In the face of high rent, low-income families, singletons, elderly persons and unemployed persons sometimes spend years living in urban slums waiting for public housing, due to low supply and inapt allocation and eligibility policy.
In the face of high rent, low-income families, singletons, elderly persons and unemployed persons sometimes spend years living in urban slums waiting for public housing, due to low supply and inapt allocation and eligibility policy.

SINCE 1997, HONG Kong has been a space of constant debate as it has transitioned from a colonial outpost of Britain to a Special Administrative Region of China, still operating as a capitalist free port until 2047 as stipulated by the Basic Law. From social concerns regarding the monumental gap between rich and poor and the growing tensions between the local population and the Mainland Chinese influence over the city, recent concerns have centered around perceptions of public space, with Hong Kong’s property market becoming a particularly contentious issue— one that raises questions surrounding the notion of space in Hong Kong and the public’s right to it.

In 2012, when property prices were reported to have gone up by more than 80 percent since early 2009, current Chief Executive CY Leung announced a property tax to curb speculation. Private developers called the move a short-sighted solution, while supporters praised the law as one that acted for the Hong Kong public, to whom the government has a responsibility to provide affordable public housing. This positioned the Hong Kong government at the heart of a wider social debate: namely, whether it had the public’s best interests at heart. It also highlighted the question of market power in a city where space is the hottest commodity and the working classes are the first to suffer for it. (Recent images published by Hong Kong-based Society for Community Organization depict the city’s underprivileged families living in cubicle-like conditions so as to raise awareness of the situation.)

The issue of space is also affecting Hong Kong’s artistic and cultural community, too— developers are turning their sights onto car parks, retail shops, and former factory and warehouse spaces. For years, such places have provided creative practitioners cheap rents and space in industrial buildings, like those forming the Fo Tan complex in the New Territories. Artists first moved here early in the millennium, the area having suffered from a general exodus of local manufacturing to China. Since the annual open-studio event The Fotanian was officially established in 2003, its artistic community has blossomed. Yet during a visit to the 2013 Fotanian, Wong Tin-Yan, one of Fo Tan’s earliest residents, noted that in spite of the event’s growing commercial and public success, it is generating interest from private developers and investors. The effects, as he has observed, are complicated. On the one hand, Fo Tan’s popularity has increased the diversity of the area, with foreign artists and galleries having moved in, as well as design studios. But rents have increased, too, alongside property values within the factory complex.

Curious as to how property developments might affect the artist communities living in industrial areas like Fo Tan, I visit Ngau Tau Kok, which falls into the remit of the Energizing East Kowloon project, to visit Graphic Airlines, a prolific creative duo who have had a studio here for years. When asked what they think about the East Kowloon project plan, which is designed to invigorate industrial spaces as commercial properties and office spaces in Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay, they say they have never heard of it, musing how this will definitely affect the artists living here. Already, friends who had a studio nearby recently had to move because of rent increases. Nevertheless, Winnie Ho, Assistant Director at the Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), says the project is being implemented with the local community in mind, including its artists. With a goal “to support the long-term economic development of Hong Kong,” the project takes “a bottom-up approach,” emphasizing the importance of representing and listening to the needs and concerns of all “stakeholders” concerned.

To support this, Ho provides examples of the EKEO mission statement, which is to study and promote “industrial heritage in urban design, public arts and enhancing interests in legacy on the area.” Public forums held to aid the direction of the project’s implementation, for example, have led to the decision to transform the local Tsun Yip Street Playground into an industrial heritage park, where concerts and events are currently being organized (such as the “Playful Thursday @ Veggie | Arts Jamboree”) so as to engage local residents in the project’s plans. It all sounds promising enough— until I leave the project office and see ubiquitous luxury developments already under construction around the area, adopting the same mantra as EKEO, of “connectivity.”

