Hong Kong is a city known for its lack of space – both public and private. Some may argue that the government has provided sufficient public space in the form of recreational parks within the public housing estate and other sizable parks which includes Kowloon Park, Hong Kong Park, Victoria Park and Hong Kong Botanical Garden. However, are these recreational parks real public spaces?
A long list of rules – often printed on metal panels – stands at the entrance of every recreational park, pocket spaces, squares and promenade in Hong Kong, even at barbecue sites and beaches. Forbidden activities such as bringing animals to the park, riding a bicycle, playing of ball games, smoking, roller-blading and playing mahjong are examples of activities prohibited in the parks managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). Some of these parks are also subjected to fixed opening hours. While it is understood that some of the rules are set for the sake of public safety, others like ‘no running in the park’ or ‘no stepping onto the grass’ are in fact violating the freedom of the citizens to utilize the public space (Lo, 2013). Since the public is so restricted in using designated space, is it really considered public?
With the lack and restriction of public space, people are inclined to find ways to extend their private sphere beyond domestic space. Here, in these outdoor rooms, the division between the private and public has blurred (Borio & Wuthrich, 2015). The back alleys are spaces where all kinds of activities overlap. In some alleys, one might find only a dingy tunnel with a canopy of dripping pipes, whereas in some, a storage space for household items. But in others, a micro-economy of small, simple businesses—a fabric shop carved into a space barely big enough to fit its vendor, a vegetable stand with boxes and bins lining the walls, a vintage hairdressing shop with just enough seats for one or two patrons.
Michael Wolf, a German photographer who has been photographing Hong Kong’s back alleys throughout the city since 2002, said in an article, “The problem is that there is very little private space, so people tend to use public spaces on their own. It’s harder to get away with streets and open space, and back alleys are sort of unregulated areas, no man’s land.”
As back lanes are hidden and spread out all over the city, interesting activities can happen there, unseen; and the over-regulation of public spaces might explain why they do happen there. The many rules of one void seem to influence the other void. What is interesting is that because of the unclear status of the back lanes, officially forbidden activities are largely tolerated (Borio & Wuthrich, 2015).
“These are the only public spaces where you don’t have any regulations. Hong Kong city is so condensed and people’s homes are tiny. If you do not have such spaces you cannot live, cannot even breathe freely.” – Borio & Wuthrich (2015)
Today, more and more mega shopping malls and skyscrapers are built to present Hong Kong as an image of a world-class city. The government is also trying to remove of all third world spectacle, which includes old buildings, commercial streets and obsolete parks, which are regarded as conflicting with the stable and high quality image of Hong Kong (Lo, 2013). Soon, these identity of the back alley will slowly disappear which will be a great loss for the city.
Borio, G., & Wüthrich, C. (2015). Hong Kong in-between. Zürich: Park Books.
Lo, K. M. (2013). Public space in Hong Kong. Cultural Studies@ Lingnan 文化研究@ 嶺南, 37(1), 11.
Featured image on slideshow: Author’s own (Taken in June 1016)
Figure 1: Author’s own (Taken in June 2016)
Figure 2: https://www.timeout.com/hong-kong/things-to-do
Figure 3: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bushton/5445258636/
Figure 4: Author’s own (Taken in June 2016)
Figure 5: Photographs by Michael Wolf – http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/02/hong-kong-michael-wolf-back-alleys/459831/
Figure 6: http://www.parallellab.com/