There’s a scene in the 2002 police drama Infernal Affairs that has been seared into the minds of every fan of Hong Kong films. In the movie, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Tony Leung Chiu-wai play cops on rival sides of the criminal spectrum. Lau is a mole for a triad – a crooked cop who has risen through the ranks to become a high-profile detective. Leung is a policeman deep undercover in the same gang. After the triad and the police both realise they have a spy in their midst, Leung and Lau are tasked with hunting each other down.
When they finally confront one another, it’s on the rooftop of an office building, the city’s skyscrapers and mountains visible in all directions. They face off, guns drawn, and the camera pans out and swoops around them, a pair of mirrored figures alone yet exposed. It’s a particularly poignant setting. In a city as crowded as Hong Kong, the rooftop represents a peculiar space: part of the city yet removed from it. It’s a place away from jostling shoulders and nattering colleagues, a place of solitude and tranquility. It’s a release valve found in every single building. Walk up the stairs, push open the fire door and feel the pressures of urban life drift away with the dull roar of the metropolis.
Of course, all of this is an illusion. Nobody is ever truly alone on a rooftop, not when there are eyes in every direction. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city on earth: 7,044 buildings with more than 12 storeys. That means, with few exceptions, if you’re standing on a roof, someone is peering down at you. But the rooftop promises a cloak of invisibility and we are eager to accept the lie. As a result, you see the most extraordinary things on Hong Kong’s rooftops. Or more precisely, you see things that are banal and domestic, but extraordinary in the way they are liberated from the self-consciousness that everyone feels in public. Rooftops are windows into the city’s inner life.
I am sitting on my 35th floor balcony as I write this, enjoying the breeze of a sunny spring morning. Looking down, I see a woman hanging laundry on her sixth-storey terrace, one floor above the sparkling water of a swimming pool. Just a few metres away, tin-roofed shacks crowd the rooftop of a postwar tenement block. Nearby, a dog runs through a forest of potted plants, overseen by a skinny papaya tree perched improbably on the 15th floor of a grimy apartment block. A man is doing his morning exercises on another nearby roof. Later, in the evening, laughter and charcoal smoke will drift up as friends gather in an illegal rooftop barbecue restaurant.
Once, on a similarly sunny day, I took a photo of a man playing guitar in red boxer shots on a rooftop that had been painted blue. I met him a few weeks later by sheer coincidence: it turns out he had gone to school with one of my friends. He seemed both delighted and embarrassed when I showed him my photograph.
Rooftops occupy a special place in Hong Kong’s history. As the city grew denser and more crowded in the years after World War II, they became a natural outlet for things that couldn’t be accommodated inside overburdened buildings. Schools didn’t have enough space, so they held classes on the roof. Families built makeshift houses on top of apartment buildings, offering space for kids and chickens to run around, turning barren concrete into a facsimile of the country villages they had left behind. When developers started building enormous apartment complexes that spanned entire city blocks, squatters occupied thousands of square feet on rooftops, turning them into villages that floated high above the city street.
Those rooftop villages are now less common, after decades of redevelopment and government clearances. Building codes changed in the 1970s to favour skinnier, taller towers, and their smaller rooftops are often reserved for the occupants of top-floor apartments – private paradises high above the city streets. Some newer buildings don’t allow residents to access the rooftop at all. I have only ever glimpsed the sun-bleached expanse of my own building’s rooftop through the window of an emergency exit protected by an alarm.
But rooftops remain as vital as ever. There are rooftop bars, rooftop farms, rooftop apiaries, rooftops that host parties and film screenings. From my balcony, I can see Skypark, a new residential tower crowned by a vast two-storey clubhouse, which is meant to be a communal living room for people living in the building’s tiny apartments. Trees and shrubs poke out from a roof garden, which steps down towards the clubhouse to create a kind of terraced plaza. People sit outside on cushions, looking out at the city, enjoying a private moment in plain sight.
This text was originally published as the foreword to Concrete Stories by Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, now available from Asia One Books and Librairy Parenthèses. Photos from the book will be on show at Blue Lotus Gallery until June 16, 2018. Click here for more information.
Above, “Roof Pet” – A young boy plays with a dog on the rooftop