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.
Two weeks before Chinese New Year, the floor creaks as Sunny Yim walks through the bamboo theatre he has helped build. A few of his wiry colleagues stand on a platform, making adjustments to the lattice of bamboo rods that is holding this cavernous structure aloft, but the work is mostly done. Yim, a compact man with a ruddy face, looks up at the vast ceiling with satisfaction. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, since I was 15,” he says. “I only build theatres. This is my passion.”
Soon, the theatre will be filled with chairs, red lanterns and the wail of Cantonese opera as 800 people converge to celebrate the new lunar year. Chinese New Year is a time for traditions, even in aggressively modern Hong Kong: families reunite for dinner and lunch, freshly-swept homes are filled with exuberant bouquets, the crash and clamour of lion dances herald good luck in the months to come. Bamboo theatres, strangely enough, have never been part of New Year festivities, at least not in the city centre. But this is a new tradition, the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, that was launched to great success in 2012. Its first edition featured five days of opera, films and art. This year, the festivities will last for nearly a month. “We’ve moved the theatre next to the waterfront,” says Louis Yu, performance director for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The schedule is more packed than ever: not just Cantonese opera, but 10 of its counterparts from across China’s cultural spectrum, plus free screenings of Chinese opera films.
Hong Kong is never more alive than in the weeks before the new year, which culminates in a frenzy of all-night activity on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on January 30. On the old stone steps of Ladder Street, under the spindly vines of a banyan tree, neighbourhood residents ask for good-luck banners penned by a calligrapher. Kung hei fat choi is the classic message — “Wishing you prosperity” — but there are plenty of others, too, like Yat fan fong shun (“May everything go smoothly”). In Victoria Park and a handful of other spots around the city, round-the-clock new year fairs are stocked with novelty gifts, many inspired by the coming year’s zodiac sign. (Expect a lot of cute horses this time around.)
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.
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.
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.
When a blaze in the Fa Yuen Street market killed nine people last November, it was Hong Kong’s street hawkers that took the fall. Even before arson investigators had discovered the source of the fire, the government’s Hawker Control Officers ordered market stalls to remove their awnings and reduce the size of their stock.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) put forward a series of proposals to reduce the fire risk posed by market stalls. Options include forcing hawkers to dismantle their stalls at night, installing sprinkler systems, moving stalls away from building entrances, relocating street markets away from residential areas and asking hawkers to voluntarily surrender their licences in order to reduce the size of street markets.
“It’s like they wanted to blame everything on us,” said Fong Kam-mei, who sells children’s clothing on Fa Yuen Street, at a protest against the crackdown two weeks ago. Many hawkers say the government’s proposals would drive them out of business.
Now a group of designers, artists, academics and activists have banded together to improve their situation. “We call it SDU — the Street Design Union,” says artist Kacey Wong, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University’s School of Design.
Their goal is to help design a better street market “to improve the hawkers’ business, improve the street market environment and maintain the social and cultural value of markets,” says Chan Ka-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Design Community.
The problem: “Before we can take any action, the government needs to have a clear hawker policy,” says Chan. “If the government doesn’t change the way it does things, no matter what designers try, it won’t be functional.”
The aroma of wood smoke is not one of the things I expected to smell when I moved to a new apartment on the 35th floor, but there’s a rooftop barbecue restaurant just down the street from my building and the smell often floats upwards. When I sit on my balcony, I can watch little clumps of people around the fires, grilling fishballs and pork chops.
In Montreal, I always thought it was better to be close to the street. Why sequester yourself in a high-rise, buffeted by northern winds, when you could be close to neighbours and the street and your local dep, which is always well-stocked with beer? As much as I could appreciate a good view, being able to watch alley cats make their nightly inspections seemed somehow more important.
In too many parts of Hong Kong, though, proximity to the street does not confer many real pleasures. The traffic is noisier, the pollution more irritating, the sunlight so very fleeting. In the absence of a true convivial streetlife, life on a low floor is not a matter of engagement with your surroundings, just a feat of endurance.
On a pleasantly warm evening last November, my thoughts wandered over to the nighttime activity at the Sai Wan pier and I wondered if the same sort of thing happened at the nearest bit of waterfront to my apartment, the New Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter. I grabbed my camera, stepped out of the door, and twenty-five minutes later — after walking through the crowded streets of Mongkok, over a series of footbridges and past the gigantic housing estates near Olympic MTR station — I reached the water.
A couple of dozen people milled about. There were teenagers sitting by the water’s edge, legs dangling off the concrete seawall. Middle-aged couples strolled hand-in-hand down the waterfront promenade. A few elderly people swung their arms, walking backwards, doing strange old-people exercises. Next to the water’s edge were a few small boats, their engines running, operators sitting onboard, killing time. Every so often, one of the boats would leave the typhoon shelter and return with a single passenger.
