The Forgotten 30 Houses

Originally published in Photography is Art, Issue 12, December 2018, pp. 118-125.  Photography by Johnny Gin

The original emerald windows are one of the unique features of tong lau from the post-war era. They give us a glimpse of Hong Kong’s past.

Tucked behind the trendy restaurants and bars on Staunton Street in the Central District of Hong Kong is a piece of history the rest of the city has forgotten. I climbed several sets of steep steps behind the Police Married Quarters (PMQ) to find a quiet, shaded neighbourhood of low-rise buildings, “tong lau,” arrayed around a network of granite steps, airy terraces, narrow lanes, ancient trees, and quaint little shops. Tong lau –literally “Chinese buildings” –were built in the late 19th century to the 1960’s. They were used as tenement housing in southern China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, 30 Houses is a charming neighbourhood that is only accessible by foot. The area’s core is Shing Wong Street, named after the guardian god of cities whose temple once stood on the current site of the PMQ. There are tong lau on both sides of Shing Wong Street, most being two or three storeys tall. Facing Staunton Street stands a taller grey building. Between Staunton Street and Caine Street are many small lanes that consist of tong lau and vacant lots. Once upon a time, tong lau stood in these lots. The ground floors were used as storefronts for print shops and other small businesses while the shop owners and their families lived in the upper floors.

Folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with floral patterns is a common feature of tong lau in the 30 Houses neighbourhood.

The name “30 Houses” likely originates from an earlier 19th-century development destroyed by bombing during World War II. After the war, the government and local landowners redeveloped the area, and it became a vibrant working-class neighbourhood. Over the years though, the tong lau were torn down to make room for modern high-rises. As these new residential developments sprung up in the area, the “kai fong,” the neighbourhood residents started to move away.

I learned about this alluring and nostalgic area from Katty Law, a neighbourhood activist serving as the convenor of the Central and Western Concern Group. As a kai fong, she grew up on Caine Road and has watched her home neighbourhood transform.

“I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for over 40 years,” Ms. Law mused. “When I was young, there used to be a lively street market on Staunton Street. Now people see little trace of it.”

Not only are the original grocery shops, and dai pai dong, traditional open-air food stalls, have gone years ago, many of the remaining tong lau have also become dilapidated shells of their former glory. The Hong Kong Urban Renewal Authority (URA) has been planning to tear down the tong lau to build luxury apartments. But 30 Houses isn’t just any neighbourhood: with 19th-century layout and building orientation and early 20th-century architectural style and construction techniques it represents something unique in the city. The tong lau are rare examples of the post-war urban residential neighbourhoods built between 1948 to 1958. They make a striking contrast with the surrounding high rises, built in the more recent years. Once these historic structures are destroyed, a part of Hong Kong will be lost forever.

Human memory is faulty and ephemeral; it only remembers what the eye sees. Once a building is gone, it fades away and eventually disappears from the collective consciousness. Fortunately, photography has been a medium to document and preserve buildings and communities in the brink of disappearance. In 1967, American photographer Danny Lyon made images to give testament to the transformation of lower Manhattan. He was able to record the process of turning an abandoned mid-19th-century working district of markets, warehouses, showrooms, and hotels, to complex high-rises that eventually became the heart of the financial district, where the World Trade Center once stood. Lyon’s work was turned into The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), which seized the rare moments before the disappearance of a neighbourhood.

The curved balconies of 88-90 Staunton Street can be seen while climbing the steps on Shing Wong Street. They add to the structure’s old-timey charms.

Johnny Gin is a Hong Kong-based photographer. His interest in buildings, and specifically, how the built environment and vernacular landscapes inform the identity of a city led him to photograph the 30 Houses area.

Gin’s lenses captured various stages of development and decay in the area. Wing Lee Street, made famous by the 2010 film, Echoes of the Rainbow is one of the few to have escaped demolition. The tong lau on this street have been restored by their owners but are missing many of their original details, such as emerald iron balcony fences, matching window frames, and folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with the name of businesses.  They now look uniform, stripped away of the eccentricities that made them intriguing.

