They can be stacked one on top of the other and then positioned carefully next to some folding tables, all covered up with a sheet of red-white-blue plastic to keep them sheltered for the night. Or they can be opened up with one quick movement, then folded once again and stored away into minuscule shops when not in use. The little plastic and wooden stools of Hong Kong are ubiquitous – and, for this reason often nearly invisible. But they are an undying fixture of this space-hungry place, so used to adapting to this scarcity with the temporary usage of public streets and pavements.
Most Hong Kong stools do not have a proper space where they can retire for the night, so they are simply folded or stacked and left in the street, neither legally nor fully illegally, but mostly tolerated by authorities. Some owners will take the precaution of putting an iron chain around them, so nobody can steal them, and to prevent a sudden collapse of the precarious structures.
Start looking for stools in the streets of Hong Kong and all of a sudden you’ll see them everywhere: in popular dai pai dong in Central or Sham Shui Po, or in informal temple settings, near clusters of little porcelain statuettes, allowing people to pray without feeling too uncomfortable. Fortune tellers and newspaper stands could hardly exist without their stools. In Wong Tai Sin, where licensed fortune tellers sit in small and cramped offices, rows of stools—some decorated with pretty flower cotton covers, others in less frilly wood—wait for clients welcomingly, just outside the shop. In Prince Edward the fortune tellers spread out a long line of plastic stools every evening, and then tidy everything up by stacking them away. Small restaurants can double their eating space with just one table and many little colourful stools all around it.
While a few stools are made with metal and wood, most of them are plastic. It brings us back to the importance of the plastic industry in Hong Kong and how much some simple designs have become part of the city’s landscape – like the red plastic market lamps, produced by Red A in San Po Kong, or, indeed, these stackable stools. Whatever the shape, the size or the colour of a Hong Kong stool, it is once again proof of this city’s adaptability and inventiveness, and its capacity to improvise to fit any possible situation.