Airing Your Laundry in Public

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When I first came to Hong Kong, one of the most perplexing of park rules was “No hanging of laundry.” Surely that isn’t a problem, I thought. Do people really bring their wet laundry to the park to dry?

As it turns out, they do. Though most people here have a washing machine in their apartments, relatively few have dryers, and Hong Kong’s tiny apartments lack the outdoor space needed to effectively dry freshly-washed clothes. Some people take their laundry up to rooftop clotheslines; those who live in buildings without an accessible roof simply hang their clothes next to an open window, hoping they won’t get that awful damp smell that comes from taking too long to dry. Others take a different approach: they dry their laundry in public space, hanging it on sidewalk railings and chainlink fences.

This happens almost exclusively in public housing estates and working-class neighbourhoods, which is an important point to consider. Outdoor clothes-drying is seen by many of the world’s middle and upper classes to be distasteful and unsightly, from North America, where hundreds of communities ban the practice, to Hong Kong, where affluent people cling very tightly to symbols of affluence and class identity, perhaps because they are only a generation or two removed from poverty. Once, a middle-aged professional man I know was looking outside at a luxury apartment tower when he noticed that some apartments had clothes drying outside, on the building’s small balconies. “They’re rich but they still dry their clothes outside,” he said with evident distaste.

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This attitude is reinforced by those in power. In 2005, the government’s ombudsman, writing in response to complaints of government inaction on clearing laundry from public spaces, equated outdoor clothes-drying with an antiquated way of life. “In years past, particularly in rural areas, drying laundry in public places was an accepted practice,” he wrote. “With rising public aspirations for a better living environment, this practice is viewed with distaste, and criticisms have been levelled at such inconsiderate behaviour for marring the cityscape.”

I wonder if the distaste really comes from an objection to the occupation of public space for private needs. If that is the case, where is the sustained outrage over the salesmen who block sidewalks to hawk mobile phone and cable TV plans? More likely, the reaction against drying laundry is a kind of petit-bourgeois snobbery — the same attitude that gave rise to the expression “don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” It’s a sense, instilled through guilt and shame, that the only appropriate place for personal matters is behind closed doors.

To the ombudsman’s credit, he calls for an elegant solution: the provision of public laundry racks in housing estates and other spaces. I’m not sure if this solution has been put into practice, since I haven’t noticed such racks in many public spaces. But they are common in formerly rural villages in the New Territories, like Pai Tau, where a communal laundry rack stands happily in a plaza between century-old houses, a train station and IKEA, where, incidentally, the Lajban portable drying rack is sold for just HK$99.

Pai Tau Village

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday September 27 2011at 11:09 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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