Written by Chris Phan
Throughout this seminar, there was an ongoing battle between “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches to design and development. It was between who was going to shape the Hong Kong of the future -- the local community, or the international one, which viewed Hong Kong as a gateway from the East to West and back again.
When I first told people I was coming to Hong Kong, my traveling friends lit up with excitement -- immediately letting me know the must-try casinos, shopping malls, and clubs. One person called Hong Kong the ‘New York of the East’ -- in other words, very friendly to glamorous jetsetters.
Our experiences with this seminar have been been an entire world apart from that. Instead of shopping malls, we visited fabric bazaars and hawkers’ stands. Instead of gambling at casinos, we went through walking tours of the various districts of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. And instead of clubbing, our nightlife consisted of listening to lecturers talk about landscape design and public space.
And this strain between our perception of Hong Kong before and after this trip was most evident on our third day of the seminar. By now, used to the impressive heat and even more impressive metro system, we traveled to Sai Ying Pun to listen to Hendrik Tieben from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, an architect, urban designer, and Associate Professor at the School of Architecture who studied and implemented reclamations of public space. He pointed out disjointed, wide staircases that could function as community spaces and then told us about the Magic Carpet project, in which a historic street was taken back by students of CUHK and the community to create a temporary event. A carpet was carpet and a movie screening was held for, and about the community of Sai Ying Pun.
We then headed to Victoria Harbour -- easily one of the most iconic to-do’s for tourists in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, as an island and for the last century was a gateway into trade in Asia for the western World and in high demand for land. As a result, “land reclamation”, or in other words, expanding the shoreline or building out piers, helps with the intense market for housing and commercial space.
It was here we met Onnie Chan of Banana Effect. As an interdisciplinary artist, she performed, developed, and worked with a variety of different performative mediums - she was here to tell us about how Banana Effect brought stories and performances to life in public spaces. Whether that was passing on messages and stories from children to their fathers on Father’s Day, or performing an interactive, gender-swapped story of Alice in Wonderland -- the manipulation and adaptation of a public space as an interactive theater was her element, her medium. “TSP,” she recited to us, “Texture, Shape, and Position.” Her three elements for scoping out a space to perform. It gave a modern definition to the idea of public space -- it wasn’t just a park for kids to play in, or a plaza to sit and eat in. It was anything the people could make it.
Land reclamation takes on different layers when we consider it from a historical perspective. Buildings that once overlooked the harbor now only face narrow corridors or other skyscrapers. We hiked winding, spiraling staircases that once led down to the shoreline with Melissa Cate Christ of the Hong Kong Stair Archive. In a city that oftentimes breaks up rare and precious pedestrian and public space with roadways -- not unlike many cities in the US -- she explained to us the history and value of staircases in Hong Kong. By design, they aren’t car-centric, which increases pedestrianization and creates a space solely for the people. Although staircases may be designed just for commuting, she pointed out that benches were placed outside and people sat or played on the steps -- another example of public space being reclaimed for the community’s needs and uses.
As we climbed staircase after staircase in the 85+ degree heat, the one part of my brain not scanning for a cafe with any iced drinks was thinking about what it would have been like to not take this seminar, but go to Hong Kong on my own. I would have easily caved under how uncomfortable this heat was -- I’ve called a Lyft for much less -- and taken taxis from point A to B as opposed to walking. Given my hopelessly suburban status, I wonder if I would have even found the MTR (Hong Kong’s metro system) in the first place.
These staircases that used to trace from hilltops to coastline are now obscured by land reclamation projects and skyscrapers. And outwardly, the modern grassy fields and wide, yet sparse plazas by Victoria Harbor were transformed into community theater by improvisation groups. And although I had the chance to be a part of this seminar, how would I have found these snapshots and history as a tourist? Is it our place as ‘international travelers’ to develop this apparently, not-so-international city?
For our final visit, we stopped by Hong Kong University again, this time to learn about students’ year-long projects in their Urban Studies department. Projects ranged from creating leisure spaces on footbridges to building a series of guidelines on tourism in a fishing-industry based area. It was never more obvious than at that moment in HKU that the stewardship of the future of Hong Kong wasn’t in the grip of jetsetters and international policymakers -- instead, it rested in the hands of these students -- those who know and listen to the city today.
Written by Gene Kum
Much like busy setting of Hong Kong, today’s itinerary was packed with walking tours, site visits, and information sessions. To start off our day, we visited the historic Wan Chai district on Hong Kong Island. It is one of Hong Kong’s oldest districts and it was formed by settlers from mainland China. The Central district was the first area of major development by the European settlers, so the Chinese were forced to occupy the neighboring districts. Wan Chai nowadays has essential become an extension of the Central district, both commercially and residentially. Still, there are hints of old Hong Kong scattered throughout. From our guided walking tour, we could easily see the conflicts between old and new, the effects of gentrification, and also some historic preservation efforts.
Like many other developed districts in Hong Kong, Wan Chai features roadways that occupy a majority of the paths, congested spaces, and very few areas of public open space that are frequently used. Skyscrapers and architecturally modern high-rises have also spilled onto the landscape of Wan Chai. They juxtapose with the existing buildings and what’s left of the outdoor street markets, one of the major components of old Wan Chai. Many of the wet markets that sell produce and meats have been moved to indoor facilities regulated by the government. We learned that this is for health and safety concerns, but also so that the street markets don’t occupy prime developable spaces. This creates tension between the government and hawkers, as it signifies the traditional way of building community through an open market right in heart of a neighborhood is slowly fading. We also walked through one of the more well-known street markets in Wan Chai on Tai Yuen Street. Hawkers here mainly sell dry goods and toys. The colorful umbrellas and flashy items being sold in such tight spaces were definitely a visual experience.
The district also features some historic sites that have been preserved. An important landmark in Wan Chai is the historic Blue House. The architectural design was based on a traditional Chinese timber building, but some of the details, such as the large French windows and metal railings, were inspired by western concepts. The Blue House was built as a resident building with divided flats. Living conditions were not ideal, so the sense of community grew outside and not within the units. This is one reason why public space is so important to Hong Kong residents, especially back in the colonial era. The government eventually purchased a square that included the Blue House and neighboring buildings to preserve their historical value. The space has been renovated to incorporate modern living standards and the residents and space itself are working to become a larger part of the community. There are open areas that connect the buildings within the square, green spaces that are being planted, and residents are starting to operate affordable shops and restaurants. Wan Chai was a great location to learn about Hong Kong’s history and current challenges of everyday residents.
After our walking tours, we were fortunate enough to hear from volunteer organizations and leaders in both practice and academia about some of the big issues in Hong Kong. The Liber Research Group is a crowd funded group that does independent research on land, housing, China-Hong Kong relations, and archival projects. The volunteers presented on some of their projects and results. One major takeaway was that many of Hong Kong’s problems do not necessarily stem from the lack of resources but the distribution of them. Another speaker we listened to was Gavin Coates, a senior lecturer at HKU’s Division of Landscape Architecture. He addressed the value of having good public spaces and what that means in a place like Hong Kong. There were many examples of good and bad public spaces, but the main point was that a good open space considers, first and foremost, other people and not necessarily just design. He also talked about the importance of listening and observation and called for advocacy.
It was encouraging for me to see organizations and people willing to advocate for the local community. This sets up a better way of creating public spaces and it introduces a “bottom-up” approach where the people are considered first rather than the traditional “top-down” approach where policy makers and influencers drive all the decisions. Although this day was exhausting, I was glad our group was able to visit these sites and hear from the people who are passionate about making Hong Kong a more sustainable place to live for all.