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.