July 25th, 2016

How Hong Kong Forgot the Battle to Save It


Artwork by Samson Young, based on a World War II journal entry

When there is a bomb scare in Hong Kong, it usually doesn’t have anything to do with modern-day terrorism. It’s more often a reminder of World War II. In February 2014, construction workers in Happy Valley unearthed an unexploded 2,000-pound American bomb that had been dropped on Hong Kong during the final days of its occupation by the Japanese. Police superintendent Jimmy Yuen arrived to find a potentially disastrous situation: the bomb was surrounded by a hotel, schools, a hospital and a Sikh temple. Moving it was out of the question; so was a controlled explosion, because the bomb was so powerful. Yuen and his team decided they would need to create two small holes in the bomb so they could defuse it. They worked through the night, carefully cutting through the bomb’s shell, stopping whenever their equipment made the surface too hot. They finally succeeded after nine hours of work, defusing the bomb just in time for the morning rush hour.

Though its size was unparalleled, this was hardly the only World War II bomb discovered in Hong Kong. In 2015 alone, police discovered four unexploded grenades, three Japanese bombs, a mortar and 54 rounds of ammunition in the country parks that surround the city’s residential areas. Another bomb discovered by construction workers in Victoria Park—the city’s largest urban green space—took three days of preparation to destroy in a controlled explosion.

Hong Kong is a city that constantly remakes itself: in many parts of town, each plot of land has been redeveloped three, four or even five times over the past century. The frenzied street markets and glossy shopping malls don’t offer many opportunities to reflect on the past, let alone the time in 1941 when Hong Kong was the site of an intense battle between Allied forces and Japanese invaders. Like the bombs, the history of the war has long been ignored and forgotten – but it is finally coming back to the surface.


February 16th, 2016

What Hong Kong Can Learn from Barcelona

Encants Market Barcelona

The Mercat dels Encants in Barcelona.
Photo courtesy Fermín Vázquez

The Mercat dels Encants rises like a mirage in the heart of Barcelona, the city shifting and shimmering across its enormous mirrored canopy. Completed in 2014, the structure is part of a vast redevelopment of the area around the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, but it isn’t a glitzy shopping mall: it’s a new home for a ragtag flea market that has thrived on Barcelona’s streets for more than a century. “You can feel its presence from a distance,” says the market’s architect, Fermín Vázquez.

Vázquez was in Hong Kong recently to discuss the importance of public space, something that Barcelona has long embraced, from the days when 19th urban planner Antonio Cerdá transformed the city with leafy avenues and spacious courtyards, to more recent efforts to reclaim road space for pedestrians and cyclists. “There’s a genuine interest in the city,” says Vázquez. “People in the government are aware that citizens judge their urban policies. They follow them with interest.”

The picture in Hong Kong isn’t as rosy. Whereas Barcelona invested 56.4 million euros in building a new home for the Mercat dels Encants, similar markets in Hong Kong languish under a government policy that supports their gradual eradication. Increasingly, though, local architects and designers are banding together with hawkers and community activists to help markets survive.

“It’s definitely a cleansing of the streets,” says designer Michael Leung, who recently obtained a licence to operate a hawker stall on Hamilton Street in Yau Ma Tei, which he has turned into a kind of consignment shop and community gathering space. Stall ownership is non-transferable, thanks to a late-1970s policy of slowly eliminating street hawking through attrition, but stall owners can sublet their spaces to licenced operators. “There are fewer and fewer hawkers,” says Leung. “What’s happening to Pang Jai, the fabric market, is a big example of that.”

Pang Jai is the colloquial name for the Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar, a 40-year-old assembly of fabric hawkers that has been slated for demolition by the government, which plans to build public housing on the site. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has offered to relocate hawkers to a variety of other markets around town, but many of the tenants are resisting the move. “They say it would be the death of their fabric market community, which is understandable,” says Leung. “It’s a one-stop shop.”


February 9th, 2016

The Pieces to Hong Kong’s Puzzle

Hong Kong Typology 02

There’s a piece of Hong Kong in Shenzhen – or to be more precise, 44 pieces of it. Hong Kong Typology, an exhibit by Swiss architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), features scale models of Hong Kong’s most typical buildings. Tong lau, pencil towers, cruciform apartment blocks – it’s like a collection of puzzle pieces you can put together to build the city.

“It’s really the toolbox of Hong Kong,” says Christ. “When you see the models there it captures an essential part of the city.”

