Ceramic tiles are one of the most common materials used to cover buildings in Hong Kong. This visual essay explores the aesthetics, contexts and functions of the tiles, and how this is linked to a distinctive aesthetic style in Hong Kong. The distinct similarities between the modular patterns of the tiles and the modular features of some of the old residential buildings highlights the unintentional beauty and unity of structures through similarities in modularity, texture and colour.

Ceramic tiles gained a lot of their popularity in Hong Kong during the 1970s as a practical and cost effective way of protecting buildings that needed to be built on a low budget. Housing estates were generally designed to use land and resources economically - tiles were a popular medium used in this context due to their economy, durability and their aesthetic value. (Yiu & Lo 2006). To keep costs low, housing estates are often built as modular structures which consist of multiple identical modules, each forming a separate apartment. The identical features of each module i.e. the windows, balconies and air conditioners form repetitive patterns, creating an aesthetic which is similar to the repetitive patterns and textures created by the tiles. The likeness between the modular tiles and the buildings themselves, in terms of colour, texture and modularity, makes one think of the tiled surfaces as a metaphor for the tiled buildings and ‘tiled’ city. This feature is really prominent in areas like Chai Wan on the east of Hong Kong’s urban district, an area that has a lot of public housing estates and industrial buildings.

These images below show the likeness between the design and architectural features on some of the public housing in Chai Wan, and the colours and patterns on the tiling featured on the exterior of the buildings. The repetition of colour and form in the deign of the building create a squared pattern, mimicking that of its tiling. The tiles on the exteriors of buildings tend to be small modular squares in pastel colours, for example pink, brown, white and grey. These colours are used frequently as they are thought to have a timeless appeal (Peacock 2006). The versatility of colour and pattern, combined with the repetitive texture makes tiling an unintentionally aesthetic feature in urban Hong Kong.

Whilst the majority of tiling is on the exteriors of high-rise housing, tiled walls inside buildings are also a classic characteristic in Hong Kong living spaces. Tiling is a common covering for the interiors of bars, restaurants and public buildings, where different styles and patterns are used to suit particular needs and contexts.

Tiles come in a huge variety of colours and patterns that create a repetitive and textural beauty when they are applied ‘en masse’. Examples of this are the coloured tiles used in the train (MTR) stations, where different coloured tiles are used to create associations between place and colour. Tsim Sha Tsui station uses black tiles, at Central station red tiles are used, and Admiralty station can be recognised by its sky blue coloured tiles. This tiling is extended and used all the way from the platform to the entrance of the station so that the tiling becomes a defining characteristic of each station.

Many public bathrooms and bars also have large tiled areas. Because these areas need regular mopping and cleaning, larger tiles are often used as they are easier to clean due to the size of tile area and smaller grout area. The colours of these tiles are often white or pastel, creating the optical illusion of space- a much needed resource in the build up urban environment.

The tiles of the exterior of the building (left) and those in the bathroom (right) (Chai Wan)

Many traditional Hong Kong cafes (cha chaan teng) are tiled and have tended to keep the original style of tiling - mix matched retro-checkered patterns on walls and floors. These cafes were originally created as places where locals could eat cheap western and local foods. The maintenance of the original tiling is partially for monetary reasons but the tiling also serves as an aesthetic reminder of the history of these cafes.

Cha Chaan Teng, Mido Cafe ( Yau Ma Tei)

Tiles were formerly used in Hong Kong for utilitarian purposes and because they are cost effective and easily applied using unskilled laborers. Tiling is a low maintenance material where breakage costs are reduced due to the modular nature of the tiles, ideal for exteriors and floorings because of their resilience to impact and long life span. Their water resistant qualities mean that tiles are a self-cleaning exterior, washing mould away with the rain and having overall lower maintenance and labor costs. This quality is beneficial in the hot, humid summer climate where mould is a huge issue for the longevity of exteriors- causing wall coverings like paint to bubble and peel.

The popularity of tiling in Hong Kong reflects social attitudes that value the benefits of tiles - their practicality and economy of product. The architect, Josheph Sy of Joseph Sy & Associates said that ‘Hong Kong is a practical place. People simply do what works best. Tiles protect against wear and tear and are self-cleaning.’(Peacock 2006)

Due to the nature of urban renewal in Hong Kong, many of the original tiled public housing estates are at risk of demolition as they are now expensive to maintain and don’t appeal to the interest of housing commissioners wishing to capitalize on land resources and build taller properties. ‘Progress is equated with tearing down the old and bringing in the new, so within 10 years, most of the traditional, older parts of the cites will have vanished’ ( Wolfe 2006)

However, in recent time tiles have also been recognized as an important aesthetic feature in urban designs and have begun to be valued amongst artists and designers for their aesthetic and cultural value. The work ‘THE NEXT STATION IS’ (Milk Designs 2015) explores this through their replication of the MTR station tiles on different mediums to ‘remind people that beauty and nostalgia from old times are there to discover and worth to be treasured’. It is common to see the re-contextualization of vintage tiling patterns (such as ones you see in the Cha Chaan Teng) in high-end bars and restaurants that have undergone an urban renewal process which involves trying to create a vintage aesthetic (Pittar 2015).

The unintentional beauty that has emerged from the tiled surfaces and modular buildings contributes significantly to Hong Kong’s visual culture and urban identity. The patterns and textures created by the mosaic tiles are a unique characteristic of the Hong Kong urban environment, reflecting cultural values of practicality and economy of product and space. Over time, they have developed cultural and historical significance as they continue to weave themselves into the fabric of Hong Kong’s urban design.

by Rose McEwen




Colberg, J. August 31, 2006, ‘A Conversation with Michael Wolf’, Contentious Extended.

Lawson, M., Ogden, R. & Goodier, C. 25 Feb, 2014, ‘Introduction to Modular Construction’ in Design in Modular Construction CRC Press, 2014, , pp. 7–11.

Lee, C.W. 2015, , Milk Designs, The Next Station is’ [Homepage of MILK DESIGN], [Online]. Available: http://www.milkdesign.com.hk/mtr [2016, 06/02].

Mottershead, T. 2004, ‘Sustainable Development and Civil Society’ in Sustainable Development in Hong Kong: Autonomy in Language Learning Hong Kong University Press, , pp. 264–267.

Peacock, L. 2006, ‘Tiling in Style’, South China Morning Post.

Pittar, K. 2015, ‘Versatility of tiles makes them a hot trend in home décor’, South China Morning Post.

Yiu, C.T. & Lo, S.M. 2006, ‘Failure probability of external wall tiling systems’, vol. 24, no. Structural Survey, pp. 397–404.