Home in the Blocks
Walking by a newly built public housing estate one day, I saw families happily moving into their new flats. The smiles on their faces were a stark contrast to how I felt thirty years ago when my parents brought me to the housing estate that was soon to be our home. It was located on top of a remote and desolate hill, with few people or cars around. Even birds did not seem to want to visit. Looking at the bus stop that served only one bus line, I felt abandoned, exiled, and almost broke into tears. This painful first impression remains in my heart and I have always wanted to, one day, break free from this cage. The fact is, however, that my home is still in a block of that public housing estate.
Hong Kong's real estate prices are among the highest in the world. Public housing thus becomes the shelter for many who cannot afford to own property. According to the 2010 statistics of the Hong Kong Housing Society, thirty percent of the territory's population lives in public housing. When I realized I was still one of the 30%, I did not feel discouraged. Rather, public housing has come to represent typical living spaces in Hong Kong. Since we moved into this block, I have been trying to put feelings into this place, trying to treat her as 'home'. And I know 'home', besides its ethical definition, is certainly not just a 30 square-meter box, but where an entire community lives.
Thirty years have passed, during which the design of public housing in Hong Kong has undergone many transformations. One of the major changes is that the government has been trying to erase the image of public housing as 'cheap rental' or 'housing for the poor' by emulating the facilities and designs of private residential developments. To show the progress of our society, some old, dilapidated housing estates have been renovated, but this cannot cover up the dark reality: low-income, unemployment, disabilities, family problems, new immigrants, and the ageing population of the residents. An eerie melancholia permeates these blocks, in sharp contrast with their bright facades. At the same time, a wave of nostalgia marks society. A few years ago, when the demolishment of Lower Ngau Tau Kok, a public housing estate built in 1967, began, the site quickly became a destination for sightseeing as well as photography. The less-than-humane design of early public housing suddenly became the catalyst for community bonding. The harsh living conditions in the old estate were romanticized, becoming a platform for collective nostalgia, making everyone feel good about life in it.
The tragic 1953 fire in Shek Kip Mei prompted the development of public housing. Although public housing has existed for more than half a century, many still regard it as a kind of ‘temporary housing’ that few would consider it as permanent home. The lack of coordination and facilities for public housing tenants can be found in many government policies’ small details. For instance, using shortage of land as an excuse, the government has recently proposed to squeeze every inch of public space in existing housing estates to build more public housing. As another example, the Hong Kong Housing Authority endowed “The Link Real Estate Investment Trust" to operate and manage shopping malls in most public estates. Although these shopping malls were minimally managed in the past, they were at least serving the needs of the residents. The Link REIT, however, as a listed company, naturally works for the profit of its shareholders. It has introduced large chain stores into the shopping malls, increased the rent to market price, and consequently pushed out many small shops, wet market vendors and eateries. These small businesses used to provide services and products at lower-than-market prices, so the relatively low-income residential population of the housing estates could still enjoy reasonable quality of life. Now they have to shoulder the burden of expensive commodities. The shiny interior of the malls after renovation misled people into believing in the Link REIT’s advertising slogan -- "Enhancing people's lives". In fact, such monopolized business environment actually limit people's choices. After all, luxuriously decorated living space is far from the reflection of the true quality of life.
The rough appearance of old public housing blocks, made of plain grey cement, was a fitting metaphor of the low-key, practical mindset of their residents. When I woke up one morning and noticed that the opposite block had been painted in shades of pink as if it were a kindergarten or amusement park, these visual noises disturbed my otherwise quiet life. As Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness, the way we look at architecture is not any different from the way we look at a person: "To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of the creature or human we dimly recognise in its elevation - just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on a living form” I am now looking at an unstable bloke, his decrepit face covered up in heavy make-up, flashing an ignorant smile.
These experiences have shocked me but also motivated me to carry out this shooting project. I do not aim to do research into the function or design of public housing, nor do I want to engage theories of urban space or conduct visual research. I only hope to create a dialogue with these buildings through photography, a dialogue with space. My photographs cannot possibly capture everything I wanted to express, but they projection my psychological landscape as a resident. Wandering through the spaces of various public housing estates, I saw a wide variety of old and new architecture and felt no complacency. Observing the life and death of these blocks reminds me of an analogy of Ancient Rome that Freud makes in the introduction of Civilization and Its Discontents. In the "Eternal City", he notes, buildings from different historical periods co-exist and overlap in disharmony. The ruins of damaged or burnt architecture accumulate traces of culture, time, and people. They are the visual manifestations of the mental lives and habits of human beings, informing us that we will always be surrounded by our own past: "nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough."
BLOCKS is perhaps my Ancient Rome, through which I look back at my past and watch, rather helplessly, people being forced to invest feelings of "home" in these buildings. In addition to exploring the bizarre living conditions inside these artificially engineered residences of happiness, this series is also a memorabilia of the thirty years of my life in public housing.
The series is published as a monograph BLOCKS by inertia books. Please click here for further information.
By Dustin Shum —
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