The New Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter seems a poor heir to the sensational legacy of its predecessor. First opened in 1916, the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter was designed to protect Kowloon’s fishing boats from heavy summer waves, but it also sheltered a thriving community of Tanka people, who had made their livings in the coastal seas of South China for generations. They had their own language, their own food and their own wedding rituals, all of which, naturally enough, were centred around the sea. For centuries, they were considered non-Chinese barbarians by land-dwellers, and it wasn’t until 1731 that the Chinese emperor emancipated them from this status. But they still suffered discrimination whenever they set foot on land, so they continued to live most of their lives at sea.
Mongkok might be one of the world’s most crowded places, but sometimes all you need to do to escape is to make a right turn down a quiet alleyway. That’s what I discovered when I was walking from home to the Flower Market the other day. Instead of taking the usual route along Sai Yee Street, I ducked into the laneway that runs behind it and discovered a kind of parallel university of greenery, graffiti and informal living space.
One of the first things I encountered was a lean-to with a mattress, some newspaper and various other objects inside. It seems to have been built by a homeless person but I’m not sure if it’s still occupied. Taggers have been using its wood walls as a canvas.
Last month, I paid a visit to Hong Kong Reader, a great independent bookstore on the seventh floor of a building in Mongkok. Before I entered the shop, though, I gazed up the stairwell and wondered whether there was an interesting view from the roof. I climbed an extra few floors and emerged onto a rubbish-filled rooftop with a view of only the surrounding buildings and billboards.
On the roof next door, somebody had left a pile of rose petals to dry in the sun. (A romantic gesture?) I took a few photos, gazed at my reflection in the mirrored windows of an office tower across the street — and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, two men staring at me from an even higher rooftop a few buildings away.
Startled, I looked up. One man took a drag on his cigarette. They continued to stare. I wondered what they were doing up there and my mind flashed to the climax from Infernal Affairs when Tony Leung sneaks up on Andy Lau with a gun. A bit unnerved, I ducked back into the stairwell and went down to the bookstore.
The Internet meets the MTR: trying on a jacket bought online.
Photos by Oliver Tsang for the South China Morning Post
Nobody seemed alarmed by the sight of two 17-year-old boys playing with guns in the Hong Kong MTR. It was early Wednesday evening at Prince Edward Station and Kelvin Cheung was inspecting a pistol he had arranged to buy from Simon Lee.
“It’s for war games,” Cheung explained as he pulled the trigger on an empty semi-automatic air-powered handgun. He has been playing war games for six months, he said, and he found Lee on Uwants, an online marketplace. After confirming the sale online, they arranged to meet at Prince Edward to finish the transaction. Cheung paid HK$300 for the gun, which he said would have cost HK$570 in a retail store.
“This is my first time buying from Simon, but I actually have two other purchases I’m going to pick up in the station tonight,” said Cheung.
As the rush hour crowds thickened, about fifty other people milled around the edges of the station’s fare-paid zone, most of them waiting to pick up goods they had ordered online. Cash changed hands; so did makeup kits, concert tickets, cameras and bags full of clothing.
In most parts of the world, online shopping is a straightforward process: find what you want, enter your credit card information and have it shipped to your home. Not so in Hong Kong, where analysts describe the online retail market as “underdeveloped” and consumers have long been sceptical of buying things online.
It’s rare to come across any unorthodox street art in Hong Kong — it’s mostly stencils, paste-ups and graffiti. So I was pleased to see these vinyl footprints glued to the pavement at the nearest crosswalk to my apartment. They remind me of a couple of things: the footprints placed rather whimsically on metal grates in the sidewalks of Calgary; and the early work of Roadsworth, which subverted the lines, arrows and stripes that regulate our behaviour in the street.
Old buildings bought for redevelopment are displayed in the window of an acquisition company office on Victory Avenue in Ho Man Tin
There goes the neighbourhood. A new government policy on compulsory sales in old buildings has led to a property gold rush in Hong Kong’s older districts, putting homeowners on guard and worrying many that well-established communities will be uprooted and destroyed.
Before April, acquisition companies working for developers had to buy 90 percent of a building’s units before they could force the remaining owners to sell. Now the government has lowered that threshold to 80 percent for buildings more than 50 years old.
The impact can be felt in places like Ho Man Tin, where up to 20 buildings in the few blocks just east of the MTR’s East Rail Line are now targeted for redevelopment. About half are being acquired by Richfield Realty, a company whose controversial acquisition methods include the hanging of large red banners over targeted buildings, a tactic that many homeowners say creates an atmosphere of intimidation.
“We’re very angry and upset to see those banners all over the place — it’s like a cancer that’s spreading throughout the city,” said Kobe Ho, a bookstore manager who lives on Waterloo Road in Ho Man Tin. Some of her friends in the neighbourhood have already been displaced by Richfield’s acquisitions.
“The new legislation has really sped up the process of urban renewal in Hong Kong,” said Wong Ho-yin, a member of the Minority Owners’ Alliance Against Compulsory Sales, which works with homeowners who do not want to leave their homes. “But urban renewal has so many negative effects, in terms of urban planning, social networks and protecting the rights of homeowners. It’s bad enough with the Urban Renewal Authority, but when the private sector gets involved, things are even worse.”