The Lost Cityscape of Do-It-Yourself Hong Kong

What do you do when your living space wasn’t designed to be functional or comfortable – only to meet the bare minimum of what is required by the building code? You improvise. 

Over the course of its history as a city, improvised or informal structures have been an integral part of Hong Kong’s built environment. Can’t afford to rent a shop? Build a stall on the street. Don’t have a house? Get some wood and scrap metal and make one yourself on whatever spare piece of land you can find. 

This phenomenon is hardly unique to Hong Kong. It happens to some extent in every city on earth. When it occurs in public space, as when neighbourhood residents put their own household furniture in streets and parks to make up for the lack of usable benches or tables, it can be seen as an act of urban appropriation: an inhospitable environment made better by the people who use it. You can see it in things like illegal street markets, so-called “backyard trails” and pop-up community spaces like the Kai Fong Pai Dong. People borrow space and adapt it to their needs.  

“The biggest lesson we can learn from informal space is of participation and collaboration,” noted Christian Werthmann, a professor of landscape architecture at Leibniz University in Hannover, in a study on urban spaces in Latin America. “There’s a certain social cohesion in informal spaces that you have a hard time finding in newly constructed neighbourhoods by the government or the private sector.”

You can learn from this and create urban spaces that better suit the needs of their occupants, a process known as placemaking. But that has to do with the space in between buildings. What about the buildings themselves? 

That’s what piqued the interest of Spanish-born, Thailand-based architect Paco García Moro when he first moved to Macau to work as an architectural intern in 2008. That stay eventually led to a master’s thesis and then a doctoral dissertation that examined the unauthorised additions people in Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok and Hanoi have made to their built environment.

What García Moro found remarkable was that, despite the strikingly different socio-economic and historical conditions of these four cities, people had modified the external façades of their buildings in similar ways. Shopowners installed signs — often embellished with neon — that projected outwards into the street. Residents enclosed balconies or built shelters on their terraces to create more indoor living space. They installed canopies to shade their apartments from the sun and metal cages around the windows to hang laundry and keep potted plants. 

“The formal architecture was not enough to respond to the needs of users. That’s the first and most obvious answer to why this happened,” says García Moro. “The second relies on culture. That’s the most interesting part of my research. As humans we try to make our environments cosy and comfortable. We try to appropriate them and make our own.” In his doctoral thesis, he describes these interventions as a “subtle reveal of alternative ways of inhabiting the city.” The city’s inner aspirations turn outwards. 

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Hong Kong’s built environment is that it is rigidly controlled – but only on paper. In his research, García Moro traces the origins of this control to an inherent contradiction between Hong Kong’s colonial rule of law and the Chinese customary law that prevailed before the British arrived. This dichotomy became even more pronounced when the British leased the New Territories from China in 1898, enshrining certain Chinese customs and traditions in the way villages were governed. When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, British-ruled Hong Kong ironically became the only part of China where Qing-era law was still in effect.

This is a neat symbol for the way ordinary life in Hong Kong has always intersected official policy without necessarily following it. One example are the composite buildings, including Chungking Mansions and the so-called Monster Building, that emerged following a reform to the Buildings Ordinance in 1955. In the boom years following World War II, when millions of mainland Chinese migrants poured into Hong Kong, the government realised the existing building code didn’t allow for structures big enough to accommodate everyone. So they revised the rules to allow enormous mixed-use buildings, which soon proliferated throughout the city’s crowded urban areas.

In his paper “The Death and Life of Hong Kong’s Illegal Façades,” García Moro describes how composite buildings were integral to Hong Kong’s transformation into a modern industrial hub. “Their mixed-use programmes gave rise to myriads of small retail businesses, domestic industries and rental apartments, extending their internal circulation routes out into the surrounding streets of Hong Kong,” he writes. But their size and complexity had another effect: they shielded residents from the eyes of the government. This became particularly apparent during the 1967 riots, when a number of composite buildings in North Point became bastions for anti-colonial and pro-Communist groups. 

