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.