Chair Island: The Story Behind Peng Chau’s DIY Street Furniture

Getting stuff to Peng Chau, one of Hong Kong’s 260 outlying islands, is no walk in the park. Since Peng Chau is not connected by road to the rest of Hong Kong, you are destined to become well-acquainted with a certain Mr. Leung, who owns the lone cargo boat regularly serving the island, or with the often-grumpy woman in the plexiglass booth at Pier 6 at Central, the hub for the passenger ferries that also ship household goods and other things across to the island. The ferry company’s per-item charge list is long and Hong Kong-style comprehensive, covering everything from air conditioners (HK$22), to whole roasted pigs (HK$11.50), to the most expensive item, coffins(HK$178.50).

Whichever boat you choose, your possessions will reach the island’s pier and no further. The next logistical hurdle involves hustling up a flat wheeled cart, and perhaps a friend or two, to help push that teetering tower of boxes and furniture along narrow laneways to your new home. Or you may hire, for about HK$200, a driver with a “VV” (a “village vehicle,” the only private motorised transport permitted on the island) to deliver it across.

The difficulty and expense of getting things on and off the island has come to define the most remarkable feature of its public landscape. Eventually, you may move away from Peng Chau. But your chairs will live here forever.

And there are hundreds of them, scattered everywhere across the island, transforming Peng Chau into an open air ad-hoc museum of chairs. IKEA and mass-market moulded plastic models from mainland China dominate the large open plaza by the main pier, but there are also vintage leatherette wing chairs, wooden ladder-back chairs salvaged from some long ago lost dining set, and occasionally an unravelling, ancient, but still-graceful bent bamboo cane chair – perhaps produced on the island in the 1960s, when Peng Chau supported dozens of small factories making everything from furniture to porcelain hand painted plates to safety matches. 

Fans of Modernism need only stroll down the waterfront to find a replica Eames DSW with rusted legs, or perhaps a battered Breuer with a huge unravelling cane seat living out its sunset years on a ledge facing the sea. (When New York musician/artist David Byrne visited Peng Chau, he was delighted to spot two Saarinen-style tulip chairs arranged in the open space across the street from Chicken Wing Chan’s dai pai dong.)

Peng Chau chairs are shared community chairs, although there is a local understanding that certain ones “belong” to individual islanders, at least at times when they are likely to be in the area and want to sit down. At lunch hour, it would be wise to avoid the plastic IKEA chair shoved in the narrow space between the municipal building and the fish market, as its “owner” Mr. Chan, will soon materialise to let you know you’re not welcome. In the mornings, the pastel coloured cluster of plastic armchairs along the south-facing wall across from the kindergarten are empty and up for grabs, but in the late afternoon they’re reserved for the regular meet-up of four or five women in their 80s. 

And while the chairs tend to occupy specific places, they rarely remain in exactly the same spot for more than a day or two, a phenomenon which Kit Chan and Myriem Alnet, a designer and an academic specialising in urban design, have described as Peng Chau’s “mysterious choreography of chairs.” Chan and Alnet became fascinated by the chairs when they moved here several years ago, and investigated them for the first issue of their independent Peng Chau zine, Islanders.

Chan and Alnet learned that many of the communal chairs on the island had been brought over by locals who bin-picked them from Discovery Bay, the upscale suburb with a high turnover of expats just a ten minute ferry ride away. That helps explain Peng Chau’s extensive Modernist chair representation; local island taste runs more to the utilitarian than the trendy. They also discovered why dozens of plastic chairs in the main square are marked with crude red spray- painted Xs on the back – it’s because the neighbour who helped organise the plaza chair collection wanted them to stay put in the plaza.

While the neighbour did manage to organise and stack the “X” chairs, and keep them from wandering off down the waterfront, the chairs remain peripatetic; from early morning to midnight they are on the move. Elderly locals are usually the first to snag them, followed by exhausted sanitation workers who pull up chairs in the narrow shade along the west side of the municipal building during their break. After sunset, especially during the recent quarantine, the chairs drift over to the pier and waterfront, providing seats for an al fresco pub of middle aged men—both Chinese and Western—who enjoy lively conversation and Skol beer.

Over the years Hong Kong’s Islands District Council and the Leisure and Cultural Services department have constructed government funded public seating in various areas on Peng Chau. This week, in fact, the district council—perhaps feeling a bit upstaged by the community’s chair creativity and self-sufficiency—is installing new seating in the main plaza. Rigid benches fixed in concrete blocks, each divided into three predefined seats by wide green iron armrests, these “official” seats are a textbook example of what urban designers call “hostile architecture”: public amenities designed to repel certain unwanted uses—such as sleeping on a bench—at the expense of comfort and user-friendliness.

As they have in the past, these unfortunate “official” benches will most likely take a distant second place to Peng Chau’s home-grown seating. For the benches are pinned to the spot, and cannot sidle up to catch the banyan’s shade at noon, or shift to the seaside to catch the evening breeze. Elderly neighbours who can walk can’t rearrange these benches to make space for their elderly friends in wheelchairs who cannot. The property of everyone and no one, the quirky, character-filled castoff chairs of Chair Island embody the free spirit of the people who live in Peng Chau.

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