the URA considers local businesses and communities when it plans a development project, he responded by email: “It is always the intention of the URA to maintain and enhance local characteristics in its urban renewal projects as far as practicable,” he wrote. So far, however, there are no examples of a URA project in which existing residents or shopowners have stayed. One development often cited by critics is the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, which was included in a URA redevelopment site in Wan Chai. While the century-old building housing the pawn shop was preserved, it is now home to an upscale bar and restaurant called the Pawn. Woo Cheong was forced to move down the street, where it still operates today.

Because urban renewal is profit-driven, said Law, it encourages the development of up-market properties that drive up rents. “It basically removes the ability for small businesses to survive,” she said. Take away a street market and you take away the livelihood of everyone involved in the market. The butcher with a stake in a business and a role in the community becomes an employee at Wellcome. “The government should rethink its strategy to protect the cultural diversity of Hong Kong. Right now, it seems to be going in the direction of becoming very monotonous.”

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The grassroots urbanism of street markets, hawkers and neighbourhood streetlife has long been at odds with Hong Kong’s planning policies. Hawkers were tolerated by the government for more than 100 years after the British occupied Hong Kong, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the surge of refugees from mainland China led to a huge increase in the number of hawkers, from an estimated 13,000 to more than 70,000. The government stopped issuing new hawker licences in 1970. Since then, the number of hawkers has dwindled to 7,048. Last year, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) issued 61 new licences for ice-cream vendors, and it also began auctioning off a small number of vacant hawker stalls. So far, demand for the new licences has far outstripped their availability – 132 people applied for the new ice cream licences.

Street traders may be considered a nuisance by the authorities but hawking has often been the first step up Hong Kong’s economic ladder. This spring, walking past an urban renewal site in Mongkok, I bought a bottle of water from woman named Mrs. Tang, who sells newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and drinks at the entrance of an old shophouse. She said she had been there for 20 years. In exchange for being able to store her goods under the building’s staircase — she showed me a government-issued “Staircase Occupation Permit” — she cleans the building’s entrance and keeps an eye on everyone who enters or leaves.

I asked her what she would do when the building was redeveloped. She told me that the URA had kept her in the dark about compensation, but she gestured towards a list of letters and numbers written on a yellowed piece of paper taped to the side of a shelf. “Those are taxi numbers,” she said, explaining that she had saved up enough money to buy a taxi and rent it out to a driver. She used the rental income to buy more taxis. Now she owns 25. “I wanted my kids to have some money,” she said. “After the renewal I won’t bother to open a new stall.”

Things aren’t as good for other hawkers. The Wongs have been selling lightbulbs and other electrical appliances from a stall on Aberdeen Street in Sheung Wan for more than 50 years. When I met them last winter, Mrs. Wong complained about the traffic on Aberdeen, which has become the main route for cars heading down the hill from Mid-Levels. After a block of tenements across the street was torn down to make way for a playground and a new hotel, business dropped, and Mrs. Wong said there are days when they make no more than a few hundred dollars.

The future of dai pai dongs is also uncertain. Concerned about hygiene, the government stopped issuing dai pai dong licences in 1956, and it began buying back licences in 1983. Only 28 licensed dai pai dongs remain today, nearly all of them in Central and Sham Shui Po. Unsanitary or not, the restaurants remain extremely popular, and several dai pai dongs attract long queues at lunch and dinnertimes. Last year, recognizing their role in the street culture that makes Hong Kong unique, the government announced plans to renovate the 10 remaining restaurants in Central and to make it easier for their owners to transfer their licences.

But no plans have been made for the 14 dai pai dongs in Sham Shui Po, which do not attract as many tourists as those in Central. According to the FEHD, the Sham Shui Po district council objected to any plans to preserve the area’s dai pai dongs, citing complaints from residents over noise and filth.

In May, on a stickily hot night, I visited Yiu Tung Street, home to five of Sham Shui Po’s remaining dai pai dongs. On one side of the street is an untouched block of 1950s-era tong laus that is slated for redevelopment. The street had a festival atmosphere, with lights strung along the sidewalk and taxis double-parked next to plastic crates of soda bottles. Big tables of diners sat outside, sharing dishes and bottles of beer.

I sat down at one of the restaurants, So Kei, and ordered a bowl of pork chop noodles and a lemon tea, listening to a group of men nearby swear profusely as they drank. I asked the restaurant’s owner, Wong Chan-hung, what would happen when the block across the street was torn down. “It’s all going. We’ll have to move to a cooked food centre,” he said. I was surprised — I hadn’t heard anything about this. “The government hasn’t told us anything yet, but it’s only a matter of time,” he said. He looked resigned. “We just replaced our booth two years ago. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s better on the street. There’s too many restrictions in the market. But if they tell us to go, we have no choice.”

A couple of tables over, a grey-haired taxi driver named Yeung sat down and ordered a bottle of San Miguel. He poured himself a glass and said he’d been coming to So Kei for 10 years. I asked him why he was so loyal. “It’s outside!” he exclaimed. “It has a certain style, you know? You can relax.” He lit a cigarette. “It would be terrible without dai pai dongs. The best thing would be to have them everywhere, in Central, Kowloon, all over the place.”