Each of the models was made in Hong Kong and shipped to Shenzhen. They are meant to represent the anonymous bulk of the city’s buildings, the unglamorous backdrop to the city’s more recognisable attractions. Visitors may spot some familiar structures, like the rounded, wedding-cake balconies of the 1950s-era Mido Café in Yau Ma Tei, most of the models inspire a sense of vague déjà-vu: they’re familiar but hard to place.


September 29th, 2015

The Tortuous Path to Preservation


The Tung Fat Building seemed like the perfect opportunity for Victoria Allan to venture into property development. The nine-storey, 1960s-era building was a classic example of Hong Kong’s postwar tong lau tenements, known for their minimalist Streamline Moderne architecture, and it occupied a prime spot on the waterfront of fast-gentrifying Kennedy Town. But Allan, who runs upscale real estate agency Habitat Property, had no idea just how difficult her venture would prove. Renovating the Tung Fat turned into a decade-long ordeal – though one that has paid off handsomely, in design terms if not yet financially.

“I could see there was a real need in the market for something more unique, an older space that had been really well renovated,” says Allan. She was so taken with the nine-storey, 1960s-era walkup building, she intended to live there when the renovation was complete. Now that the project is complete, however, she won’t be among the first tenants. “I got married, had two kids. The process took that long. To be honest I was probably a bit naïve.”

All told, it took ten years to renovate the Tung Fat – five to acquire each of the building’s individually-owned units and another five to renovate according to the strict standards of Hong Kong’s Buildings Department. “Most people redevelop the site, so they’re not used to people who want to renovate and upgrade it,” says Allan. She made around 20 separate submissions to the department, some for major additions like a lift, others for minor changes like plumbing works.

What complicated things was that, like many older buildings in Hong Kong, the Tung Fat had been subjected to decades of illegal modifications, and the Buildings Department insisted that Allan restore the building to its original state before proceeding with any changes. That led to some Kafkaesque situations like installing a useless wheelchair ramp that had to be demolished: according to the original building plan, the footpath out front was several inches lower than it is today, so even though it had been raised over the years, the Buildings Department would not re-survey it until a ramp had been built to meet modern-day access codes.


June 3rd, 2015

“Good” Gentrification


Last month, when Space Invader was looking for friendly walls to mount his tile-based art, the French street artist found an enthusiastic response in a place far from the galleries and graffiti of Sheung Wan: Sham Shui Po. “The reception was really good,” says Lauren Every-Wortman, a curator at the HOCA Foundation, which sponsored Space Invader’s most recent trip to Hong Kong.

Stanley Siu was one of those who invited the street artist to work on his building’s façade. “It’s the biggest piece he’s done in Hong Kong so far,” he boasts. Sieu recently moved the art gallery he runs with two friends, 100 Square Feet, to a first-floor space above the teeming Apliu Street market. “I sent him a picture of the exterior and he said, ‘Wow.’ He liked Apliu Street.”

Space Invader isn’t the only one enthusiastic about Sham Shui Po. Ask many Hongkongers about the neighbourhood and they’ll tell you it’s a good place to shop for electronics – but be sure to watch your bag. These days, however, a new generation of creative entrepreneurs are finding the working-class Kowloon neighbourhood is a haven of low rents and friendly neighbours.

That’s especially true in the textile district south of Nam Cheong Street, where many wholesale shops have been forced out of business as their source factories flee the Pearl River Delta for cheaper pastures. Some holdouts have been replaced by new businesses run by young designers that have banded together to help promote the neighbourhood in a newsletter and on social media.

“This whole fabric district is turning into something special,” says Michael Tam, the owner of Sausalito, a coffee shop that opened in the heart of the fabric district last November. “You can really feel it’s almost a second coming.”


April 30th, 2015

Street Art Finds a Scene in Hong Kong

HK Walls

Hopare working in Sheung Wan.
This photo and all others from HK Walls

Night falls over Stanley Market and a small crowd of people gather in a back lane, staring at the pristine aluminium of a drawn shop shutter. One of them is 4Get, a prolific street artist who travelled here from his home in Tuen Mun to cover the shutter in paint. Someone asked him what his idea for the mural was. He looked at the shutter and took a drag on a cigarette. “I’m planning,” he says. “I’m thinking about it right now.”

This wasn’t a covert bombing; the mural was commissioned by Print House, a custom screen-printing t-shirt shop, in collaboration with HK Walls, a group that connects street artists with Hong Kong’s willing walls. In March, HK Walls will held its second annual street art festival in Sheung Wan, with live graffiti writing and mural painting by around 20 local and international street artists. As 4Get worked on the Print House mural, the group watching hoped it would convince Stanley shopowners to stage another edition of the festival in the South Side neighbourhood.

