July 20th, 2012

Hawker City

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Not long ago, I was wandering around Kwun Tong trying to find an Indonesian restaurant. I arrived outside its front door only to find the shutter drawn, with a notice from the Urban Renewal Authority announcing that the property had been acquired for redevelopment. Then I looked around: nearly every storefront on the street was the same. I took my phone out and looked for another nearby restaurant on OpenRice — the local equivalent of Yelp — and walked a few blocks away to find it. Same story.

Built in the 1950s as Hong Kong’s first suburban New Town, Kwun Tong is a gritty, thriving working-class neighbourhood with a short but colourful history. This was Hong Kong’s industrial heartland, where the plastic flowers and fluorescent toys that earned the city its first fortune were made. It was home to Hong Kong’s longest-running Communist cinema, a legacy of the days when the political opposition in Hong Kong was made up not of liberal democrats but leftist revolutionaries. When I first visited the tight web of streets around Man Yee Square in 2005, they throbbed with red minibuses, neon pawn shop signs, old men playing chess, teenagers with plastic bags full of street market clothes.

Soon it will all be gone. Most of the shops have closed, the apartments vacated, the streets quieter than they have been in 50 years. The buildings will follow suit to make way for a HK$20 billion redevelopment project spearheaded by the URA, which will transform Kwun Tong’s town centre into a glossy shopping and business hub for East Kowloon. Plans call for a series of malls and highrises connected by gardens and plazas. It’s the kind of tabula rasa urban renewal that was common in Europe and North American until it fell out of favour in the 1980s. It looks like it will be a disaster.

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Kwun Tong is by no means a piece of model urbanity, but its unvarnished low-rise buildings and intricate network of streets, squares and alleyways give it a human scale that is always a pleasure to explore. It is also socially sustainable: within those streets and lanes were many small retail spots that were filled by hawkers and small businesses, the kind of grassroots, entrepreneurial economy that helped Hong Kong become prosperous in the first place. The new Kwun Tong will have plenty of open spaces patrolled by security guards, lots of air-conditioned chain stores run by the small handful of conglomerates that control Hong Kong’s economy, but no room for a community to take root.

It’s too late for Kwun Tong, but not too late for Hong Kong, and the past several years have seen a major shift in the way people here perceive their city. Large-scale redevelopment was once seen as a windfall for property owners, a social good that cleaned out the grime and replaced it with something more modern, more sophisticated. But the declining prosperity of the average family has exposed that approach for what it is: a game rigged in favour of the supermarket cartel that blatantly fixes prices; the property developers who sell flats with artificially inflated floor areas; the government that hides deep rot beneath a veneer of clean, professional bureaucracy.

This change in thinking is reflected in Hong Kong’s next generation of architects. In May, I stumbled across the Chinese University architecture school’s graduation show. Most of the projects were concerned with small-scale urban fabric and sustainable development. One, Hawker City, was even bold enough to propose an alternative to the Kwun Tong redevelopment based entirely on the kind of grassroots urban life it had before it was bought out by the URA. Hawker City is the work of architecture grad Kenneth To; it is a thesis that embraces informal urbanism as the key to urban regeneration. (You can download the thesis here.) I caught up with To by email as he was travelling in India. Here’s what he had to say.

Kwun Tong

Kwun Tong at night. Photo by Gordon Tang

What was your inspiration for this project?

The idea of Hawker City came naturally as I am always fascinated by chaotic urban life. Living in Kwun Tong, I grew up loving the place for its chaos and disorder, noise and crowds. I have been observing the urban regeneration plan, at first as a secondary school student, from the launch of the urban renewal proposal in 2005, to the selection of the final proposal in 2008, to the massive buy-out in 2011. Kwun Tong has changed drasti­cally. URA’s proposal seems a reasonable choice from the per­spective of a developer, but I see no more the Kwun Tong I love. Why not take a chance to rediscover Kwun Tong?