That aside, the description of East Kowloon’s inhabitants as “stakeholders” distinctively recalls the idea of “the commons,” a term used to define natural resources managed and distributed in common. The idea is historically pinned to land distribution in the Middle Ages, when villagers held collective rights to common lands as stipulated by agreements with local landowners and the rule of law. It has theoretical connections to Thomas Hobbes’s notion of the social contract, the Leviathan— the idea that man, when living in a society, can only exist in peace if managed by a sovereign power, since he was conceived to be more concerned only with his own private interests. It is a perception of humanity that ecologist Garrett Hardin termed in 1968 as “the tragedy of the commons”— the popular “presumption,” as described by Elinor Ostrom, “that an external Leviathan is necessary to avoid tragedies of the commons [which lead] to [the] recommendation that central governments control most natural resource systems” (1).

The notion that man needs to be protected from self-interest is something Ostrom sought to overcome in her 1990 Nobel Prize-winning publication On Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Ostrom used the inshore fishery at Alanya, Turkey, as an example of a common pool resource organized as a managed territory: fishing sites are allotted to local fishermen using guidelines for fair and equal distribution designed by the fishermen themselves. It is a map of sorts that defines the fishing grounds as a site of constant negotiation managed according to the needs of the stakeholders existing within it, who are free to operate on their own terms, albeit within the remit of state power.

Ostrom’s model reflects itself in the Energizing East Kowloon project, which seeks ways to create a situation that benefits all the parties involved. Officially part of the 12th National Five-Year Plan, yet also working in cooperation with the private sector and local communities, EKEO operates as an intermediary body. It enables negotiations to take place between the power of the state, market rule, and those governed— and affected— by both, on the city’s physical landscape. Ho notes: “This is one of the issues we have handled very carefully. Of course there is a market force and in Hong Kong we respect the property rights of the private sector… But this group of new offices should bring business to the other groups. We hope to make all sectors see that they can benefit each other, and that it is not one force coming and driving the other one out.” The perception of East Kowloon as a common space becomes most evident in the redevelopment of a city quarter that takes into account the needs and concerns of its diverse group of inhabitants. The challenge in this project is whether such statements come to actual fruition once the project has been completed in its entirety.

Yet in its attempts to produce channels of communication with East Kowloon’s public, EKEO has evident similarities with the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) development run by the WKCDA (West Kowloon Cultural District Authority). Spearheading this is the M+ Museum, which is organizing a mobile program of exhibitions, talks, and events as a way to engage with the public and its discourses—despite not yet having a permanent location, as it does not officially open until 2017. One recent event at the WKCD site included the Freespace Festival, which in its cultural-minded transformation of the designated area is a telling reflection of how space is at the heart of Hong Kong’s issues. The festival’s intention is to envision WKCD “as a site for cultural co-creation” that brings together “artists and the public for a collaborative exploration of space and freedom.”

In the end, by dealing with space on multiple levels and from its immediacy of value to the realm of culture, EKEO and the WKCDA are positioned within a complex network of private and state-sanctioned interests and protocols, navigating the city and its laws as a site of negotiation with implications on civil society. That their rhetoric— and actions— point towards an increasing awareness of the public’s demands, is positive. The same could be said of the government’s recent actions against property speculation, which might suggest a growing perception of Hong Kong as a space mediated by both shared and conflicting interests. In fact, the government’s move to manage the market’s force on the local property market recalls the perception of the marketplace as a commons in the eighteenth century. As Lewis Hyde observes: “To these eighteenth-century eyes, a stinted market, one constrained by moral concerns, is a social market, while a wholly free market operating without limits is savage.” Referring to Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, he continues: “A true commons is a stinted thing. What Hardin describes is not a commons at all but what is nowadays called an unmanaged common pool resource” (2).

This notion of the market as a common space applies to Hong Kong, a city Milton and Rose Friedman saw as an ideal example of a society operating within free market principles. It is a space through which the world passes, via air, land, and sea: a capitalist metropolis answering to the decree of the global market. And it hosts a vast network of stakeholders, from the villagers of Lantau to the cosmopolitan citizens of the contemporary art world. It is a global space directed in large part by private interests— a truly “liberal” market city, where the local people have always had to negotiate with power as both a colony and a Special Administrative Region that just so happens to be a global financial hub (or haven).