“There’s a lot of really bad work on the shutters here, a lot of tagging, and people just don’t care,” says Print House’s owner, Hughie Doherty, who grew up in Stanley and still lives nearby. “I’m hoping this will open up a lot more for HK Walls working in Stanley. People could come at night and walk through this public gallery. Stanley needs something now. It used to be really cool.”

Hong Kong never had much of a street art culture compared to cities in North America and Europe, but things are changing, thanks to organisations like HK Walls, an influx of expat artists and the attention generated by international artists like Space Invader, whose bombarded the city with video game-inspired tilework last year, only to have much of it quickly removed by the government.

“In the past four years, it’s taken off,” says Stern Rockwell, a veteran graffiti writer from New York who moved to Hong Kong five years ago. Hong Kong is riding on the tail of a global wave in street art that began in 1970s New York and exploded in popularity with the internet, as photos of works from the streets of New York, London and Berlin were circulated around the world. Some of the most famous artists in the world are now street artists; Banksy is virtually a household name. It’s also big business: in January, a replica of one of the Space Invader pieces removed by the government, a kung fu fighting dog modelled on the 1970s cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey, was auctioned by Sotheby’s for HK$1.96 million.

None of that seemed possible when Rockwell was growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. He was fascinated by the graffiti that covered the subway. “I asked my mom, ‘How did they do that?’” he recalls. By the time he reached high school, he was joining other graffiti writers in the Park Slope subway layup. “Some nights you could catch 100 cars parked on the tracks,” he says.

A lot of graffiti writers at the time wanted to be “all city,” meaning they had bombed all 34 of the city’s subway lines, but Rockwell’s interest expanded to other kinds of art and design. He eventually studied apparel design and worked for brands like Cartier and Fendi. Those early escapades into subway layups had proved fortuitous – New York’s crack epidemic in the 1980s and 90s made the city a rough place. “People were dying, people were getting locked up,” says Rockwell. “I was poor but I was able to make a living doing graffiti. It saved my life.”


March 30th, 2015

A Revolution in Place


It has been more than four months since Occupy Hong Kong’s pro-democracy encampments were cleared away, but the Umbrella Revolution continues to evolve. More than a protest in favour of genuine universal suffrage, the 79-day occupation sparked a “revolution in public consciousness.” Among the notions being overturned: Hong Kong’s neoliberal approach to managing the urban environment, which has for so long deprived the city of genuine public space.

I was away for the first three weeks of Occupy, and by the time I returned to Hong Kong, the occupied areas had become entrenched. When I first visited the Admiralty site, located on a normally traffic-clogged highway called Harcourt Road, I was astonished to see it had become a self-organized tent city. Volunteer carpenters used scrap furniture and bamboo rods to create staircases across highway barriers. One traffic lane was occupied by a makeshift study centre, complete with desks and generator-powered lights, that was always filled with teenagers and university students hunched over their books. A library emerged near the entrance to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s equivalent of a parliament, with donated bookshelves filled with pop culture magazines and works of political philosophy. Art was everywhere. There were portraits of activists and cartoons denouncing Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung (whom activists see as a puppet of Beijing). The area around a wood sculpture of a man holding a yellow umbrella came to be known as Umbrella Square. Nearby, a curving concrete staircase was covered in messages of multi-coloured Post-It messages of support; it was called the Lennon Wall, after the late Liverpudlian peacenik.

If Admiralty was personified by middle-class students and office workers, Mongkok was their chain-smoking, van-driving cousin. The atmosphere was edgier than Admiralty but in many ways more vital, because the neighbourhood is such a crossroads of different people. There were always lively discussions and passersby reading the posters that had been affixed to every surface. (Mainland Chinese tourists always seemed especially curious.) The Mongkok site extended down Nathan Road, a major artery that had been liberated from the diesel fumes that normally cloud its air. There was a makeshift altar to Kwan Yu, the Chinese god of war, which attracted worshippers who planted fresh incense throughout the day. Just a few metres away, a group of Catholic protesters had built a shrine that came to be known as St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street. There was an ad hoc library and a space for nightly film screenings.


March 3rd, 2015

Hong Kong’s Problem with Heritage

Hong Kong Kowloon Station 3rd August 1981

Kowloon Station, 1981.
Photo by Loose Grip 99

It’s one of those mid-summer days when it seems impossible to escape the heat, so it comes as a relief to step into the air-conditioned room that houses Sparkle! Can We Live (Together), an oddly-named exhibition that explores the relationship between artists and the communities in which they live. It’s interesting stuff, especially the documentation of art collective Woofer Ten and designer Michael Leung’s work with urban farmers around Yau Ma Tei. But my attention is also drawn to the venue of the exhibition: the original headquarters of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, built in 1908. Last year, it was carefully renovated and converted into Oi!, a community art centre whose name is a goofy reference to its location on Oil Street.

