It’s hard to find the Foo Tak Building even if you’re looking for it. That’s not because it is tucked away in a discreet corner of Hong Kong, like so many independent cultural spaces. It’s because it is hiding in plain sight. Rising 15 storeys above Hennessy Road, it is painted in a particularly unattractive shade of beige, with a pawn shop and a discount grocery store on its ground floor. There’s absolutely no indication that this is a vertical arts village like none other.
While H Queen’s has been touted as the world’s first art skyscraper, that honour likely belongs to the Foo Tak Building, whose art colony has been going strong since 2003. That’s when the woman who owned most of the building’s units heard pioneering video artist May Fung give a talk about how difficult it was for artists and non-profits to find space in Hong Kong. The owner approached Fung and offered to hand over the keys to Foo Tak so she could fill it up with struggling creatives.
And so, quietly and with determination, Foo Tak forged a path as Hong Kong’s longest-running independent art village. Where other ventures have been short-lived, like the legendary Oil Street Artist that lasted from 1998 to 1999, or mired in government bureaucracy, like the Cattle Depot Artists Village, Foo Tak has succeeded.
“Foo Tak is a place where people can equip themselves – they can meet people, built networks and communities, then spin it off and do something independent,” says Susi Law Wai-shan, the so-called “cultural engineer” at Arts and Cultural Outreach (ACO), which manages the building. About 20 of the building’s 30 units are occupied by artists, cultural organisations and community groups that enjoy steeply discounted rent, with the rest populated by regular businesses that pay market rates.
On a grey morning, as the trams rumble by 14 floors below, Law is sitting with May Fung and their colleague, artist Lin On Yeung, inside one of the two floors ACO uses as a bookstore and event space. The bookstore was once located in a small space on the first floor, but there have been big changes at Foo Tak in recent years. In 2015, Foo Tak’s owner decided to donate all of her units to ACO. Rather than just managing the creative tenants, ACO can now sustain itself through the building’s rents.
Around the same time, ACO adopted a new management approach. In the past, previous tenants were allowed to stay indefinitely, with some going on to international success, like sound artist Samson Young, mixed-media artist Nadim Abbas and his former studio mate João Vasco Paiva. Today, artists are limited to a one or two year term, after which they are gently encouraged to move elsewhere. With more and more artists struggling to make a living in Hong Kong, and rents soaring ever higher, Fung decided Foo Tak needed to more rigorously support emerging talents. “We have more of a system now, but I hope we’re not bureaucratic about it,” says Fung.
The new approach has freed up more space for international artist residencies and summer programmes for underprivileged children. The expanded bookstore and event space now hosts film screenings, the rooftop is used as a farm, and ACO has even begun publishing its own books. Upcoming events include a rooftop film screening by a Japanese director, and a sharing session with Taiwanese illustrator Page Tsou and local illustrators Flyingpig, Jess Lau and Kin-choi Lam.
“The Foo Tak spirit is sharism,” says Law.
Fung chuckles. “I don’t know if that’s a word in the dictionary.”
“Isn’t it? Did I just make it up?” asks Law, laughing. “Either way, we’re like a connecting point between different cultural fields. If they can meet here and cross over in some way that would be beautiful.”
“We are trying to get out of the white box and see how we can change society,” adds Yeung, who has been sitting quietly to the side. Like many members of the Foo Tak community, he has blended his artistic practice with social activism.
“I see an urge to connect these days,” says Law. “You see the crazy news and think, ‘What can we do?’ Even small things can have a big influence.”
Foo Tak’s alumni are certainly making an impact. After getting its start in the building, the House of Hong Kong Literature received a Jockey Club grant and has grown from two employees to 13. After a decade in Foo Tak, the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival finally left last year for its own space in Kwun Tong.
“If you have no space, you can only do things in a random manner,” says Fung. That’s why, despite its new policy as a kind of short-term incubator, Foo Tak still has some permanent tenants, including the independent news platform InMedia. Founded by activist Chu Hoi-dick — who swept into the Legislative Council last year with such strong support he is known as the King of Votes — InMedia has earned acclaim for its grassroots reporting. But its progressive bent has also drawn ire from Hong Kong’s establishment, and one of its reporters was beaten by unknown assailants while covering a demonstration last year.
“Hong Kong needs more independent voices,” says Fung. “If we asked them to leave they wouldn’t have anywhere to go.”
Luckily, they do have a space – along with many others. It may be easy to miss, but once you know the Foo Tak Building is there, its presence is unmistakable.
The Foo Tak Building is located at 365 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai. For upcoming events at ACO and more information, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that ACO now owns the entire Foo Tak Building. In fact, it owns 21 of the building’s 30 units. We apologise for the error.