How Douglas Young’s Staycation Opened His Eyes to Hong Kong’s Villages

Many Hongkongers are avid travelers – when we have the chance, we like to holiday overseas. But the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down the world’s borders and put a stop to easy getaways. The alternative? Local staycations. 

The objective of a staycation is to replicate the effect of a real overseas trip – that is, to take our mind off things. We are seeking to detach from our daily grind and experience a different lifestyle so that our minds can relax and recuperate. To do it effectively in our own city is a challenge because there is always the temptation to fall back to our normal routines. To staycation effectively, we need to enter into a different mindset; we need to be on holiday mode and pretend we are in a foreign land even when we are in Hong Kong. In other words, we need to be tourists and treat our surroundings with a fresh pair of eyes.  

To do that, I put a bit of distance between myself and my normal stomping grounds. On a recent staycation in the New Territories, I became aware of things that I normally take for granted. It is surprising the number of local features that I have overlooked in the past. In particular, I have begun to pay more attention to Hong Kong’s village architecture. I have always been aware of their existence, but I have never really considered them to be worth considering as design inspiration. 

 

And yet I am a big fan of European vernacular architecture. In Italy, I have visited beautiful mountain villages which have stood for hundreds of years. In the UK, there are picturesque villages in the Cotswolds which have fairytale levels of quaintness. Hong Kong’s villages can often seem ugly and ramshackle by comparison. They’re hardly more interesting than the shanty towns that used to populate our hillsides before the advent of mass public housing. To be sure, villages in Hong Kong are unkempt because there has been a lack of respect for general tidiness. It’s also a sad fact that our countryside has been used as a dumping ground for scrap metal and shipping containers. But if we can look past the eyesores, we may be able to appreciate something special. For it is possible to see the emergence of a certain style in the village architecture of Hong Kong, one that deserves to be recognised and understood.

But first, let us start by defining what village architecture actually is. In every part of the world, villages have been built with utility in mind; there is always an emphasis on practicality over style. This make-do design is considered vernacular architecture – a kind of honest grassroots way of building things that do not pretend to be anything they are not. By contrast, the architecture of our cities is built to impress. Urban folks live in close proximity to each other and this creates a social condition that places importance on status. Villagers on the other hand are less anxious about social status, they are closer to the level of human subsistence than city dwellers, and their homes are built for shelter, sometimes in remote areas oblivious to outsiders. Aesthetics is of no major concern to the builder.

If straightforward provision of shelter is the common functionality of vernacular architecture around the world, then what drives the huge variations in appearance? Differences in style can be due to a number of factors. There is climate, for example, as well as topography and any other functional requirements such as agricultural and storage needs. But the biggest factor that determines appearance is which building materials are used. 

With a practical approach to the selection of materials, builders of vernacular buildings always choose materials based on cost and functionality. Cost is largely determined by availability. In the old days, availability means locally sourced materials. Stones were locally quarried; timber was harvested from nearby forests. But today, the world is proliferated by a highly developed network of logistic channels, and there is hardly a corner on earth that cannot be reached. The end result is a widely available assortment of the same industrially manufactured goods. 

Another factor is building technology, which is in constant development. Manufacturers of building materials are constantly striving for improvements in functional performance and production efficiency. This has become a driving factor in the evolution of vernacular architecture. 

In Hong Kong, pre-colonial villages houses were built of stone—and later with brick—and they had traditional pan-and-roll tiled roofs. Then the advent of concrete construction revolutionised their appearance. The pitched tiled roofs were replaced by flat roofs; windows became larger. Early examples of concrete village houses had a concrete structure covered with cement render; they were then painted or finished with sand and grit on the surface. Small mosaic tiles became popular in the 1970s, followed by larger tiles which have survived to this day. 

 

No doubt these are easier to maintain and cheaper to construct than previous alternatives. Because these tiles come in all colours, some of which are very bright, Hong Kong’s villagescape began to take on a new look. Coupled with the fact that there is generally no control over aesthetics, buildings of lurid colours and patterns started to pop up next to older dwellings that were more sombre in their appearance. In time, as the older buildings were renovated, their existing structures were tiled over. When extensions had to be built or when broken tiles had to be replaced, matching tiles from the original batch could not be found anymore, so gaps were supplemented in a piecemeal fashion with new colours and patterns. The overall effect is a village of incongruous mix of colours, shapes and patterns. 

Another factor that shaped Hong Kong’s village houses is their uniformity of size. This has come about because villages had been built as groupings of houses, as opposed to individual detached dwellings. As such, they have to match their neighbour’s size in order to form a row. As these groupings develop in size, extra rows of houses appear. Eventually, the village becomes a gridded compound with buildings huddled together. Historically, this proved an effective defence against invaders. If any of these individual dwellings were to be replaced, they had to fit within the preconceived modular grid. 

In more modern times, the Small House Policy—introduced by the colonial government in 1972—gives every male villager the right to build his own dwelling, with a maximum of three storeys and 2,100 square feet of floor space. This has created a uniform landscape of boxy houses with three flats of 700 square feet. 

But the landscape is not entirely homogeneous. From Sha Tau Kok near the Chinese border to the outlying islands, villagers have come up with truly original looking dwellings that startle the mind of a traditionally trained architect.  I believe it is time to recognise this local phenomenon as a distinctly Hong Kong style. It has spanned enough time for a pattern to have emerged and the time has come for Hong Kong as a community to claim the originality of this aesthetic. 

It wouldn’t be the first time something humble and unappreciated became a symbol of a place’s unique identity. Take England, for example. It is a country that many would consider to be confident in its own identity, but arguably, this confidence was only established in the Victorian era. Back then, it was de rigueur for English people to go on a so-called grand tour to acquaint themselves with the supposedly higher cultures of continental Europe, especially those of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But it took a poet like William Wordsworth to help the nation refocus and appreciate the vernacular of its local villages. That process started in the undeniably scenic Lake District, but in time, a sense of Englishness took hold and it has lasted to this day. For better or worse, the atmosphere and aesthetics of these villages have become a pillar of the English national identity.

Could Covid-19 be the catalyst for Hongkongers to better appreciate our own surroundings – and help build up a shared sense of Hong Kong identity? If we could, then we would be making something positive out of a crisis. 

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