Glass looks at a new book documenting the changes of a district in Hong Kong
When Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened their Hong Kong campus in 2009, the faculty was eager not only to explore their new locale but also to contribute to the art and cultural development of the district. As well as this, they were keen to build strong ties with the community.
And the initial efforts to do so have resulted in the publication and exhibition of Tilting the Lens: Telling the Story of Sham Shui Po. The project saw the collaboration of students from various disciplines – such as graphic design, photography and historic conservation – and also the involvement of the local community. This cross-disciplinary effort makes the collection of photographs more than a pragmatic documentation of the streetscape and architecture. The book records and reveals hidden stories about the traditions found beyond the facades. Simultaneously, it poses a vital question – how can, or should, this tradition be preserved?
When Glass asked Professor Steve Aishman, one of the directors of the project, about the unique qualities of the area and why it is important to tell its story, he replied, “Sham Shui Po has a rich history that is still evident in the built environment and resulting residential community. This is captured in the book – for example pre-war ‘tong laus’ (Hong Kong-style low-rise tenement building), nineteenth century temples, recent high rises, ‘dai pai dongs’ (open-air street food stalls), bonesetters – traditional chinese chiropractors – and the myriad of shops and hawker stalls.”
Bob Dickensheets, who led the transformation of the historic North Kowloon Magistracy into SCAD Hong Kong’s site, added, “It is one of the oldest districts and one of the poorest per capita but it holds a deep cultural heritage and a rich built environment. There are less than 30 authentic dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong and most of these exist in Sham Shui Po. Bonesetters, once commonplace are now rare in the city. However, this treasured practice still exists in Sham Shui Po. Overall, this area is an intact example of life and culture from the early twentieth century.”
Hong Kong’s history, as well as its present, is rich, complex and intriguing. It has witnessed the Opium War and an intense period of colonisation – this, combined with its essence as a large port, has resulted in large immigrant populations from all over Asia, as well as from the rest of the world. The city has always had the ability to accommodate and respond quickly to change. For some, this has led to a less nostalgic view on the historic values of the built environment. Nonetheless, Dickensheets explained that in China,“There is a growing respect and new recognition of the need to preserve the buildings and elements of culture that defined the past. In Hong Kong, the need to preserve has been recognised by the government and has become a central theme in urban planning. The current administration is taking steps to create a heritage wing of government to ensure best use practices for historic architecture and to garner community input.”
But there are no preservation zones or historic districts in Sham Shui Po. However planners are currently working on designating and attempting to retain important buildings. With this work, new developments will need not only to preserve but also to re-consider how to intervene in historic sites – side by side to the official efforts to ensure the revitalisation of buildings that benefit Hong Kong legacy. The city is facing large challenges in the attempts to improve the living environment through redevelopment, rehabilitation and restoration. Dickensheets affirmed that “architecture and culture are very much entwined and often are the result of their mutual influence”.
This is a common perception; buildings and everyday life are closely linked together in our reading of the past, of our history and in our understanding of identity. But in telling the stories of people as well as of buildings, Tilting the Lens manages to question how tradition can be preserved. The listing of the built environment will, after all, not guarantee the preservation of the “dap toi” culture of informal conversation with strangers over tables at dai pai dongs, the lunar New Year festivities, visiting temples from the 19th century and the busy activity down the pavement emporiums.
Moreover, the project has enabled the SCAD students to become alert of the many ways of defining and surveying historical and contemporary culture. It has prepared them to give up preconceived cultural bias in order to genuinely experience the environment. The project wonders about the development of Hong Kong as a vibrant city – it speculates about the possibilities to merge past, present and future. By Runa Mathiesen
Tilting the Lens: Telling the Story of Sham Shui Po is the latest publication produced by Design Press – SCAD’s publishing division.