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Not far from Yiu Tung Street is the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, where local design label and lifestyle store G.O.D. has opened the Street Culture Gallery, a kind of museum of Hong Kong kitsch and pop culture paraphernalia. G.O.D.’s founder, Douglas Young, has always been fascinated by the distinct look of Hong Kong’s cityscape and it shows in his designs: underwear printed with the image of Yau Ma Tei tenements, fridge magnets that look like old tin mailboxes, aprons that pay homage to plumbers’ and building contractors’ graffiti advertising their services. His argument is that Hong Kong’s street culture — things as lowly as green hawker stalls and fresh-cooked gai daan tsai — is what gives the city its sense of place and identity.

That message is especially clear in Young’s new sculptures of the Kowloon Walled City, a highrise squatter settlement that was torn down in 1993. One installation, called the West Kowloon Walled City, was displayed at the Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism last winter. It sat in a weedy field with the glossy fortress of the Kowloon Station development — a massive shopping mall, apartment towers and the new International Commerce Centre — rising behind it.

“The walled city was a symbol of resistance against outside forces,” Young wrote to me on his Blackberry as he prepared an installation for the Hong Kong International Art Fair at the end of May. “Today, we should also develop stalwart resistance against the wholesale homogenizing forces of global commercialism. In becoming more modern, we should not be simply becoming more Western. I wish to see Hong Kong’s grassroots architecture play a larger part in the composition of our urban landscape.”

When I asked him what exactly that grassroots architecture was, he explained: “It’s not the architect that is the final designer of the buildings, he is just a matrix provider. It’s the tenants, through their additions, that are the ultimate designers. And that the process is continuing like a living organism.” In other words, if Hong Kong’s streets and buildings are its skeleton, and its people are the organs that give it life, it’s the hawker stalls, the fruit shops spilling into the street, the clotheslines and shop signs that are the flesh that make the city what it is.

Rosly Mok and Vanessa Chan are two young designers that also take inspiration from Hong Kong’s street culture. For the past several months, they have been working on a project about household furniture that people leave in the street, at bus stops and in other places where no public seating is available. “The people who design the street ignore the need for seating areas, so the neighbourhood people put things they don’t need to good use by putting it in the street,” explained Mok as we sat on office chairs and stools set around an old mahjong table in Man Hing Lane, in Central. By day, the table and chairs are used by old men who play cards during the day; by night, they are used by drinkers spilling out from a nearby bar.

The problem with Hong Kong’s urban planners and landscape designers, said Chan, is that “they just work in their office” without actually studying how people use the city. Another problem is that street furniture is standardized and installed without considering the needs of the community. When Chan and Mok studied the discarded furniture, they found that that people preferred it to public benches, even when they were available.

The best course of action, they said, is to let the city evolve naturally. “In traditional urban fabric, the configuration of space is developed gradually by people through time,” said Mok. “It allows the neighbourhood [people] to express the way they want the space to be.”

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At the moment, grassroots urbanism exists in opposition to the way Hong Kong designs and manages its urban spaces. Angela Tam, a writer familiar with the property industry, describes Hong Kong’s architects, planners and government officials as being “obsessed with control.” Katty Law and John Batten told me that the URA and most government departments are aloof and hard to deal with. “It’s impossible to have any sort of face-to-face dialogue,” said Law.

Even Hong Kong’s urban planners are critical of the way things work. One planner, who is not authorized to speak publicly and thus asked not to be named, says that the Planning Department, like other branches of the government, is burdened by bureaucratic structure. “Planning should involve people, but in my experience, it doesn’t work like that,” said the planner. Instead of meeting the public, planning officials hire consultants to solicit public opinion. “They’re pretty sloppy. There’s no creativity and no understanding of how space will be used or how people will interact with it. The biggest concerns are with cost and maintenance.”

But things seem to be changing. Ian Brownlee, an urban planner who has worked as a consultant for both the Urban Renewal Authority and community activists like the Central and Western Concern Group, has witnessed a major shift in attitude towards urban development. “Pre-handover, people were moving out, there wasn’t a lot of confidence in what was going on. Now people realize they’re going to stay here forever. They want to make Hong Kong a better place,” he said.

Five years ago, the Town Planning Ordinance was amended to allow any member of the public to make an application to change a planning proposal. “It goes around to all of the departments, everyone has a copy, and they have to respond to it,” said Brownlee. That process has allowed activists like Katty Law to convince the government to change its plans for sites like the Central Married Police Quarters, which was originally slated to be torn down for three 40-storey towers and a shopping mall. Now it will be preserved and converted into an arts centre.

There is also more official emphasis on rehabilitation over redevelopment. Last year, the URA launched the Building Bright program, which helps the owners of old buildings renovate their properties. It received far more applications than expected. Meanwhile, dozens of old tong lau flats around Central have been bought and renovated by private investors who see potential in their high ceilings, large windows and vintage charm. “Before, everyone assumed that old buildings would just be knocked down,” said Brownlee. “Now that isn’t the case. You can do up an old flat for $300,000 or $400,000. It’s much cheaper to refurbish a building than to knock it down and redevelop it.”

