Hong Kong is a city where private space is limited and resourcefulness is abundant. In a city of structural modularity, laundry can be perceived as a subtle element of human activity. As countless rows and columns of windows become patterned facades, the temporary nature of the drying laundry gives a sense of human life and fragility to the otherwise rigid and uniform environment.
Properties in Hong Kong are amongst the “highest in the world” (Pak 2013) and families are coping by living in smaller spaces. When living in tall apartment buildings with little or no balconies, the private and personal routine of hanging the washing becomes a revealing aspect of everyday life. This is not just for one particular window in one apartment block. Linda Poon notices that “when there isn’t enough private space, locals make creative use of tucked away spaces” (Poon 2016). However before extending into these other public spaces, locals make use of the exteriors of their buildings as a means of drying laundry. In most neighbourhoods of Hong Kong, evidence of shirts, pants, and undergarments can be seen dangling from clotheslines high above the street, on balconies and rooftops. The ‘creativity’ comes into what they hang their clothing on. Apart from the metal-framed clotheslines, bamboo, PVC poles and use of existing structures emphasise the city’s nature of resourcefulness and practicality.
“In Hong Kong, where some 17,000 people are packed into every square mile, space is too valuable to go unused” (Poon 2016).
One of the unique features of Hong Kong is the repurposing of public space for private use. The relaxed, hanging laundry contradicts towards the often ordered and capitalist lifestyle in Hong Kong, especially in real estate. “The endless construction and neighbourhood renewal projects create a constant experience of estrangement” (Ng 2009) but the clothing exposed to surrounding neighbours gives a sense of community and belonging. The way clothes are hung and the materials they are hung on reveal a lot about the owners and their lives. This is conveyed through how garments were organised, types of washed items and resourcefulness of space on the drying racks. I noticed this as I explored neighbourhoods in Hong Kong taking note of the kinds of laundry that were on display. I couldn’t help but personify and give character to the buildings while gaining some insight into the people who shared part of their lives underneath their window.
The sketch below compares and contrasts two found examples of drying laundry. It conveys two different people, perhaps in different socio-economic stages too.
A lot of information about people can be generated through looking closely at their hanging laundry. Rough ideas of gender, age, class and aspects of personality can be determined through analysing what is displayed.
German photographer Michael Wolf states that “The problem is that there is very little private space, so people tend to use public spaces on their own…it’s harder to get away with streets and open space, and back alleys are sort of unregulated areas, no man’s land.” (Poon 2016) He has noticed that back alleys have become storage places for household items. He notes that Hong Kong is the only place that you can leave something personal in a public space “in very elaborate construction — almost fragile in character”(Poon 2016), and have it remain untouched. This is a unique aspect of Hong Kong that is also seen through the laundry that is hung in public areas that are more accessible.
Hong Kong is fast paced, crowded and constantly in motion and hanging laundry suggests a pause in time. Due to the humidity, resourcefulness and most prominently, lack of space in Hong Kong, doing laundry this way becomes an integral part of everyday life. It is a clear sign that amongst the tall, dense, hostile buildings, the quiet, gentle nature of hanging clothing reveals human residency and existence within a rigid environment.
By Angela Tam
Visual Communications design student at the University of Technology, Sydney. Illustrator, amateur photographer and explorer.
DeWolf, C. 2008, Every Day is Laundry Day, Urban Photo, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2008/10/15/every-day-is-laundry-day/>.
DeWolf, C. 2011, Airing Your Laundry in Public, Urban Photo, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2011/09/27/airing-your-laundry-in-public/>.
Hong Kong Public Space Initiative 2015, Significance of Public Space, Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, viewed 4 February 2016, <http://www.hkpsi.org/eng/publicspace/significance/>.
Lo Ka Man, C. 2013, A Critical Study of the Public Space in Hong Kong, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.ln.edu.hk/cultural/programmes/MCS/Symp%2013/S1P2.pdf>.
Ng, J. 2009, Paradigm city: space, culture, and capitalism in Hong Kong, SUNY Press, pp. 66.
Pak, J. 2013, Hong Kong copes with tight living spaces, BBC News, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-21973486>.
Poon, L. 2016, The Hidden Ingenuity of Hong Kong’s Cramped Back Alleys, City Lab, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.citylab.com/housing/2016/02/the-hidden-ingenuity-in-hong-kongs-cramped-back-alleys/459390/>.