April 29th, 2013
Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s
When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.
We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.
Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.
We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.
April 23rd, 2013
When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.
Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.
Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.
April 17th, 2013
I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.
Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.
This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.
Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.
February 20th, 2013
Industrial buildings in Chai Wan
China’s Pearl River Delta is often called the world’s factory floor, but 40 years ago, that title belonged to Hong Kong. In the 1970s, 22,000 factories and workshops furiously churned out everything from clothes to watches to jewellery. Then, when low wages and a newly-liberalised economy made mainland China an attractive prospect in the 1990s, business owners moved their factories across the border. Left behind were hundreds of now-quiet industrial buildings – and even more out-of-work men and women with skills in sewing, watchmaking, cobbling and other trades.
But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, a small group of Hong Kong designers are building new brands on the remnants of the city’s industrial heritage and traditional craft skills. What is not yet clear, however, is whether this is the birth of a new generation of skilled and design-savvy craftspeople – or simply the last gasp of Hong Kong manufacturing.
When designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan discovered that high rents were forcing a 40-year-old shoe workshop named Ming Kee to close, they bought the shop’s equipment and hired its shoemaking master, a 60-something man known affectionately as Uncle Kong. (“He’s a bit media shy,” says Lee, explaining that he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.) That was their first step towards Shoe Artistry, a brand that aims to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s tradition of bespoke shoemaking. Uncle Kong now makes shoes in a second-floor space above the busy Ladies Market, where Lee and Wan also hold public workshops. They eventually plan to move to a new studio in the PMQ design hub, which will open next year.
“Design and industry should work hand in hand,” says Lee, who used to source apparel from mainland Chinese factories for a company in Singapore. “Every year there are so many design students being churned out but without industry they have no connection to how things are made.” At the same time, she says, Hong Kong has lost touch with its own industrial skills. “Instead of always looking to China to get things made, why don’t we look at what Hong Kong has to offer?”
February 8th, 2013
Rendering of the Xiqu Centre
Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.
“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.
“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”
The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.
December 19th, 2012
When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.
This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.
But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.
November 11th, 2012
It’s a fun exercise to think of how long it would take for reclaim our cities if humanity were to disappear overnight. How many months until Dubai is returned to the desert? How many hurricanes until New Orleans becomes part of the Gulf?
Here in Hong Kong, nature’s plan is well underway. In a city entombed in concrete, it’s easy to forget just how fertile the surrounding land is, until you remember that this is a place where century-old banyan trees grow from the cracks in stone walls. The same scenario occurs in many smaller instances: tile roofs taken over by grass; shrubs sprouting from broken drainpipes.
There’s a particularly derelict building at 23 Temple Street. After a similarly-aged building in Hung Hom collapsed two years ago, emergency scaffolding was installed to hoist up its concrete balconies and it has been there ever since. But there is a benefit to such dilapidation: there’s a fig tree growing on the building’s roof. I can only guess that it came into being the same way as any other tree, seeds deposited by wayward birds, but in this case it grows so perfectly — protruding right from the middle of an old concrete shed — you’d almost think it was planted deliberately.
October 25th, 2012
Sometimes it seems as though everyone knows Michael Leung — even the owner of a Kwun Tong dai pai dong, who chats amiably with the young designer as he sits down for lunch. “We made a zine about him,” Leung explains later. “He’s really proud of it.”
Scratch the surface of Hong Kong’s creative scene and you’re bound to come across something that Leung is involved in. There’s HK Honey, the urban beekeeping project he founded two years ago; Shanghai Street Studios, which runs art, design and cultural initiatives in Yau Ma Tei; HK Farm, an experiment in rooftop agriculture; 2 Years Ahead, a publishing and furniture-building project.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover Leung’s freelance work or his teaching at the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, where he will lecture on “design for the Asian lifestyle” in November.
“I think all the projects are so related, it’s almost like they’re the same thing,” says Leung, settling into a wicker chair on the roof of the Easy-Pack Industrial Building in Kwun Tong, where he maintains an organic farm and apiary with the help of photographer Glenn Eugen Ellingsen and archivist Matthew Edmondson. “I’ll do a food-safety project and I won’t know whether to put it in HK Honey or HK Farm.”
Leung is 28, with a shaved head and photogenic features. On a blustery day in late September he is dressed in grey shorts, worn pink slip-ons and a Ngau Tau Kok graphic t-shirt made by his friends at Start from Zero, the street art crew whose studio is just down the street.
September 19th, 2012
HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen
Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.
Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.
It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.
The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.
It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.
August 24th, 2012
Michael Leung’s “Good Morning” towels were a welcome sight. It was a scorching day on Fa Yuen Street, one of Hong Kong’s most popular street markets, and the energetic young product designer was inviting passersby to take part in a game at his market stall, Hoi Tung (“We’re open”). If you managed to use long wooden forks to hang the stall’s rags, socks, shirts and red lamps from ceiling hooks, and you did it under a minute, you were rewarded with one of the kitschy towels, a ubiquitous fixture of working-class Hong Kong life found in butcher’s shops, market stalls and around the shoulders of anyone burdened by summer sweat.
