Insights: Michael Leung

During our visit in Hong Kong last October, we had the opportunity to meet the designer and urban farmer Michael Leung. We discussed urban farming, community and design as a political statement.

Hi Michael, can you introduce yourself and explain what is your background?

My name is Michael Leung and I’m a designer, a beekeeper and a urban farmer. I get involved in many different creative disciplines and some people might call it multidisciplinary, but I am just happy being called a designer. I was born and raised in London where I studied product design. Afterwards, I moved to Holland to do an internship and then I moved back to London to be an industrial designer designing mobile phones for three years, which became quite repetitive — the company was very uncompetitive to say the least. Then, I decided to leave and move to Hong Kong to do a Master’s degree. I have been living in Hong Kong for six years now.

Why have you decided to come and work in Hong Kong?

My family is originally from Hong Kong, I can speak Cantonese and I used to come to Hong Kong once every two years for holiday, and I have family here. I have always been interested in Hong Kong, its street culture and craftsmanship. When I was choosing my Master’s degree, I was thinking about going to ECAL in Lausanne or to PolyU in Hong Kong. I chose the latter because I felt that I could learn a lot here and I was always inspired from previous trips to Hong Kong.

Designer Michael Leung sitting at Shangai Street Studio. Photo by Martin Cheung.

What actually inspires you in the city?

What particularly interested me when I got here were the craftsmen. When I was walking on the streets, especially around the neighbourhoods of Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, I could see the many kinds of craftsmen, steelworkers, plastic signs makers and carpenters, working literally on the streets. You could see them producing and even collaborate with them. This was something you would rarely see in London, because manufacturers have moved outside of the city, or even to other countries such as China or Eastern Europe. I felt that my work was a way of re-engaging with these craftsmen. I am obviously more English than Chinese, but I am sensitive to local details, like cultural etiquette, superstitions and Chinese traditions.

Why have you decided to work out of the design industry?

It has mostly to do with working as an industrial designer for a multinational company for three years. It was a good education to work in such an environment. However, it became frustrating to work in a such a commercial system that was simply led by marketing and what competitors were doing.

The first iPhone came out while I was working in the mobile phone industry. It really kind of woke me up, particularly as a designer. Do I really want to be working on substandard products that could never catch up? Do I really want to be designing just hardware, or have the marketing department challenge every design decision that we make, and even overriding them at times? It naturally got frustrating and I began to reflect on why I was designing. It seemed irrelevant, irresponsible and unsustainable. This is why I decided to get involved with more everyday issues, such as food or societal issues.

Why did you decide to work specifically on the topic of food?

It is related to my interest in research. As a designer it is important to understand the people you are working with. For me it involves getting hands-on and immersed in order to understand every single detail.

For example, in beekeeping, instead of just doing packaging for honey or designing beeswax candles, in my opinion, it is much more interesting to become the beekeeper and understand how bees live and interact. Then I would design the end products and experiences. Stories coming from the process are far more meaningful than only an absolute product.

Kids painting beehives. Photo from HK Honey.

In addition, the relationship that I have with the bees is something very inspiring, and becomes part of the design output. For example, recently I wrote a short story about a guy who has a farm in mainland China and is a beekeeper as well. The activity of beekeeping doesn’t only go to the design of products, but goes also to other outputs like storytelling or writing fiction. I find this is another way to communicate food issues such as food safety and food origin. In my stories there are a lot of details that are related to our relationship with food.

The making of beeswax candles. Photo from HK Honey.

Because of such stories some people might be interested in beekeeping, buying local honey or supporting local beekeepers. It is the same for farming. We have been designing some seed packaging recently. It is important to know exactly what type of seeds are in those packages: are they organic, hybrid or GMO seeds? Where do they come from? Local farms have started to buy open pollinated organic seeds from America. We grew them here and saved the seeds every year. We are now in our fourth generation of organic seeds. Every year the seeds will adapt to their environment and become stronger and stronger. It is the same with our Italian Basil. The seeds either start from reliable and responsible sources, or we get them from local farmers who have been seed saving as well. Recently we made some seed packaging that references Chinese New Year couplets and gave the seed packets to rural farmers in China to promote organic farming, seed saving and community agriculture. If we understand social and environmental issues on a global level, we will see design that is more well-informed.

HK Honey. Film by Exit Films.

How does food shape the social context in Hong Kong?

The more people I meet in Hong Kong, the more I discover that many of them have farming roots. What is unfortunate is that parents don’t want their children to pursue farming. It is considered a peasant’s life, something that is not lucrative and a profession that cannot buy a car or an apartment.

Photo by the Bishan Commune.