Oi! is one of many historic buildings that have been converted into cultural venues in recent years. It’s a remarkable turn of events, because for most of its history, Hong Kong never cared much for its past. There were no lessons in Hong Kong history at school, no concern for the origins of local delicacies like pineapple buns and milk tea. And there was certainly no care for the old stone buildings that thronged the shores of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, their mouldy façades and fussy balustrades seen as little more than impediments to property development – property being the only surefire way to become rich in this city with such little soil and so much sea.

Of course, Hong Kong is no longer the grab-and-dash frontier it once was. With maturity comes hindsight and a sense of regret. Last year, I had lunch with a well-to-do businessman with a lifelong passion for architecture. “When I was a boy I used to stare up at the old post office,” he said, recalling the Victorian pile of ornate stonework that once stood on Pottinger Street. “Then Li Ka-shing fucked it up.” World Wide House rose in its place, remarkably unremarkable in appearance, notable only for the Filipino shopping arcade that occupies its lower floors. The fact that it evoked such passion in an otherwise even-tempered businessman says a lot about the long-suppressed emotions that have recently come to surface.


February 15th, 2015

Inside Victoria Prison


I’ve been seeing a lot of old Hong Kong photos lately. There was the John Thomson exhibition I wrote about last year, along with an even larger show of historic photography at the Museum of History. HSBC has just unveiled a new historical exhibition in the public space beneath its headquarters. Even Nick DeWolf’s photos, which we wrote about four years ago, are back and once again making the rounds on the web.

What’s shocking about all of these old photos is just how much Hong Kong has changed. Not only have the stone shophouses and handsome colonial buildings disappeared from the landscape, there have been some enormous landmark structures that seemingly vanished without a trace. The Peak Hotel was a cascading pile of Victorian masonry that was destroyed by fire in 1938; a bland shopping mall now occupies the same site. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception once featured a Gothic clock tower that was ignominiously demolished to make way for an access road. The Taikoo Sugar Refinery once loomed over Quarry Bay; Causeway Bay was once an industrial neighbourhood, as was Hung Hom, with its dockyards and brick power station; all of this is gone, visible only in archives and the odd street name.


January 28th, 2015

How to Live in a Shoebox

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong Flat

Photo by Michali K

What’s wrong with a typical Hong Kong apartment? Lots. Not only is the average apartment just 450 square feet in size, it is loaded with features that make it less, rather than more, liveable. There are bay windows, tiny rooms, odd layouts, unusably small balconies and a complete lack of storage space.

And the problems go even deeper than that, according to architect Dylan Baker-Rice, who runs local studio Affect-T. Thin concrete walls, poorly-sealed windows and exterior tile cladding mean Hong Kong apartments are poorly suited to the city’s climate. “A lot of people suffer from mould and mildew, water leaking in,” he says. “They have to rely on air conditioning because it just too hot and damp inside, and then they’re just breathing recycled air. I think all of these things together mean indoor air quality is quite low in Hong Kong.”

Why do these problems exist? And how can they be dealt with? “It’s all about money,” says Keith Chan, director of interior design firm Hintegro, with specialises in home renovations. That’s true in both senses: developers save money by downloading maintenance and customisation costs onto homeowners.

Architect Jason Carlow says this is the result of an unholy union between cost-cutting, profit-hungry developers and an extremely strict building code that imposes many requirements on flat design, but also gives developers a discount on the gross floor area (GFA) of the development if they include certain features. “Because of the high land values, more than any other city, the built environment of Hong Kong is a direct reflection of the building codes of that time,” says Carlow.


October 24th, 2014

The City That Built Norman Foster

HSBC under construction

The HSBC Building under construction

It was a typically busy morning at Chek Lap Kok. Thousands of passengers swarmed beneath the vast sweep of the airport’s white roof, duty free bags in hand, squirming children in tow. The line for Starbucks inched ever longer. Yet a cool tranquility reigned over the terminal. That was especially true inside the first class section inside Cathay Pacific’s Wing lounge, where besuited travellers rested against a Carrara marble bar, gazing out to a row of jets sitting idle on the apron. Beyond that, the mountains of Lantau rose against a grey sky.

