Hong Kong’s Most Beloved Public Space is Under Threat

There’s a place in Kennedy Town with one of the most beautiful views of the sunset in Hong Kong, but to get there, you must technically break the law. Every day, as the sun lowers over the horizon, countless people steam into the Western District Public Cargo Working Area past a Marine Department sign warning against unauthorised access. They pay it no heed. The benefits outweigh the risk: this industrial patch of waterfront has become one of Hong Kong’s most beloved public spaces.

In recent years, its popularity has extended beyond the immediate neighbourhood, drawing visitors from around Hong Kong and the world, earning it the nickname Instagram Pier because of the large number of people who come to take photos of grimy industrial equipment juxtaposed against a spectacular natural backdrop. Unlike other Instagram hotspots like the Graham Street mural or Choi Hung Estate, however, the social media crowd is just a small part of the picture, blending into a busy scene of joggers, cyclists, fishermen and groups of friends sitting by the water.

Instagram Pier

A wedding photoshoot at the pier, in the background Green island, Instagram Pier: Courtesy Pierfrancesco Celada (@insta_pier).

The unique setting and mix of activities earned the cargo area the distinction of being voted Hong Kong’s most outstanding public space in a 2013 contest run by Designing Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Public Space Initiative. But its future is under threat. In 2017, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced plans to convert most of the cargo area into a privately-managed community garden, prompting howls of outrage from nearby residents, who worried that their favourite gathering place would be carved up by fences, off-limits to anyone who was unable to secure a garden plot.

Now neighbourhood residents are worried about an even graver threat. Long-term plans call for a new tunnel that would connect Kennedy Town to the controversial East Lantau Metropolis development. Its entrance would sit right on top of the cargo area, burying most of it under several lanes of traffic.

“It has been on the agenda for some time,” says neighbourhood activist Sam Yip. He and other concerned Kennedy Town residents believe the garden plan is just the first step towards resuming the cargo area for the new tunnel. They are gearing up for a fight. “Space is so tight in Hong Kong,” he says. “You can’t just give up one that is so special.”

The area in question begins next to the Belcher Bay bus terminus and extends for 800 metres along the water before culminating in a pier the length of three football pitches. The pier is littered with shipping pallets and makeshift tin-roofed offices where barge owners conduct their business during the day, but when the sun goes down, it becomes a rare escape from the pressures of city life.

A fresh sea breeze coasts down the pier’s asphalt surface as waves buffet its concrete edges. There are no fences or railings; ferries and hydrofoils zip past close enough to see their passengers staring back at you. The view is glorious, sweeping from Green Island to the Stonecutters Bridge, then across to the ICC and IFC, which stand like sentinels on opposite sides of the harbour. The sun slips beneath the distant mountains of Lantau Island, fingers of rose and turquoise streaked across the sky, the water of the harbour dyed an ethereal shade of azure.

Instagram Pier

Photo courtesy @sidyang

There are few open spaces along the harbour where you can enjoy such a view, and even fewer with a sense of such proximity to the water. But that’s only part of the reason why people flock to the cargo area. “There’s free use of the space and that’s the beauty of it,” says Katty Law, co-convenor of the Central and Western Concern Group, a neighbourhood watchdog. “Many spaces in Hong Kong are over-planned, over-regulated and over-designed – over-everything,” she says. “At the pier, people actually appreciate the lack of planning. They enjoy the freedom of using the space.”

Compared to the regimented spaces of Hong Kong’s parks—a basketball court here, jogging path there, a sitting-out area over that way, all of them separated by fences and dense shrubbery—the pier feels riotously free. On a balmy spring night, two friends sit by the water, strumming guitars. A couple is making out on a milk crate. Another couple sits cross-legged on a checkered picnic blanket, inches from the edge of the pier, sharing a bottle of sparkling wine. Joggers loop around a group of skateboarders. Dog-walkers stop to chat while their canine companions sniff each other. A little girl passes by on a tiny bicycle with training wheels.

For a space so widely loved, the cargo working area hasn’t actually existed for very long. It dates back to only to the mid-1990s, when land was reclaimed for the entrance to the Western Harbour Crossing and a new wholesale vegetable market. It is one of several parts of Hong Kong’s waterfront that have been set aside for small barges to handle cargo – mom-and-pop operations that are too small to make use of the enormous container yards in Kwai Chung.

The cargo area has been a popular gathering spot for nearby residents for many years, but it was only after the MTR was extended to Kennedy Town in 2015 that it began to draw many visitors from outside the neighbourhood. At the time, Italian photographer Pierfrancesco Celada was living in Kennedy Town when he noticed the new influx of Instagrammers who seemed to be recreating the same poses against the same backdrops, over and over again. “It was this modern thing, this repetition of images,” says Celada. He launched an Instagram account that documented the pier’s frenzy of selfie-shooters, which itself helped perpetuate the pier’s notoriety. International media came calling, with stories in TIME and National Geographic.

Instagram Pier

A young married couple running for the camera, in the background Victoria Harbour and Kowloon side – Courtesy Pierfrancesco Celada (@insta_pier).

But even if Celada approached the pier with scepticism, he was quickly won over by its charms. “I wanted to be critical about it, but I spent a long time there observing and people are just enjoying themselves with friends,” he says. “It’s unique because you have the containers and the cranes. Local people go there for exercise or to walk their dogs, or just to have a breath of fresh air in the sea breeze. It’s like an extension of their living room. You have access to Victoria Harbour and the sense of freedom is higher than anywhere else.”

Celada ended up taking nearly 40,000 photos of the pier, and he is now putting the finishing touches on a book that he hopes to release this year. After years of near-daily visits, Celada is finally winding down his project, but not his relationship with the pier. “I still go, because it’s a nice place.”

The question now is how much longer it can survive. After the government announced its plan to turn more than 70 percent of the cargo working area into a community garden, the backlash was severe enough that plans were scaled back. But with government intervention comes regulation. Current plans call for the space to be handed over to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which would build a 10-metre timber promenade lined by railings, with a cordoned-off dog park, community gardens and areas labelled as “multi-purpose.” It will presumably be subject to the same restrictions as Hong Kong’s other waterfront promenades, meaning no more cycling or skateboarding – and no more photogenic piles of shipping pallets to take a selfie with.

Instagram Pier

Backstage of a wedding photoshoot over a bamboo deposit – Courtesy Pierfrancesco Celada (@insta_pier)

Neighbourhood activists are pushing the government to take a hands-off approach to the space, allowing it to be managed by the people who use it. “Why not just leave it as it is and see how it works?” asks Law. But that would be a radical departure from Hong Kong’s top-down approach to governing public space. “It’s like we’re speaking on different channels. It seems so difficult to overcome the bureaucracy.”

Sam Yip worries that converting the pier into a more regulated and manicured public space would just be the first step towards its ultimate destruction. He notes that the new promenade will be officially considered a temporary space, leaving it open to resumption for a future tunnel entrance. The East Lantau Metropolis—a 2,200 hectare artificial landmass between Lantau and Hong Kong Island—has yet to be approved, and its announcement triggered a large street protest last October. But if it goes ahead, Hong Kong’s favourite unofficial public space could simply cease to exist.