Hong Kong, 20 Years After the Handover, Part I – Borrowed Spaces

There is nowhere quite like Hong Kong. Founded by the British as a bridge between China and the world, it is a place that has somehow forged its own resilient identity in the gaps between nations, languages and cultures. On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China, and the two decades that followed have been nothing if not tumultuous. 20 years after the handover, Hong Kong remains a city in flux, a place of ambitions and aspirations that thrive in the face of an uncertain future.

What better time for introspection? That’s the goal of the Hong Kong Series, a new collection of seven books published by Penguin Australia that takes the pulse of contemporary Hong Kong. In Dear Hong Kong, acclaimed writer Xu Xi offers an elegy for a city that has changed beyond recognition. Cantonese Love Stories, by novelist Dung Kai-cheung, offers 25 narrative sketches of Hong Kong in the 1990s. Former Art Basel Hong Kong director Magnus Renfrew’s Uncharted Territory explores the intersection between culture and commerce in Hong Kong’s booming art scene.

Over the summer, Zolima CityMag will offer a closer look at these titles, beginning with one from our own managing editor, Christopher DeWolf. His new book Borrowed Spaces is a chronicle of the ways in which the grassroots citizens of Hong Kong reshape their city to make up for the shortcomings of their bureaucratic government. Caught between restrictive public spaces and a hostile living environment, people in Hong Kong have created a their own city from the ground up. Here’s an excerpt from the book.

Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong

I tried to keep up as we darted across a roundabout and traced our way down the curb of a highway interchange. The Mango King was waiting. “We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” explained my guide, Michael Leung.

Leung was born in London, and worked as an industrial designer before moving to Hong Kong, where he became a designer in the most conceptual sense of the word. “Michael is about almost everything except the object,” Aric Chen, M+ Museum’s design curator, once told me. “He represents the generation of designers-as-activists who have pushed the role of the designer away from commerce and industry and towards social enterprise and grassroots organising. As a designer, he’s 100 percent locavore.”

I met Leung when he started installing beehives on rooftops in collaboration with a local beekeeper. These days, he helps run a market stall in Yau Ma Tei, where he trades in community interaction more than any material goods. When I walk with him through the neighbourhood, it seems like everyone knows him: the butcher, the greengrocer, the driver of the delivery van who slows down just long enough to shout a greeting. He must be the most popular man in Yau Ma Tei.

In a way, that’s how he met the Mango King. In 2013, Leung was working on a project about community gardening when some friends introduced him to a man who had turned a patch of empty land in the middle of an interchange into a flourishing urban farm. A year later, he took me to see the farm. As we approached a hole in a chain-link fence, Leung ran through a partial list of the Mango King’s bounty: one lychee tree, four banana trees, five mango trees, twenty cayenne chilli plants, forty papaya trees, 75 square metres of potatoes and an indeterminate number of pineapple trees.

We carefully passed through a hole in the fence and emerged into a clearing surrounded by horsetail trees, their long, spindly leaves fluttering in the wind. I looked around. A concrete flyover rose in the distance and the white noise of traffic filtered through the trees, but it was hard to see any passing cars. There was a small lean-to at one end of the site. Plastic jugs of water were lined up in the dirt. “There’s no running water here, so I fill them up at a shopping mall nearby,” explained the Mango King when he wandered over to greet us.

The Mango King is a short, sturdy man with a deep tan and the kind of taut, leathery skin that comes from spending most of your life outdoors. Earlier, Leung had asked me to buy some mangoes from the market, and I handed them to the Mango King, who thanked me and set them aside. He explained that, once he ate the fruit, he would plant the pit; this is how he grew some of his other mango trees. He pointed towards a group of tiny seedlings. “Ten years – that’s the fastest a mango tree will grow from seed, if you want mangoes,” he told us. Near the mango trees, a few pineapple heads stuck out of the ground, gifts from neighbours in Yau Ma Tei.

The Mango King talked enthusiastically about his produce, but he was cagey about his past. “I think he’s had a rough life,” Leung told me. At some point, the Mango King ended up homeless, but rather than sleep on the streets, he staked a claim to this piece of land and started growing food. “Back in my village in China, I dabbled in farming with my friends – actually, it was more like I watched them grow things,” he said to us. “Growing things, it’s all about experience and how passionate you are. If you’re not into it, nothing will grow.”

In a sense, the Mango King is a pioneer. The land we were standing on is man-made, “reclaimed” from the sea in the early 1990s in order to build road and rail links to Hong Kong’s new airport. Two decades later, it is a disjointed mess of roadways, isolated housing estates and ratty vacant lots. The Mango King is the first person to live on this patch of land and the first person to grow food from its soil. Legally speaking, though, he is an intruder. This is government land, which in Hong Kong means it is no man’s land.

Leung told me that passing motorists sometimes call the police when they see the Mango King cooking dinner outside his shack, but the authorities generally tolerate his presence. Still, his future is never certain. “I’ve only been doing this for a year here, but there’s construction nearby and some surveyors told me they might kick me off this land,” said the Mango King. “But that wouldn’t be for at least half a year, and by then I’ll be harvesting.”

One word to describe what the Mango King is doing is “illegal.” Another word to describe it is “informal.” From afar, Hong Kong appears to be a rigorously planned assembly of lookalike high-rises, glossy shopping malls and orderly roadways criss-crossed by footbridges – Fritz Lang’s Metropolis come to life, a vertical city ruled by technocrats and industrialists. Look closer, however, and another city comes into focus: a city of makeshift market stalls and unauthorised neon signs, of citizen-built gathering spaces and illicit carts hawking curry fishballs.

This hidden unruliness comes with the territory. In 2009, a young French photographer named Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze moved to Hong Kong and became fascinated with the way nature asserts itself even in the harsh, denuded canyons of Hong Kong’s concrete jungle. He eventually published a book, Wild Concrete, which documents the way nature reclaims the city. A seed dropped into a drain can give birth to a banyan tree that clings tenaciously to the side of an old concrete tenement building.

The last time I met Jacquet-Lagrèze, he took out his phone and showed me a photo of a mysterious vine climbing up the side of a high-rise. “I had no idea what this strange-looking plant was,” he said. He swiped right to another photo. A fuchsia fruit had begun growing from one of the vine’s tentacles. “It’s a dragon fruit!” he exclaimed, marvelling at the image. Hong Kong is full of these surprising corners and unexpected wrinkles. It’s a city with a lot to say.

Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong is available in print from major Hong Kong booksellers, and in ebook format from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more. Find more information here. Copyright 2017 by Christopher DeWolf, published by Penguin Books Australia.

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