The powers that be also seem to be taking note of alternative approaches to urban development. This year’s Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism was underfunded and under-promoted, especially compared to its partner event in Shenzhen, but it was also imaginative and innovative. With very little money, architects Marisa Yiu and Eric Schuldenfrei transformed a vacant lot in West Kowloon into a showcase for ideas about sustainable urban development. Several top government officials, including Carrie Lam and Henry Tang, visited the show, as did many district councillors.

“Hong Kong is famous for having this other type of city that grows from within,” said Schuldenfrei when I visited the Wong Chuk Hang studio he shares with Yiu. “In a street market, everyone is engaged in design.” (One of the biennale’s installations took this notion to great lengths by taking a stall from the Graham Street market and putting it on display.) But Hong Kong is still ruled by a top-down, hierarchical approach to design that stifles grassroots creativity. The dominant culture, said Yiu, doesn’t see the value of everyday space, even if people talk with fondness about dai pai dongs and street markets.

As we spoke, Schuldenfrei grew quiet. He got up, opened the window and stared out at the view of Aberdeen Harbour. Boats twinkled in the water as the frame of a new housing estate loomed on the shores of Ap Lei Chau. Suddenly returning to the table, he said, “So much of this city looks like it was designed by so few people. It’s beyond formulaic.” Every housing estate looks similar because a small handful of developers control the housing market. The heart of Hong Kong’s dilemma, said Schuldenfrei, is its land development policy.

So what is the way out? More architectural competitions would help, said Yiu, and so would more dialogue with the community. More people need to realize the benefits of incremental urban change and small-scale development. “You could call it dai pai dong-ism,” she said with a grin.

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Back in Wing Lee Street, a few days after seeing Law, groups of schoolchildren wandered around, staring up at the tong laus. After Carrie Lam’s announcement that the street would be saved, some of the area’s residents erected banners urging the URA to “take responsibility” and deal with the street in a way that would benefit its tenants and landlords. At the moment, even though Wing Lee Street has been spared demolition, the surrounding streets will still be redeveloped.

Turning onto Shing Wong Street, heading up the steps, I noticed a young man bringing potted plants and chairs out from a shop and arranging them neatly on the street. I asked him what he was doing. “We love greenery and we thought we would make the street prettier,” he said, introducing himself as Baldwin Pui. He recently opened a design workshop with his wife and another couple, right on the edge of the URA’s redevelopment area. “It’s quiet here, similar to places in Japan or Taiwan, where you’ll find small shops like this on quiet back lanes,” he said.

He looked at some of the students heading towards Wing Lee Street. “Lots of people have been visiting to see the old buildings. Many of them are photographers, and we make leather camera bags, so it’s good,” he said. “I’ve looked at the plans for the new buildings the government wants to put here. It’s bullshit, if you ask me. Nonsense. The buildings here are so nice already.” He said that he hopes something creative can be done with them.

Pui went back inside to work and I sat down on the Shing Wong Street steps, next to a middle-aged man wearing flip-flops. A woman came out from a nearby building and joined him. A few birds chirped. Printing machines whirred in a nearby shop. The sound of construction echoed in the distance.


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5 comments

  1. Mike says:

    Aren’t the majority of Hong Kong developers Hong Kongers themselves? I’ve always felt, rich or poor, young or old, across the board, that Hong Kongers love their city. The Cantonese sense of roots, tradition and home, mixed with vibrant commercial culture infuses all the old places. I understand profit, but when is the profit enough that one can erase one’s culture with it? Where is the satisfaction in replacing the unique fabric of Hong Kong with the generic blandness of nowhere?

    November 15th, 2010 at 3:34 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Hong Kong’s economy is controlled by huge conglomerates and the property market is no exception. Whereas there were once many smaller developers, just two companies — Sun Hung Kai and Cheung Kong — now control more than 70% of the market. The reasons for this situation are outlined in Alice Poon’s book “Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong,” which is a bit dry but absolutely worth reading, simply because it explains everything that’s wrong with Hong Kong’s economy and governance.

    I think you’ll find that property developers are more concerned with the bottom line of their projects than with cultural heritage — and not just in Hong Kong, but everywhere in the world. That’s pretty normal, but Hong Kong lacks the checks and balances that could prevent the wholesale destruction of small-scale urban fabric and cultural/economic diversity.

    November 15th, 2010 at 7:03 am

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    September 2nd, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  4. Christopher DeWolf says:

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    September 5th, 2011 at 10:45 am

  5. Elsa says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I found this article really interesting. I’m an architecture student studying in the Netherlands and our studio is working on projects for Hong Kong. The area I’ve chosen to research [between the escalators and Tai Ping Shan street] seems to be struggling with deciding whether or not to preserve, gentrify or replace some of the existing mid-century buildings. Your website has some great articles and resources for getting a better idea of the complex issues impacting this area. Thanks for sharing them!

    December 2nd, 2011 at 4:04 pm