Behind the tong lau on Wing Lee Street is a massive retaining wall—another marker of Hong Kong history. Since the original City of Victoria –the colonial name for Hong Kong –sits on a steep slope, 19th-century engineers dug an “L” shape onto the side of the hill to clear flat land to build on. On the long end, they used locally sourced granite to construct a sturdy retaining wall, matching the flagstones on the neighboorhood’s stairways. Trees have sprung up in the gaps in the wall, their unruly roots stretched out like spider webs across the wall, leading locals to call them “wall trees.” (石牆樹)

Wah In Fong West is a narrow street, one side facing a row of tong lau across from a stairway. This arrangement reflects the original orientation and plot size of first and second-generation tong lau in the Tai Ping Shan area, a densely populated zone struck by the plague of 1894. Nowadays, it is the only remaining two-storey tong lau built alongside the granite steps in Old Central. Tragically, these unique homes are among the most deteriorated structures in the 30 Houses area. Their facades obscured in bamboo scaffold and mesh, the upper floors are barely perceptible from the street. Even so, remnants of their past are still evident: the emerald balconies with their original plant holders and the storefront signs mark what once was a print shop near the top of the alley.

This concrete building features the ventilation shafts in the staircases, providing airflow in the hot and humid summers.

My favourite building in the area is the imposing four-storey concrete building at 88-90 Staunton Street. Rusty metal gates obscure the store sign, but the ground floor might have been a “Cha chaan teng,” a traditional café that served affordable Hong Kong style western food. I imagine this is where the kai fong gathered for breakfast before work. One of its most striking features, common in neighbourhood buildings, are the long vertical ventilation shafts carved at the front of the building. These provide much-needed airflow through the staircases, especially during the hot and humid summer months. Rounded balconies, visible from the Shing Wong Street steps, add to the old-timey charm.

The best-preserved tong lau can be found on Shing Wong Street, three-story structure split through the middle with ventilation shafts. The owners kept all of their original features through recent restorations, including balcony railings, window fixtures, and folding iron gates. Storefronts occupy ground floors, while upper levels are reserved for rental properties.

As a long-time resident of Hong Kong, I probably walked by this hidden architectural wonder hundreds of times on my way to the bars and restaurants in the area. However, the tong lau, sitting halfway up the hill, are very easy to miss. They have been tucked away, decaying while their surrounding areas develop rapidly. With photographic evidence created by Gin, it is easy to see that though the tong lau are in a terrible and potentially dangerous condition, they embody the passing of time and tell the stories of Old Hong Kong.  Even though they can be seen as an eyesore to those who don’t understand their history, there is a potential to restore and repurpose these old tong lau and turn them into social housing that Hong Kong desperate needs, artists’ residences to allow creative pursuits, and retail spaces to attract tourists. Ms. Law and her group are advocating to preserve them as part of Hong Kong’s history.

“It is so important to keep the original character of these buildings, as they are a culmination of history,” Ms. Law said, “Perhaps Shing Wong, the guardian god of the city, is protecting our area. After all, the buildings still stand today.”

Notes:This text is based on the research done by Katty Law, Charlton Cheung, and Sjoerd Hoeksta for the Central and Western Concern Group.

The author has read The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time by Joel Smith (Princeton University Art Museum, 2011) to learn about Danny Lyon’s work in The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1967).

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Fancy but Faux? The Instagram Libraries of China

By Kayo Chang Black

HONG KONG— In the recent years, China has been building some of the most ambitious libraries in the world—and the country needs them. As of 2016, China has 3,153 public libraries for a population of 1.38 billion. To put it in perspective, the U.S. has 9,082 libraries as of 2015, serving a population of 325.7 million.

Public libraries in China

Source: https://0-www.statista.com.library.scad.edu/statistics/226455/number-of-public-libraries-in-china/ from Statista, May 6, 2018

When Tianjin Binhai Library opened its doors in 2017, it was every book lover’s dream come true—at 33,700 square meters and five levels, there is enough shelf space for 1.2 million books.  The library has also become one of the most coveted Instagram locations—thousands of visitors flock to the library to take a selfie in its gorgeous atrium lined with millions of books.

A library user at the atrium of Tianjin Binhai Library, April 18, 2018. (Personal Picture/ Leslie Montgomery)

The images of this fantastic library piqued Leslie Montgomery‘s curiosity. Leslie is a Hong Kong-based photographer, videographer the driving force behind DesignAsia – a documentary series that follows designers and artists and their creative pursuits. The images of the Tianjin Binhai Library inspired Leslie to not only visit that library but to also explore other architecturally-interesting libraries in China. In the fall of 2017, she visited LiYuan Library, Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, and finally, Tianjin Binhai Library.

