Via North Point, Part II: Reconnecting With Nature for a More Humane City

This article is brought to you by Hong Kong Arts Centre.

Cesar Jung-Harada and Jasimran Dhailwal are trying to find some shade. It’s a sweltering late-summer day in a coastal village in Sai Kung and the pair are putting the finishing touches on Ocean Imagineer, a floating art installation that doubles as a scientific experiment. Loaded with oysters and other shellfish, and capped by solar panels, it aims to clean the water, harvest clean energy and educate Hongkongers about the value of their maritime resources. And when the vessel makes its way to North Point Public Pier this week, it has another goal, too. “It’s all about connecting with the identity of North Point,” says Jung-Harada, a designer and the founder of MakerBay, a design lab known as a makerspace. 

Ocean Imagineer is one of the 20 installations currently on show for Via North Point, the community-based art and design festival. It’s one of a handful of projects that aim to bring the densely-packed neighbourhood closer to its natural roots – and in the process making it a better place for the humans who live there, too.

The North Point public pier

Like many other neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, North Point is wedged between the sea on one side and mountain slopes on the other. In the past, the shore was lined by beaches that made it a popular swimming destination. But land reclamation gradually devoured the beaches, which were replaced by bamboo swimming sheds. Then those disappeared, too. Eventually, North Point became a dense warren of concrete apartment blocks with a waterfront lined by busy piers and industrial installations. In the 1980s the Island Eastern Corridor expressway was built on pylons over the water, cutting off even the view of the water.

Today, the public pier, which extends out beyond the expressway, is one of the few places in North Point where the public can actually approach the water. “It’s a pretty compact, intimate pier where many North Pointers gather daily,” says architect Charlotte Law. There are often people fishing, and many regulars bring their own furniture to chat and while away the hours. But like many public spaces in Hong Kong, it’s a bare-bones, utilitarian space, with concrete pavement, metal railings and two blue metal pavilions with uncomfortable benches. “We decided to bring back the beach,” says Law.

Law is part of a team at AaaM Architects that responded to Via North Point’s open call for installations. Their project, Hangout Island, transforms the pier into a breezy space with sandboxes, beach chairs and potted palm trees. The architects encased the two metal pavilions in a white skin whose shape mirrors the ridgeline of the Kowloon hills across the harbour. “A lot of people have told us it looks very Greek,” says Kevin Siu, another one of the architects who worked on the project. There’s something about the contrast of the white pavilions against the blue metal and azure sea that conjures up memories of sunny Mediterranean holidays. “We’re happy people can associate it with all kinds of contexts,” says Siu. “But the key is we want people to use the harbour, come here and use their imagination.”

Hangout Island pairs seamlessly with another project, North Pointer, by local firms O&O Studio and REhyphenation, that repurposed household furniture donated by North Point and installed it on the walkway leading up to the pier. The overall effect is joyful and eclectic – a thoughtful homage to the do-it-yourself spaces created by ordinary Hong Kong residents who populate their neighbourhood’s barren public spaces with their own tables, chairs and potted plants. Siu points out that those efforts are usually made by kaifong, which means neighbourhood people, but which has the added implication of often being working-class people of a certain age. Middle-class and younger people are often more inhibited in their use of public space, something Hangout Island hopes to address. 

“We want there to be mingling with the new generations so there can be intergenerational exchange,” says Siu. “The sandbox is important because you can comfortably lie down and think it’s a beach. And when you have that beach association, there are other things you might do in that context. It’s a vision for the future of how Hong Kong’s harbourfront can be. When you think of the harbour in an urban context, there are a lot of possibilities we have not explored.”

One of those possibilities is swimming. Local architecture firm Yucolab’s installation Reimagining Swimming in North Point is meant to remind people that North Point was once a place where you could do more than just gaze upon the harbour – you could actually jump into it. There were no public swimming pools in Hong Kong until the Victoria Park pool opened in 1957, so people flocked to bamboo sheds built on rafts that were anchored offshore. The sheds were usually arranged in a pair, which was the case off the coast of North Point. “They were about 20 metres from each other and people liked swimming back and forth, like in a swimming pool,” says Yucolab’s executive creative director, Kwan Ng. “But most of the time people were just sitting on the shed and chatting.”

