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By Simon J. Lau
Hong Kong has long been my home away from home. As a child, my parents would send my brother and me there during the summers to spend time with our extended family. We spent our days enjoying dim sum in Causeway Bay, swimming at the public pools in Victoria Park, and catching sand crabs along Repulse Bay. The time we spent in Hong Kong then remains among my fondest childhood memories now. However, during the early periods of 19th century British occupation, Hong Kong bore more resemblance to a patchwork of fishing villages than it did to the metropolis it is now. Over the next 150 years, the British invested heavily into public infrastructure, government, and commerce. But, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that Hong Kong gradually transformed into the world class city that it is today.
My mother was born in Hong Kong and my father and his family emigrated to Hong Kong from China. My father’s family was part of the mass influx of Chinese refugees that left mainland China during the Chinese Civil War. Both my parents grew up in Hong Kong during the tumultuous period between 1950 to 1970. During the 1950s, Hong Kong was just recovering from World War II, specifically the ravages of Japanese occupation. This, combined with the growing refugee population, further strained Hong Kong’s recovering public services and infrastructure. As the refugee population exploded, the housing shortage was exacerbated by the devastating 1953 Shek Kip Mei fires that destroyed many shantytowns along the Kowloon Peninsula. Soon after, emergency plans were created to quickly develop and transform the urban housing structures to accommodate the growing population. These plans led to the creation of many of the industrial high rises that still define much of Hong Kong’s urban landscape today.
For example, the Choi Hung Estate was approved by the Hong Kong Housing Authority in 1958. All 10 complexes were completed by 1964 and it remains one of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing facilities. It is further distinguished by its colorful exterior paint, a salient feature of these complexes since its beginning. It should be noted that Hong Kong public housing is distinct from public housing found in America. Nearly a third of Hong Kong residents reside in some form of public housing. Further, unlike the stereotype that we find in America where public housing is synonymous with crime, Hong Kong public housing is by-and-large safe facilities. Said differently, Hong Kong public housing is nothing like Pruitt–Igoe.
Another example of these mid-century industrial high rises include Montane Mansion in Quarry Bay. These 2,200 closely knit units mostly face one another to create a central atrium. This is such a popular photography destination that shortly after I visited, the property management introduced a photography ban to reduce unwanted guests from visiting. I should consider myself lucky, as these may be some of the last legitimately shot photos taken before the ban was introduced. All things considered, although the 1950s was a turbulent period in Hong Kong’s history, it attracted the labor needed, and compelled the government to invest in the resources required, to grow Hong Kong’s economy for the following decades.
Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, underwent rapid industrialization between the 1960s to 1990s. These four economies, otherwise known in academic literature as the Four Asian Tigers, initially grew their economies through manufacturing. For Hong Kong, the 1960s and 1970s was a time where it distinguished itself in technology, watches, and textile manufacturing. In fact, Hong Kong remains one of the largest manufacturers of denim today. At the same time, Hong Kong began to build out and further assert itself as an international financial center. These programs attracted ever greater foreign investments. When compared to other major cities in the Far East, in particular Japan, Singapore, and Shanghai, it can be argued that Hong Kong remains the most important financial center in Asia. As an aside, the Bank of China Tower featured prominently here, was where my brother worked when he lived abroad in Hong Kong for two years. It’s a beautiful building, but according to him, the layout near the tip of the tower is poorly designed and cramped.
History aside, Hong Kong remains my favorite city outside of San Francisco. It is the city where I feel the most at-home. Still, each time I visit Hong Kong I feel there is so much more for me to see and do. For my most recent visit, I made every effort to photograph as much of the city’s gritty nightlife as I could. Among these is a photograph of three servers and cooks bringing orders out for customers at a local eatery. This was my favorite photo from my travels through Asia. It retains much of the old school Hong Kong charm that I recall from my time as a child, but also captures the intensity and modern spirit of the city that I enjoy so much now as an adult. It’s an image that nicely links Hong Kong’s past to its present.