Like many, Leslie has a soft spot for libraries. She used to spend her afternoons in her local public library after school to wait for her mother to finish work. However, she didn’t think about the roles of libraries before her trip. “For me, it started purely on a visual and aesthetic level.” She said, “Libraries were like the medium and then behind that, it was just architecture.”

Leslie’s adventure started in Beijing. She traveled for 1.5 hours north to Jiaojiehecun. LiYuan library is nestled in the lush hills, and it looks like a contemporary version of the wooden house made by one of the Three Little Pigs—the outer wall of the building consisted of thousands of individual twigs.

LiYuan Library from the outside, April 10, 2018. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

Inside, bookcases line the walls, and there are blocks of bookshelves throughout the library too. They function as storage for books and steps for users to reach for a book on a higher shelf. Even though there are no chairs in the library, the multi-layer bookshelves created cozy nooks and spaces for people to curl up with a book.

Interior of LiYuan Library, April 10, 2018 (DesignAsia/Leslie Montgomery)

Then, Leslie went to Inner Mongolia in the northeast of Heibei province to visit the library of Mulan Weichang Visitor Center. Historically, emperors held their autumn hunting festival on this stunning landscape where the grassland ends and the sky begins.

The welcome committee of Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, April 14. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

The visitor center is made of locally sourced materials such as stones, used wood beams, and rattan—it is also shaped like the yurt, which is the traditional housing in the region.

The core of the building is the lobby, which is where the library is located. Inside, it is bright, with lots of natural light from the dome-light ceiling windows.

The library portion of the Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, April 13, 2018. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

While Leslie was in awe of the design of each and every one of them, she questioned whether or not they are “real” libraries. She ponders about the role of these libraries.

Many visitors of Tianjin Binhai Library felt the same way. To their dismay, they found out that the millions of books in the atrium are not real —they are painted.

Are these new libraries in China just fancy buildings with books in them? What purpose do they serve?

Agnieszka Gorgon is a librarian whose 12 years career spans across Dubai and Toronto. In the clip below, she discusses the role of public libraries in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Interview with Agnieszka Gorgon, April 29, 2018. (Personal —Video/Kayo Chang Black)

Public libraries have always served their community. What about these fancy libraries in China?

As Agnieszka stated, one of the core functions of public libraries is to connect with the community and to educate and inform the community. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) is a non-profit organization that provides best practices guidelines for libraries around the world. According to the Statement of Libraries and Development, libraries provide a vital role in providing equal access to information for all, as well as giving their communities opportunities to learn and empower them to self-develop.

However, the designers were not thinking about helping users when they design the libraries. For example, Li Yuan Library opened its door to the public in 2011. Its designer, Li Xiaodong, an architect and a professor at Tsinghua University, created the perfect space and filled it with books. In an interview, Mr. Li said he intended to create a tourist attraction for the village, a place busy Beijingers can escape to on the weekend.

Interview with Li Xiaodong, April 10, 2018. (DesignAsia/Leslie Montgomery)

While the library is an ideal place to read, are there any plans to update their book collection and develop programs for the local residents? “I don’t think they’re really focusing on the books or the literature,” Leslie said about the collection of books in the libraries, “[Mulan Weichang Visitor Center and Library in Mongolia] rely on donations for books so you can imagine you know what their collection is like. These spaces are beautiful, and people take pride in these spaces. But as libraries, they really need to invest in what they’re putting inside.“

On the surface, these libraries are extraordinary and architectural wonders. However, without investing in their collections and programming, they are mere eye candy, for visitors to come in, snap a photo for their social media and leave.

“[After visiting the libraries] I feel like maybe the libraries were more built as pieces of architecture. However, to make them attractive, they need to give the buildings some meaning. Libraries are perfect for providing a meaning—they are wholesome, make people feel welcomed and it’s a place of learning.”

While it is a good sign that the number of libraries is increasing in China, there is so much potential for these libraries to be more than mere photo-ops. With more care and funding, they can transform their communities, while still serving as a tourist attraction.

 

 

 

 

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