Yucolab’s installation is inspired by traditional swimming sheds. “We were very lucky to find a bamboo master whose father had been building swimming sheds – he was very keen to participate in this project,” says Ng. He hopes the installation will inspire questions about Hong Kong’s relationship to the harbour. “We want there to be a nostalgic feeling but, I don’t only want visitors to think about the old times when they see it. I want them to think about the future,” he says. “Can there be swimming again in Victoria Harbour?”

For the moment, swimming at North Point is not advisable. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone swim there,” says Cesar Jung-Harada. “Last time we swam, it was very stinky, there was garbage, there were dead animals.” That’s where Ocean Imagineer comes in. Oysters, clams and mussels can filter out pollution, and while those that live on the floating installation aren’t numerous enough to have much of an impact, they serve as a reminder of the life needed to have a balanced ecosystem. Jung-Harada and Dhailwal collected them from Lau Fau Shan, an oyster farming village on Deep Bay. “Even though they’re not North Point oysters they [are doing] amazing,” says Dhailwal. Victoria Harbour is saltier than the brackish water of Deep Water Bay, but the oysters adapt quickly. “They still filter out a lot.”

Jung-Harada says there is a symbolic side to Ocean Imagineer that nods to North Point’s natural history as well as to its historic relationship with the water. “The whole installation looks like an oyster,” he says. “We hope people see it and think it’s beautiful, Instagrammable, they take pictures of it and share it. Then they can connect to the history of the whole region.” Oysters have been farmed in the Pearl River Delta for centuries.

But there’s also a practical side to it. Data from the installation will reveal whether oysters, clams or mussels are more effective at filtering the water in that particular location. Solar panels on the roof will capture the sun’s energy and use an electrolyser to convert it into hydrogen. “Hong Kong has a very poor record of recycling and renewable energy production,” says Jung-Harada. “It’s very subpar even though the economy is very developed. So we want to see if Hong Kong can produce some of its energy from the sun and if it can store some of it in hydrogen.”

A short walk inland from the public pier, another installation is making its own attempt to improve Hong Kong’s environmental record. But even more than that, A Cycle of Life in CY is an attempt to demonstrate how reconnecting with nature can make the city a more humane place. Designed by local architecture firm MLKK Studio, the installation transforms a sitting-out area at the end of Chun Yeung Street into a gathering space with greenery nourished by food waste from North Point residents. 

MLKK partner Mavis Yip says the concept was inspired by the contrast between the lively disorder of Chun Yeung Street, which hosts a thriving street market, and the sterility of the seating area at the end of the block. “When we talked to the kaifongs, we realised how much they wished for a comfortable, sheltered open space where they could hangout and chat with their peers,” she says. In response, the designers doubled the amount of seating by adding long rows of timber benches that wrap around the space. An undulating deck made from solid oak adds a warm, cosy atmosphere that stands in contrast to the hard surfaces around it. 

A green wall rises from the edge of the space. In order to nourish the hundreds of plants, MLKK partnered with 80 North Point families to collect their food waste, which is then transformed into compost with an on-site anaerobic digester. The families are given stamps in exchange for each container of food scraps, and at the end of the festival, they will be able to exchange them for gifts or cash coupons. Yip says any compost will be given to ECPAL, a local food waste NGO, as well as to O-PARK1, the government’s new biogas facility on Lantau Island. Meanwhile, the oak decking will be reused, and the plants on the green wall will be given to local residents.

It’s a reminder that, for all their innovations, the installations developed for Via North Point are not meant to last. They’ve already been embraced by people in the neighbourhood, who have been making good use of them over the past few weeks. Eventually, they will be dismantled when the festival has run its course. But each of their creators hopes their legacy will endure, demonstrating how public space can be improved in a way that brings neighbours closer together while also bridging the divide between Hong Kong’s concrete jungle and the nature that surrounds it.
Via North Point opened on August 30. Most installations will be on display until October 30, 2021. The festival features a total of 20 public art installations around North Point, along with a series of community programmes such as arts and crafts workshops and street performances, that will take place every weekend in September. All events are free of charge and open for online registration on a first-come-first-serve basis. To register, click here.

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