In the following years, lurid tales of fires, murders and drug dens gave the buildings a bad reputation of being places where “things collide and hide,” in García Moro’s words. That internal tumult was reflected on the buildings’ exteriors. As he writes in “Death and Life”: 

The large and generally utilitarian façades of these ‘composite buildings’ in Hong Kong were however also by now becoming profusely modified with external cages, storage cabinets, TV antennas, signboards and — following the widespread adoption of air-conditioning — condensers. Changes in their internal layouts required the reconfiguration of the building’s whole infrastructure, notably in relation to drainage pipework, adding yet another layer to the intricate network of fixes and add-ons. Even more audacious structures comprised fully cantilevered rooms, wet storage boxes, sunshades, clothes racks, pocket gardens and balustrades. 

Setbacks on upper storeys as required by Hong Kong’s daylight rules were particularly instrumental in enabling the erection of extra rooms without the hassle of needing expensive cantilevering structures: it also meant that the new rooms could remain hidden from visual inspection at street level. The result was a cacophony of anarchically positioned, precarious, poorly built extensions that hindered ventilation and blocked sunlight to the streets below. 

The same informal alterations could be seen on other types of buildings, too, including slender high-rises and walkup tong lau tenements. Hong Kong’s frenzied appearance mirrored the feverishness of its economic and cultural life in the decades between 1967 and 1997. Where some saw disorder, others saw a certain beauty. German photographer Michael Wolf keenly documented the improvised nature of Hong Kong’s built environment. Designer Douglas Young, founder of G.O.D., built a career on the particular aesthetic of Hong Kong’s vernacular, with its palimpsest of utilitarian additions that became more than the sum of its parts. The Kowloon Walled City‘s panoply of façade structures was the culmination of this logic of informal construction: the unregulated id of grassroots Hong Kong.  

By the 1980s, however, new changes to the building code made it more difficult for residents to alter the exteriors of their apartments. García Moro points to the now-ubiquitous “bay windows” as an example. These waist-height window boxes project out from the building’s façade, creating a useful shelf but making it hard to actually access the window. In 2012, a study found the depth of these bay windows had grown significantly over the years, from just over 30 centimetres in an early 1980s estate to nearly 70 centimetres in one completed in 2011. 

“This is defensive architecture,” says García Moro. “It’s like benches that block homeless people from laying down, just applied to the façade. It’s so people cannot make use of the outside area of the building.”

The crackdown on unauthorised building works, as they are officially known by the government, was long and gradual until recently. In the 1980s, there were so many informal alterations to buildings that the government’s building inspectors targeted only the most extraordinary cases. By 2001, there were an estimated 800,000 unauthorised building works and another 220,000 shop signs that did not meet building regulations. After a tong lau in Hung Hom collapsed during illegal renovations in 2010, the government began stepped-up inspection of older buildings.

Since then, increased enforcement and the constant redevelopment of old neighbourhoods has led to the swift erasure of most informal building additions in the urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon – including most of the city’s iconic signboards. To get a sense of what an ordinary Hong Kong street would have looked like in the 1980s or 90s, you need to hop over to Macau, where there has been less redevelopment and more official tolerance of unauthorised building works. “Legally, Macau is following the same path of Hong Kong in terms of regulations, but structures that have already been built are difficult to remove. You have illegal structures in Macau built 40 years ago that are still standing.”

In Hong Kong, the government’s focus has now shifted to the New Territories. Illegal modifications are rampant in villages and low-density suburban estates alike. But doing away with them has proved to be difficult. “These abuses are so widespread they are part of the culture,” noted journalist and New Territories resident Tim Hamlett in a column last year for the Hong Kong Free Press. “Architects will design in features which will facilitate surreptitious enlargements later. Builders do not ask if the job they are doing is approved by the government or anyone else.”

It’s a freewheeling situation reminiscent of Hong Kong’s urban areas in decades past. But Hamlett places the blame not on residents but on a building code he describes as overly restrictive. “The system is a mess,” he writes. In many villages, anything that deviates from official plans risks running afoul of the law, from landscaped terraces to rooftop canopies that provide shelter from the sun and rain. As with the informal modifications to Hong Kong’s high-density apartments, these are often made in the spirit of making a utilitarian space more functional and comfortable. 

And so the tug-of-war continues, just as it has for so many years in Hong Kong. For his part, García Moro cautions against cracking down too hard. “How much pressure do you put on people?” he asks. “If you put too much pressure on people they won’t react well.” 



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