Hawker City is a vision – it is not only about innovation, but a reflection of what is working for the people. Some scenarios have been working here in Kwun Tong for decades, and I have no intention of changing it. Why bother? What I am doing here is finding potentials, and the way of maximizing them – a com­munity that truly serves for the live and work of ordinary people.

How would you describe your vision in relation to the Urban Renewal Authority’s Kwun Tong redevelopment plan?

URA’s plan is favorable to the developers. I understand that they had tried to incorporate street elements into the design, like keeping the hawkers [and] providing a grand plaza. However, URA’s proposal emphasizes on the value of [land]. The proposal maximizes the buildable area and erects towers that fall out of the site context. The plan has a major mistake like any other new plans in Hong Kong: URA is putting almost everything indoors and above street [level]. There is no street. It is like a self-contained community, with little connection to the city. What truly makes Kwun Tong unique is its site context – the people, the streets, and the characters. Other values, not money measurable, such as social capital, owner­ship, work place, various small-scale businesses, are the elements that contribute to the vibrant cityscape.

Hawker City is a developmental Master Plan on a ground floor network basis. It focuses on the tiniest open spaces in our city–cracks, passing-thru, corners, and pockets–the places where hawkers attach [themselves]. By maximizing the spatial qualities in these spaces, Hawker City is a testing ground for a new ap­proach of planning the city, from the view of the common people. Hawker City learns from the old Kwun Tong. By keeping the open space network, and enhancing the spatial journey through the city, the new proposal aims at preserving the ambi­ence yet welcoming the new. Hawker City only concerns the ground floor level; the built mass above is given to different developers to design. However, specific zoning and programs, such as residential zones, commercial zones, etc. is planned to fa­cilitate ground floor activities. New program mixes such as a private and public housing mix are introduced to the site, to ensure a diverse living environment and a mix of social class.

What do hawkers and similarly informal users of urban space add to the city?

Hawkers are urban generators. Where there are hawkers, there are people, and city life. Who doesn’t like hawkers? They provide cheap goods and food that are affordable by everyone. And they are part of the “culture” themselves. Hawkers represent and reflect the locality and history of the place. It has to go with its site contexts though – urban situations where streets are jam-packed with people, shophouse arcades and alleys, etc. The city is not complete without this.

On the other hand, informal uses of urban space give the city and its people a chance to make a difference – and eventually to create its identity. Informal uses are often a result of end-users’ adaptation to the given environment, unplanned situations outside of the structures imposed by formalized rules. By breaking the normality, like putting some stools and table on the street, putting up a shelter across two blocks, the street is activated and owned by the users. This is when the city has life.

Do you get the sense that there is more interest now in more small-scaled development, and more acceptance by architects, planners and others of informal and ad hoc use of urban space?

I think it is inevitable! Small-scaled development is the trend as we have to face it that we are running out of big investments and developments in Hong Kong. Informal and ad hoc use of urban space is always there, hawkers have been on the street forever. The attention to them from the professional side is just at its [beginning], but I think we are getting there. Of course, these informal uses may not be in favour of the developers. As I have stated in my project, there are value differences between them. However, with the professionals paying more attention to public participations, and shifting the focus to a more balanced design and development, I believe in the foreseeable future, we would see a lot more of good uses of informal urban spaces.

Disappearing landmark of Kwun Tong

Alleyway bookshop in Kwun Tong. Photo by Kenny Lok

Little Clock Shop @ Kwun Tong

Clock shop in Kwun Tong. Photo by Kenny Lok

Mini-bus station

Minibus stop in Kwun Tong. Photo by Kenny Lok

Fish market in Kwun Tong. Photo by Kenny Lok

More photos of Kwun Tong can be seen in the Our Kwun Tong Flickr group.


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One comment

  1. Kevin says:

    Love your photos! I’m also into urban photography, maybe you could give me some feedback too…

    September 2nd, 2012 at 4:43 pm