At a colossal scale, Hong Kong seems to be a spaceless empire; a tessellation of structures on top of more structures. Overcrowded yet hyper-efficient. Microcosmically, patterns of human behaviour can be slowly revealed under its labile husk. Pay close attention and slight irregularities may be observed, unveiling secrets hidden between the cracks of its foundations. How can we find meaning within the spaces left behind?
“A space is not a static zone where functions and goods accumulate. Space expands and retracts beyond its boundaries and interacts with the city. Borrowing, exchanging, and sharing space, functions, and items impact the conception of space.” (Borio & Wüthrich 2015)
Perhaps Hong Kong is many things but one. Empty. In a city that demands to run faster than clockwork, it’s easy to overlook an object such as tiles — one being used for the structural integrity of the high-rise skyscrapers that define the landscape. Unlike transient, routine objects that inform our everyday lives, these intricate spatial networks hold the illusion of permanence, interwoven in the urban fabric of the city. In such density, ceramic tiles are chosen for its practicality (Sy 2007). With minimal effort to clean and durable against temperamental Hong Kong climates, tiles find a place beyond the standard bathroom wall and kitchen floor.
The city is built like its people, ingrained with the same survival mentality; to fix what is broken, to replace what is lost. What is so distinctive about Hong Kong is the process of metamorphosis that comes with recovery. The masses operate to adjust, changing the patterns of their lives in upward progressions. This phenomena of adaptable newness is characteristic of this city; seen in the way objects are maximised to their full potential, later to be reborn and reused — it has become quite the art form. What becomes interesting are the components that remain constant during these shifts.
The act of tiling is an arduous task. Intricate detailing is imparted in these fragile, lattice algorithms that provide the much-needed impression of spaciousness. Piece by piece placed with needle-to-thread precision to produce a neat, sterile composition. It becomes obvious if one is out of place by the slimmest of margins.
As tiles are chosen specifically for its long product life expectancy in Hong Kong, it is a commentary on human behaviour to witness such disintegration through time. Against infinity, tiles endure periods of weathering and abnormalities emerge. Gaps appear, cracks materialise, and concrete divisions ensue. Concentrated chaos against repetition — possibly a metaphor for the city itself. In this case, tiles are subjected to three fates: to be replaced, concealed, or forgotten.
What has been replaced isn’t the same as it was before. It’s new. And we can never go back from that. Is the mindset to find the same thing, or to find something better? Do we use something new or do we use something we already have?
It’s instinctual to replace what has been lost. But the choices behind replacing is what dictates Hong Kong’s distinctive attitude. The practice of replacing can be separated into two categories: redeeming and substituting. Redemption is relative to retrieving exactly what has been lost, whereas substitution is being able to utilise the given resources and electing the best successor for reinstallation — the latter being the more prominent observation in Hong Kong. With sustainability as a primary goal, Hong Kong often imagines a perpetual cycle that comes with deconstruction and renewal. In the process of replacing, the old becomes new again. Only then, the definition of newness is placed under question.
Not so often, tiles are conditioned to being masked by another material. Nonetheless, its existence remains visible through a bumpy reminder. Unless the entire strip of wall is removed, traces of its layers will always be evident. Not necessarily missing or broken underneath, concealed tiles reveal something else about history through its protrusions.
The absence of tiles attract more attention than the reverse. The mentality is that if the tiles can still hold the integrity of its entire structure, there’s no problem with it. Usually small-scale tiles are the ones that get dismissed. Abandoned recklessly or ignored intentionally, a new pattern is conceived. It’s the negative spaces in Hong Kong which contain the most life. These hollow fragments are an allegory of what makes the city so unique. Delve deeper and unlikely spaces are always waiting to be found and occupied.
The culture of Hong Kong is defined by its materials. Like its tiles, the city doesn’t always fit in a perfect, gridded structure. Instead, this facade of neatness is a comment on its legacy of endurance, maintenance, and object sympathy. Hong Kong seems to be undergoing a continuous process of fixing what has been lost. There is something essentially missing in the city, but it lies under the attention of society whether or not it wants to be repaired. Essentially, if tiles commemorate some sort of togetherness and protection, then the enigmatic nature of Hong Kong may be understood too.
Yet, is it possible to be both lost and found?
Words and images by Collette Duong, an Australian-Chinese student currently completing her final year in Design in Visual Communication from the University of Technology, Sydney. This research has been taken through two weeks of observation for a university global design studio in Hong Kong.
All photographs were taken with an iPhone 6 in January 2016. An extensive collection of my Hong Kong tile images are accessible through Flickr.
Borio, G. & Wüthrich, C. 2015, Hong Kong In-Between, MCCM Creations, Hong Kong.
Quote from Sy, J. — Peacock, L. 2007, Tiling in style, South China Morning Post, <http://www.scmp.com/article/590617/tiling-style>.