“It’s really about celebrating the street culture,” says Leung, who took time off from his rooftop farm and beekeeping projects to build the stall for Hawkerama, a one-day event that brought 16 artists and designers to Fa Yuen Street. They built stalls that ranged from homages to street culture, like Leung’s, to more conceptual installations like Kacey Wong’s Transform Bar, a market booth-cum-juice bar made from recycled wood and stacked with wheatgrass planters on sliding tracks, a nod to the flexible, space-saving storage systems used by market vendors, who are restricted to 1.1 sqm allotments by the Hong Kong government.
Those kinds of restrictions have multiplied since December, when a deadly fire ripped through Fa Yuen Street, killing nine people after it spread to nearby apartment buildings whose fire escapes were blocked. The government blamed the overcrowded street market and launched a crackdown on hawkers whose stalls spilled out of their allotment, ordering them to remove umbrellas, awnings and much of their goods. A new scheme was launched to reduce the number of street vendors; some government officials mused abou doing away with them entirely, or moving them to designated areas away from apartments and other shops.
August 20th, 2012
The scene plays out hundreds of times a day, like a sad rendition of Groundhog Day. With nowhere to sit, a weary passerby leans against the leg of Happy Man, the nine-metre-high sculpture by American sculptor Larry Bell that stands in front of the Langham Place shopping mall at the corner of Argyle and Portland in Mongkok. Or maybe it’s a kid who, inspired by the sculpture’s wild gestures, is making an attempt to clamber up its torso. Either way, a security guard walks over and tells them not to touch the sculpture. Five minutes later, this absurd charade repeats. Late at night, when the mall closes, metal barriers are set up around the sculpture to make sure it is not molested by any nocturnal delinquents.
If the goal is to protect the sculpture from corrosion, it’s a miserable failure, because the legs are already shiny from the touch of a thousand deviants. So what’s the point? I contacted the company that manages Langham Place for comment but didn’t receive a reply. My only guess is that situations like this boil down to Hong Kong’s busybody administrative culture, which combines a very Protestant aversion to pleasure (thanks, Britain!) with the Chinese fear of shame. Art is meant to be admired, not enjoyed, and if somebody were to damage the sculpture, that would be a terrible loss of face for Langham Place. So better to keep up the pretense of protecting the sculpture even if it’s actually an impossible endeavour.
Museum administrators around the world struggle with the idea of interactive art, and even installations that are meant to be played with, like Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust, are kept off-limits by museum security. But that fear of interaction usually ends at museum doors. You can ride the lions of Trafalgar Square without worry; feel free to touch the foot of St. Peter when you visit the Vatican. But the Happy Man? God forbid.
August 2nd, 2012
Hong Kong remakes itself with such ruthless efficiency that few physical traces remain of its past. In many neighbourhoods, the only reminders of what came before are the names of streets. Take Mongkok for example. Today, this is one of the busiest and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, a shopping district, transport hub, industrial area and residential zone packed into one rather small patch of land. It has been that way for decades — this is how the New York Times described it in 1988:
In Mong Kok, space, any space, is special. Here, high-rise buildings are so close to one another they touch like row houses, and many of the apartments jammed inside are so small, families sleep on bunk beds stacked three and four high and keep their belongings in chests and baskets suspended from the ceiling.
In Mong Kok, the family pet is a goldfish or a tiny bird.
Mong Kok students often go to the waiting areas of Hong Kong’s busy Kai Tak Airport when they want a quiet place to study, and their parents check into hourly rate hotel rooms when they want privacy.
But Mongkok’s street names tell a different story. They speak of a more pastoral time, though one that was surely short-lived, since the area developed quickly after the Kowloon street grid was extended north from Yau Ma Tei. Above is a picture of Sai Yeung Choi Street — Watercress Street — which is lined by clothing stores and electronics shops, but which once ran through fields that presumably grew the bitter green vegetable.
July 20th, 2012
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.
May 2nd, 2012
Standing inside the cavernous belly of the 800-seat West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, bamboo master Ying Che and her head worker, Sunny Yim, gaze up at their creation.
“It’s very satisfying,” says Yim, a sturdy man with a boyish face who has been building bamboo theatres for nearly 40 years. “When you come to a performance, you can see the audience looking around, and you can tell that they’re impressed.”
Yim got into the trade when he was growing up in the old Hong Kong fishing village of Shek O. One day, when he was 15, a theatre was built near his home, and he climbed up to the top. “I wondered, how did they do it? That’s when I decided that I wanted to build bamboo theatres.”
Ying married into a family of bamboo masters going back three generations. Every year, she oversees the construction of 30 to 40 theatres, which are commissioned by villagers to mark Chinese festivals. Inside, they eat, drink and watch Cantonese opera. The theatres are built entirely by hand, usually by fewer than ten workers, and they are held together with nothing but plastic ties. The biggest theatres can hold up to 6,000 people.
“We eyeball everything,” says Ying. “We make a plan, but we don’t use tools. It’s tough work. You’re in the sun all day, so your skin gets tanned and wrinkled.”