These days, Hong Kong can feel like a city that is a stranger to itself. First, the 2019 protests upended the city’s entire geography, turning ordinary spaces—from streets to university campuses to MTR platforms—into gut-wrenching battlegrounds. Then, before the wounds of that traumatic year had even begun to heal, Covid-19 hit with wave after wave of infections – and the restrictions meant to control them. At times, almost everything seemed to be closed, from restaurants to beaches to basketball courts. Many people turned to the country parks for escape, overwhelming hiking trails that were normally quiet. But others had a different idea. They simply took a walk.
Walking for pleasure is a bit of a strange concept for many Hongkongers. “We often go out for coffee or a meal with friends but we seldom ask them to go out for a walk, especially in the urban areas,” says Sampson Wong, an artist and academic. That began to change with Covid restrictions. “In such a hyper-capitalist city, we have all sorts of places to hang out and consume, so hanging out on the street for free isn’t even seen as an option. Hanging out and doing nothing on the street is the last option. But it’s something that people are getting used to.”
There have always been people for whom going out for a walk is a source of inspiration and pleasure. But in Hong Kong, they are usually perceived as eccentrics. Why would you wander aimlessly outdoors when you can go to the mall instead? But Covid has changed the equation, and sensing a shift in attitude, Wong decided to launch a YouTube channel dedicated to just walking around: When in doubt, take a walk.
The first video, posted last October, features Wong strolling around To Kwa Wan. He wanders over footbridges, through the public areas of public housing estates built in the 1960s, past local residents doing their morning exercises. He walks by ping pong tables that have been barricaded and basketball courts whose hoops have been removed to prevent people from using them. At one point, he buys a drink from a vending machine that has been bizarrely encased in a steel cage, either to prevent theft or discourage its use during Covid.
It’s the most dramatic moment in the video, but drama isn’t the point. For the most part, Wong’s presence is fleeting; he serves to anchor each scene, drawing attention to things like a mosaic tile wall, a collection of household furniture arranged in a passageway, or vines creeping up a cement retaining wall. It’s these small, easily overlooked details that make the video compelling. “Nothing much happens, but it’s quite poetic,” he says.
Since then, Wong has added 13 more videos, each photographed by his friend Eric Tsang, each featuring a different neighbourhood. Wong appeared in the first few videos, but afterwards he began reaching out to different people he knew were interested in Hong Kong, inviting them to wander around their own neighbourhoods.
One video opens with actor Wing Mo walking along Kai Yuen Street, whose hillside tong lau resemble a mid-century version of a Calabrian hill village. She wanders downhill through the back streets of North Point, past market stalls and through old shopping arcades, taking us alongside the State Theatre before reaching the harbourfront in a gorgeous twilight scene. Another video features a young writer named Willis Ho who walks through the housing estates of Cheung Shek, in Tsuen Wan, where she encounters a bright green parrot sitting on a railing.
Wong credits a few different sources of inspiration for the video series. “I was writing a column for Ming Pao about possible routes for walking and looking at the city,” he says. “In March last year, people started to talk about local tourism because it’s not possible to travel anywhere. I wrote something about taking this change to look at the city and taking this chance to explore the area we live in. There were a lot of discussions about neighbourhood walks in other cities when there is a lockdown. I started thinking about how to promote a kind of local tourism that is different from the mainstream promotions about staycations.”
At the same time, he wanted to do something to counter the sense of despair that has pervaded Hong Kong for the past two years. “There has started to be a wave of migration away from Hong Kong. People keep saying they are depressed and they want to look at something healing – something that reminds us of why Hong Kong is still a place to stay.”
He thought about a protest banner that flew during last year’s July 1st protest march, which read, “Ngo5 dei2 zan1 hai6 hou2 nan2 zung1 ji3 hoeng1 gong2” (我哋真係好撚鍾意香港) – which can be politely translated as “We really love Hong Kong,” with a swear word for emphasis. “Usually when people say they love Hong Kong, they don’t talk about the architecture or the built environment,” says Wong. “I wondered if there was a way to get people talking about whether they love Hong Kong’s urban environment.”
He also wanted to make something for all the people overseas who can’t visit Hong Kong at the moment – and the Hongkongers who have been forced into exile by the political situation at home. “They’re people who can no longer walk these streets,” he says.
Wong has been interested in Hong Kong—and cities generally—for a long time. After studying public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he branched out into geography, earning a PhD in the field from the University of Manchester. Along the way, he developed an artistic practice that uses the landscape of the city itself to examine critical questions. In 2014, as part of a project sponsored by the Arts Development Council (ADC), he turned Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre, into a giant clock that counted down the minutes to July 1, 2047, when Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” mode of governance is set to expire. Sensing controversy, the ADC quickly pulled the plug on the installation, sparking accusations of censorship.
With his interest in wandering the streets of Hong Kong, searching for inspiration, you could easily describe Wong as a flâneur. And in a way, he is trying to turn all Hongkongers into flâneurs. But he deliberately avoids using the term. That’s partly because some might see it as too obscure and academic, but also because of its roots in 19th century Paris, when it was used to describe men like Charles Beaudelaire, who wandered the city’s newly-built boulevards, dispassionately observing the urban upheaval that was taking place around them.
“The term surely applies to the context I work with,” says Wong. “Except that in the original idea, a flâneur is quite detached and individualistic, but I am interested in a more passionate engagement with the city and a possible public dialogue.” In other words, when Wong walks through Hong Kong, he isn’t simply taking stock of what he sees. He is constantly thinking of what it means and how it can be used to fuel positive change in Hong Kong. He’s a flâneur – but an engaged one.
That’s apparent in how Wong has made his videos. Walking videos are a new and highly popular genre on YouTube, where content creators film long promenades through cities like London and New York, offering a vivid, high-resolution experience that is particularly well suited to these days of pandemic travel restrictions. But Wong isn’t impressed by such videos. “I found that I cannot get interested in looking at them for too long,” he says. “I wanted to make something more aesthetically pleasing. And I hoped to engage one person every time as the walker so they could introduce us to his or her neighbourhood and what that person thinks about walking.”
In that sense, Wong’s videos are curated to convey a certain perspective on the city. It’s an acknowledgement that each experience of Hong Kong is subjective, and a statement in support of that plurality: each one of us has a different relationship to our neighbourhood and to our city. That’s what he wants us to talk about.
To that end, his efforts don’t stop with the YouTube channel. He has also launched a Facebook community, cheekily named the Strolling in Hong Kong “Concern” Group, where anyone can share photos and thoughts from their meanderings around town. It’s a first step in getting people to talk more about the city they pass through every day. And after two years of unsettling upheaval, it’s a way for Hongkongers to once again feel a part of the city that has become so familiar – and yet so alien.