Thinking about how artists might work within this matrix, I ask Tim Li, artist, board member of Para/Site and architect at the Hong Kong Housing Authority, about public space from his perspective as both a government architect and artist. He responds:

In Hong Kong, public space means a street, or transitional space, like a road or a tunnel. But at the same time, it also means a place for possible trading; like the market or a shopping mall…The interesting thing about public space, is that it is about the public being able to use it—but the definition is used loosely. For example, a shopping center is private but the nature of it is that everyone can use it, so it is public. But of course, it is controlled.

On how public space is managed, Li also gives the example of a football ground; an apt illustration of the commons as a defined or designated territory negotiated by its users. “Here, there is a negotiation between the users of the ground in terms of how the space is used. For example, if you lose two games, another group can play,” Li begins. How the space is used relies on the adherence to certain rules by the users that have to be enforced by the “developer.” In this metaphor, the developer is essentially the managing body, force, or power that controls a given project, be it property-, market-, and/or politically-driven. But, as Li asks: “… what happens in the negotiation between the developer and the user? This is where the art world comes in. Artists in Hong Kong like to play a lot with this tension.”

One way artists are working with this tension is by embedding themselves in it. Many, like Li, also work in the public sector, such as in Hong Kong’s universities, or, in the case of Li, in government programs. Leung Chi Wo is an assistant professor at City University’s School of Creative Media, while Kingsley Ng teaches at Baptist, with both using their roles in a way that extends their practices. Ng took part in the Freespace Festival at West Kowloon in a collaborative exhibition of installations produced between Ng, Nadim Abbas, Leung Mei-ping, Kacey Wong and local art students, titled “Constellations.” Meanwhile, Leung recently received funding for a research project on Josh Hon, a figure from the Hong Kong art scene who in the 1980s formed an amateur football team of artists, politicians, and civil servants called “Solidarity.” Leung tells me how Hon had a crucial role during 1989, when the people tried to rebuild the statute of democracy: a figure through which Leung maps Hong Kong’s history of civil action. It is a lineage that contributed to the sustained local pressure that lent itself to the June 2010 decision to grant Hong Kong free elections for a Chief Executive in 2017.

Teaching in Hong Kong has an evolving tradition. It was from the Chinese University’s fine arts department that many contemporary artists working today emerged—including Leung Chi Wo—under the guidance of professors Lui Chun-Kwong and Kurt Chan, the latter currently establishing a course titled Art in Public Space. I meet Chan at New Town Plaza, a shopping mall in Sha Tin behind which there is a sculpture park commemorating the 2008 Olympic Games next to the local town hall, of which he was artistic director. Talking about producing “so-called public art projects,” Chan emphasizes the importance of effective management “through the assistance of both the commercial sector and the governmental sector.” Taking what he views as a “top-down” approach, he works with different authorities, artists, and other agents to produce works of art in and for public spaces that the government “provides.” From this, Chan observes: “The public and the commercial sector are the same thing,” in that all parties involved must work together to allow for such cultural productions to take place. That Chan is also exploring such ideas with students, one can only wonder what these discussions around the use of public space might lead to in the future.

Considering the ways in which Hong Kong is being negotiated and redesigned by its various agencies and agents— from cultural to political— perhaps there is no such thing as public space in this city. Rather, there is common space, which is driven by private, public, and commercial interests, and functions and malfunctions in accordance with the actions of those who inhabit it, as is the case with most societies. When it comes to the tensions between state and society, market and civil rule, not to mention real and speculative economies, everyone living here has a vested interest in how Hong Kong is managed and develops: concerns that are as global as they are local (and everything in between). What is emerging from this is a post-political, post- colonial, neo-liberal city negotiating its future not only from the top-down, but also, albeit gradually, from the ground up. A “rebel city,” as David Harvey might call it, or a twenty-first century commons in practice.


1. Ostrom, E. On Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 9

2. Hyde, L. Common as Air: Revolution, Art, Ownership, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, New York, 2010, 35