Via North Point, Part I: What Makes a Neighbourhood “Sticky”

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

This week, an unusual festival has taken to the streets of North Point with a question: how do we make this city a better place? It’s something relevant to everyone in Hong Kong, but especially those on the teeming northeastern shore of Hong Kong Island. More than 113,000 people are crammed into the narrow strip of land between Braemar Hill and Victoria Harbour, the view of which is obscured by the elevated Island Eastern Corridor. It’s lively, colourful and dynamic, but also crowded, noisy and polluted. “The more we discovered about this neighbourhood, the more we thought our plan could work from the ground up,” says Ian Leung, programme manager at the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC).

Leung is one of the masterminds behind Via North Point. It’s a multidisciplinary community art and design project that opened on August 30 with a series of exhibitions and events scattered around the lively blocks near North Point and Fortress Hill MTR stations. Six major design installations commissioned after an open call will be on show, along with eight urban artworks, two works floating on the harbour and three “art hacking” projects that are integrated into local businesses, with a fourth slated for a neighbourhood primary school. Like an iceberg, however, this is only the tip of what Via North Point represents. It’s a project that has already spanned two years, with more than two dozen workshops involving around 6,000 participants.

To understand how it all got started, you need to go back to the very beginnings of North Point. Sparsely settled until the late 19th century, it was given its name by British land surveyors, reflecting its geographic position compared to West Point (a former peninsula near the intersection of Western Street and Des Voeux Road West) and East Point (another former peninsula just west of present-day Victoria Park). One of the earliest colonial buildings erected in the area was the Metropole Hotel, which opened in 1898 on the waterfront, presaging North Point’s transformation into a holiday destination in years that followed. Thanks to the newly built tramway, city dwellers flocked to the beaches that lined the North Point shoreline, and later to the Ming Yuen amusement park, which opened in 1918. Along with a bamboo theatre, a Buddhist grotto, a karaoke hall, an open-air cinema, a zoo and a swimming shed where visitors could plunge into the harbour or enjoy the annual dragon boat races.

Everything changed after World War II and the Chinese Civil War. From the late 1940s to the end of the 1970s, millions of refugees poured into Hong Kong from mainland China. Many newcomers from Shanghai were drawn to North Point’s convenient location on the edge of the urban area, and they were later joined by migrants from Fujian. Together, these two waves of migration shaped the neighbourhood that exists today.

“It’s still very visible,” says Leung. “You can trace it back through these Shanghai tailor shops, slipper makers, eyeglass shops.” Two of North Point’s most recognisable landmarks, Wah Fung department store—Hong Kong’s largest when it opened in 1963—and the Sunbeam Theatre, which has showcased Chinese opera since 1972, were opened by Shanghainese migrants. The Fujianese community is most obvious around Chun Yeung Street, a cheerfully chaotic block of market stalls and grocery stores through which trams rumble slowly on their way to the North Point loop. “You can always hear the Fujian dialect there,” says Leung. “It’s not a museum – it’s alive.”

Like so many other parts of urban Hong Kong, though, North Point is feeling the pressures of change. In 2003, one of the city’s earliest public housing estates, the North Point Estate—designed by noted architect Eric Cumine and completed in 1957—was demolished, opening up a prime waterfront site for new development. A luxurious new complex of flats, shops and hotels now occupy the space, and other parts of North Point are now slated for redevelopment. More and more, glossy new towers are poking their heads above the cacophonous concrete blocks built during the neighbourhood’s postwar boom years.

That’s where Via North Point comes in. The project got started when the Urban Renewal Fund (URF) contacted the HKAC about doing something creative in North Point – although what that would be was up for discussion. The URF is an independent body that supports community groups, heritage conservation, and social impact initiatives in neighbourhoods affected by redevelopment.

“They asked if we could do fewer artworks per se and more physical improvement to the streetscape,” says Leung. He and his colleagues at the HKAC were excited by the challenge. “We have always wanted to explore how public art can be incorporated into the city,” he says. “There are a lot of public sculptures in Hong Kong that are very nice, but which don’t involve the people around them. They reflect a way of doing public art from the top down – it comes from a commissioner, a client, a curator, and then the artist lands the artwork in front of your doorstep. We are trying to explore alternatives.”

In the case of North Point, that alternative is a project that fuses together art, urban design and social inclusion. With help from the Happy Aging Lab, Urban Studies from CUHK and Hong Kong Architecture Centre—a non-profit organisation devoted to raising awareness about the built environment—Leung and his team got to work on a series of workshops designed to understand exactly what it is that gives North Point its character. “We did not have a grand plan,” he says. “It was more about going out to discover the neighbourhood and sharing what we found.”

In one case, students were paired with retired kaifong—local residents—to survey North Point residents about how they felt towards their surroundings. It was a kind of trust-building exercise, because having the youngsters and kaifong working together made the people they interviewed feel more comfortable about opening up – especially since some of them were more comfortable speaking in Fujianese than in Cantonese. It helped the students learn about North Point’s social and cultural history while also collecting valuable information about what could be done to make the neighbourhood’s crowded streets more comfortable for the people that use them.

As the workshops and studies progressed, more and more neighbours opened up. “I remember this one specific kaifong who read the zine we publish every quarter,” says Leung. “He approached us on Facebook and said he was so excited we were doing this. He said, ‘You really want to talk to me because I know what Chun Yeung Street was like before – I know the flavours, the smells. Another time, I visited a barbershop on the first floor of Chun Yeung Street. He told me that as a kid he would go downstairs [from his flat] and just by the smell he knew which food carts were operating.”

One of the greatest revelations from this period of research was just how much people love North Point. “It’s a neighbourhood that has a lot of stickiness,” says Leung. “The studies looked at how many branches of the same family are living in the same neighbourhood. In North Point it’s higher than others. Many families choose to stay in the same flat for decades and the turnover rate is lower than in other districts. And even if people leave, they come back.”

All of this knowledge is what informed everything that has been unveiled this week. Among these are the six projects created in response to the open call. #TackPoint, an installation on the North Point Public Pier by designers #TackTeam, uses everyday materials, such as upcycled plastic bottles, to create a public canopy, a pop-up market, modular seating units for communal activities, and an outdoor screening space. Sugar Factory is a street fitness hot spot by Jason Lee Lok-sun that pays homage to the story behind Tong Shui Street’s dessert-themed name. A Cycle of Life in CY by MLKK Studio uses food waste from Chun Yeung Street to fuel a community garden that will give the denuded landscape some greenery. The Symphony of North Point, by ARTA Architects, is a sound-amplifying installation that invites people to listen to the sound of water, birdsong, and ambient neighbourhood sounds. AaaM Architects’ Hangout Islands in North Point offers a pop-up urban beach on the public pier, giving residents a more comfortable place to enjoy the views. North Pointer by O&O Studio and REhyphenation reshaped household furniture donated by kaifong into new public seating, with each piece carrying its donor’s story.

And there’s more – a lot more. It’s something that Leung hopes will benefit North Point for years to come. “Even when we got the grant two years ago we knew we would not be here to stay,” he says. “We’re not in North Point to solve everyone’s problem. But we can build literacy and empower people to advocate. It’s about treasuring what you have, of having public space where you can put your differences aside and listen to each other. The end users are the people who are here – the people who will stay.”

Via North Point opened on August 30. It features 20 sets of 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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