When the airport first opened, Cathay’s flagship lounge was one of the boldest and most intriguing in the world, with an unapologetically minimalist design by British architect John Pawson – one far removed from the wood panelling and grandfatherly armchairs of most airport lounges. Fifteen years of wear and tear meant it needed an overhaul, and the architecture firm Cathay chose to oversee the redesign was a natural fit: Foster and Partners, the same practice responsible for the airport itself, which opened in 1998. “The airport looks fresher and more modern than many airports built in the last five years,” says Cathay executive Toby Smith, who oversees the airline’s product offerings.

Airports are some of the most loathed spaces in the world: crowded, confusing and beset by increasingly onerous security restrictions that make them feel like some unholy cross between a shopping mall and a prison. But even after a decade and a half of intense use—nearly 60 million people passed through last year—Chek Lap Kok is praised for its durability and, even more importantly, its usability. “It’s absolutely efficient,” says architect Eric Schuldenfrei, who travels frequently for work and conferences. “Even aesthetically, the airport feels light, and the materials are good, so it won’t age badly.”


October 22nd, 2014

The Urban Space of Occupied Hong Kong


What surprised me most was the silence. Here I was, standing on what is normally an eight-lane funnel of angry traffic, and the only sounds I could hear were footsteps and the soft murmur of voices. Free of diesel exhaust, the briny scent of the harbour lingered in the air, and a warm breeze ruffled the nylon shells of tents laid out in tidy rows along the sides of the road.

I’ve been away from Hong Kong for six weeks. It seemed like a good time to get away, as the muggy heat of summer dragged on interminably, but two weeks after my departure, a student strike was met with tear gas and suddenly the city was occupied. This wasn’t just Occupy Central, the campaign of civil disobedience that had been promised for a year if Beijing and the local government failed to institute reforms that would allow free elections for Chief Executive in 2017. That campaign had become more of a bogeyman than anything else, a cudgel wielded by autocratic, unaccountable leaders whose box of governance tools consists of fear and intimidation and little else. I had doubts it would even happen. Instead, a much larger and more unwieldy phenomenon occurred: students and their supporters erected barricades in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively wresting control of these important neighbourhoods from the government and placing them in the hands of a loosely affiliated band of citizens.

If you’ve been following the news, you know what happened next: a remarkably peaceful occupation was later attacked by bands of organized thugs, who beat protesters and destroyed their shelters as police shamefully stood by. The next day, protesters rebuilt their encampments and carried on. Each time the occupation seems to be waning, something comes along to jolt it back to life, be it triad attacks, police bullying or the spectacularly tone-deaf leadership of Chief Executive CY Leung, a Beijing puppet who recently told international media that Hong Kong can’t have real democracy because it would give too much power to the city’s many poor people.


August 30th, 2014

Asia at the Venice Biennale

It was a hot afternoon as a crowd gathered in the courtyard of Hong Kong’s pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and arguably most important architectural event. They were there to discuss Asia’s role in the exhibition – and it didn’t take long for someone to say what was on everyone’s mind. “I counted the number of countries from Asia participating in the biennale, and there are six countries out of sixty-five,” said Dongwoo Yim, one of the contributors to Korea’s pavilion. “It’s not a lot.”

Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. Asia might be underrepresented in some ways, but it has certainly not been ignored. Korea, under the curatorship of Minsuk Cho, won the Golden Lion for best national exhibition, with a thoughtful examination of modernism on both sides of the 38th parallel – and how North and South resemble each other more than one might think. That followed Japan’s award for best pavilion in the 2012 biennale, for an exhibition curated by Toyo Ito that documented reconstruction efforts after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Still, it is hard to deny that Asia’s presence at the biennale is felt much less strongly than its demographic and economic weight would suggest. “The pendulum has swung from West to East,” says architect Ivan Fu, who curated the Hong Kong exhibition along with Alvin Yip and Doreen Liu. “Asia is emerging. It’s the way forward. But the Asian participation [in the biennale] is quite scattered.”

This latest edition of the biennale, which opened in early July and runs until November 22, is the most anticipated in years. Iconoclastic architect Rem Koolhaas agreed to curate the show on the condition that he be given two years to prepare, instead of the usual six months, and he vowed to shift the focus away from individual “starchitects” to the fundamentals of architecture. 65 countries are participating and there are dozens of satellite exhibitions and other events, including film screenings and dance performances.


July 23rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no-man’s-land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover parcel of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. “He’s a real urban farmer, making maximum use of space that would otherwise go unnoticed. He has 700 square feet of sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, two lychee trees. It’s amazing.”

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometre territory is actually undeveloped — country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, surrounded by an often spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from mainland China and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and 90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace has been a struggle.