A Colourful Cure for What Ails Hong Kong’s Grey Public Spaces

If you aren’t looking for it, Yi Pei Square is easy to miss. To get there, you must first negotiate the crowds of Tsuen Wan’s market district, where shoppers clutch red plastic bags as they weave between delivery vans, minibuses and crates of fruit piled high in the street. When you spot an alleyway bracketed by a blue-bannered bakery and a stall selling pots and pans, turn in. You’re almost there. 

A few steps later, you’ll be greeted by a public space unlike any other in Hong Kong. Instead of the bare concrete and red brick paving found elsewhere else in the city, the ground here is covered in a soft, rubbery material with cheerful dashes of electric blue, sunny yellow and grapefruit pink. Children play hopscotch and shimmy through a metal tube. A group of old-timers watch with amusement. Laundry hangs languidly from the flats above. 

A year ago, Yi Pei Square was the kind of public space that is all too common in Hong Kong: grey and uninviting, enlivened only by the vinyl awnings and red plastic stools of the shops and restaurants that surround it. It left like leftover space – a space for everyone and no one at the same time. “The atmosphere was very different from the busy streets outside,” says architect Christopher Choi. “The square was much quieter yet slightly eerie, and we felt we were outsiders once we stepped in, as middle-aged men leaning on balustrades stared at us immediately.”

Choi is part of the team behind the square’s colourful transformation, which was led by architect Marisa Yiu and the Design Trust Futures Studio. Working with the government’s Architectural Services Department and Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), they came up with a way to make the square livelier and more responsive to the surrounding community. 

The plan is to give three more spaces around Hong Kong a similar treatment, including two rest gardens on Portland Street and Hamilton Street in Yau Ma Tei and the space beneath the Hill Road flyover in Shek Tong Tsui. “They all have different personalities based on different research models,” says Yiu. “There’s about 2,000 parks managed by the LCSD. About 40 are under 100 square metres in size. What can we do to engender a better use of space by the community, to have a bottom-up approach? Instead of having a hundred parks that look the same, we’re making something site specific based on particular neighbourhoods and particular moments in time.”

The starting point in each of those projects is to understand the local context. Yi Pei Square dates back to 1960, when Tsuen Wan became one of Hong Kong’s first suburban new towns. As Hong Kong boomed in the years after World War II, the colonial government looked for places where factories could be built and the fast-growing population of migrants from mainland China could be housed. For centuries, Tsuen Wan had been a market town serving the Hakka villages that dotted hills along the Rambler Channel, and its strategic coastal location made it a prime spot for industrial development

The government granted Shanghainese entrepreneurs—a well-capitalised group that had arrived after the 1949 Communist victory in mainland China—the right to reclaim and develop land along the waterfront. “When there is reclamation there is always a need for new place names,” notes Choi. “In this case, the new reclaimed land simply copied village names from the old Hakka settlements in the hills.” A grid of streets was laid out, with each one named after a different village. Inside each block was an open area, each named bei1 (陂), after the irrigation ponds common in rural areas. Yi Pei Square (Ji6 Bei1 Fong1, 二陂坊, “Second Pond Square”) is one of four such open spaces in the neighbourhood.

The square was surrounded by six-storey tong lau home to a mix of Cantonese and Shanghainese immigrants. It quickly filled up with hawker stalls selling fresh food and sundry items. “If you look at the pavements of Yi Pei Square, you can still find a few demarcations of the designated stall areas,” says Choi. Over the years, the Shanghainese moved away and were replaced by immigrants from Fujian. Then the hawkers were relocated to indoor markets as the government tried to “sanitise” the streets, as Choi puts it. 

By the time the Design Trust project got started, Yi Pei Square had been sanitised almost to oblivion, its space dotted by a few uncomfortable benches and some exercise equipment for the elderly. Its sibling squares have undergone similar transformations. Sam Pei Square is now occupied by basketball courts and a garden; Sze Pei Square is occupied by a rubbish depot; and Tai Pei Square is part carpark, part landscaped plaza.

More than 2,000 people live in the buildings around Yi Pei Square, a mix of working-class Hongkongers and immigrants from South and Southeast Asia, many of them trapped in tiny cubicle flats that are less than 10 square metres in size. The square didn’t offer them much respite. There were no play facilities, so children “played with the elderly fitness equipment instead, or brought their own spin-tops and used the drainage cover as a battling tray,” says Choi. “Parents would sit there watching, although they had nowhere to sit, so they sat on planter curbs. The middle-aged men were chattering or simply standing together. But they didn’t have enough seats as well, so they were always leaning on something – the back of the benches, balustrades, vehicle barriers.” 

It was clear to Choi and his fellow designers that the square needed a playground and plenty of seating. But more than that, they wanted to turn it into a “communal living room,” a place where people living nearby could comfortably gather. They came up with some initial ideas and workshopped them with people in the community. The feedback they got was often informative. “Children specifically asked to have wider slides so they could race with their friends,” says Yiu. “There were a lot of little details like that. Architecture is not just service provision. It’s a platform for people.”

That’s what led to the square’s unique visual character, too. “There is this preconceived notion that only designers love minimalism and abstract shapes, while ‘the masses’ are content with run-of-the-mill park graphics,” says Jonathan Mak, who was responsible for the square’s graphics and branding. “The site may be used by a lot of children, but it doesn’t mean we need to plaster the park with cute animals or rockets. We also resisted the urge to include overt visual references to the district’s history, as fascinating as it is. Many parks already take that approach, and we’d like to try something less explicit.”

Mak says the square’s bold colours and patterns are meant to be a rebuke to the greyness of its previous incarnation. But they were also inspired by the improvised way that people were using the square before, when it had few facilities to accommodate them. “The floor pattern is made up of geometric shapes that the users are free to interpret in any way they wish,” he says. “Even a typical hopscotch pattern has been scaled up and made into abstract squares, which were actually inspired by a workshop we did with the local residents, to see how the kids will create makeshift games on the floor with masking tape.”

The design evolved over the course of discussions with nearby residents. Architect Stephen Ip, who was involved in the landscape design, said there was a “subtle tension between different groups.” Some were concerned with security, which led to some of the play structures and street furniture being scaled down to avoid creating any dark and cloistered spots. A backdrop wall was created for community events like movie screenings. And the railings that surrounded the square were removed to open access to the whole site – and to prevent shopkeepers from mounting their goods on the fences, which some residents considered a nuisance.

There were other constraints, too. One of the buildings on Yi Pei Square suffered from a deadly fire in 2015, so emergency access was a prime concern. In order to accommodate fire trucks, a hard-paved S-shaped route weaves through the square, with soft-paved play areas in between. “The whole design process was a constant negotiation, a process of give and take,” says Ip.

Tsuen Wan as seen from above in 1978. Yi Pei Square is in the area at right. Photo from the collection of Ko Tim-keung

But that helped create a space that is truly reflective of the neighbourhood around it. “In the end, a lot of the colour and material choices boil down to the results of community engagement, safety concerns and balancing technical constraints with aesthetics,” says Mak. “Do the visuals carry any symbolic meaning? Not really, but maybe they don’t have to. Sometimes, the park doesn’t have to say much at all. Let the people do the talking, and the space will come to life.” One square down, three to go – but there are thousands across Hong Kong that could benefit from the same approach.

New playground – All photos courtesy Design Trust. 

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