However, more and more young people are now getting interested in issues such as food safety and locality and they want to do farming. In Hong Kong’s current social context, it is meaningful to consider how you can work with food, in a contemporary and urban way. This is where community building and storytelling are really important. I am part of four different farming groups. Each one is completely different: one is more art or design based, another more related to community, and the other two are more radical in there approaches. Each one has its benefits and their own ways to connect with different communities. Working in different communities can highlight people’s skills and empower them by applying those skills in a farming context and beyond. Some people are really good with technology, so maybe they can do a farming app that supports Hong Kong farmers. Some are very good photographers so they might be interested in creating a zine or photo series about farming. Each farm group gathers a different demographic, from office workers to Buddhists, from students to teachers, and from the middle-class to the radical left. Every community or encounter is unpredictable and very exciting.

“Local food” develops rapidly in western countries because people want to be more involved in their food production. Do you think in Hong Kong the same is happening?

Most of the food you see on the street market is not local, it comes from mainland China, and is probably covered with pesticides. This awareness is widespread: people know where the food comes from. We are trying to break this by creating an informal autonomous food system. For example, we engaged some of the neighbours to come up to our Very MK rooftop. They first volunteered and helped out to build the rooftop farm. Then they got more involved and gained access to healthy and locally grown food.

Very MK Rooftop Farm. Photo by Very MK.

Unfortunately at the moment, because of the strength of capitalism, survival and the unsupportive attitude of the government toward urban farming, people are forced to choose imported and affordable food. There are organic foods, but you have to go to selected places to buy them and they are usually more expensive. For working class people who want to eat more healthily, it means spending more money on food. When we work with several groups, they were always very happy when they were eating something local. But, how financially accessible is organic food on a daily basis? We are conscious about this and try to bring food locality to the street level in an affordable way. Most of the time the food is for free or on a “pay-what-you-can” model which contrasts to the capitalist economic system. Ironically, it is because of capitalism that people can see that alternatives are possible: something not based on money, but on relationships and mutual aid.

HK Farm: Community. Film by STYLO VISION.

You mentioned that you wanted to bring back “nature” in Hong Kong. How do you define it?

When I think of nature, I think of greenery, trees, a blue sky, rivers, birds and biodiversity. Obviously in Hong Kong that exists in the New Territories or the countryside. Because of a weak government environmental policy and poor urban planning, in Hong Kong there are not that many green spaces in the city. If you compare with New York, London or Amsterdam, there is at least a central park in the city. In Hong Kong we don’t have that. It is surprising, but understandable under the current political system and Hong Kong’s relentless land commodification.

Rooftop tree. Photo by Michael Leung.

I think it’s all about bringing things that are green and living into this concrete landscape. We have a lot of high-rise buildings, reflective glass, bridges and pavements. How can we bring in more and install pockets of nature, plants, soil and introduce biodiversity? There are so many rooftops and wasted spaces. We feel that they can be activated for sustainable interventions.

Gardening or farming is very therapeutic and good for your well-being. It is overall beneficial for your health so how can we inspire people to activate those places of potential? Obviously, some people may not want to grow food, don’t have the time or have limitations such as no elevators in their building. We understand that, but I am sure that everyone would like to eat healthy food. Maybe through our projects someone decides to support a local farmer but doesn’t grow food. Or maybe they decide to grow food and support a local farmer. Through different case studies and workshops, we offer different entry points so that people can engage with agriculture and nature in some way.

Hong Kong is made of spaces with very low density and others with very high density. Do you think that food could be used to connect those different spaces?

It’s quite tricky to define density. Does high density mean a six-floor building or does it mean a twenty-floor building? There are terrible living situations in Hong Kong where many landlords turn one regular-sized apartment into around four smaller apartments. Some small apartments even rent out bunk bed spaces. Something that might not look like high density, could actually be housing a considerable number of people.

We try to connect to those spaces and we think it is important to work in neighbourhoods which are populated with those shoebox-sized apartments. For example, we have been speaking with with a rooftop farm in Sham Shui Po which is known for its working class demographic. However, right now we feel it is important to work within our own neighbourhood where we have been practising permaculture design principles. It just makes sense to do it in our neighbourhood first, and then hopefully it will spread to others.

Yau Ma Tei map. By Welcome Workshop, Ming Lin and Michael Leung.

I think having the street market stall is going to unlock a lot of possibilities and help us connect with the neighbourhood as well. The food that will be presented in this market stall will be produced by three urban farms nearby. That place will be like a platform for people to learn about these farming spaces as they may not necessarily know about them since those farms are on rooftops and difficult to access.

How do you sustain yourself from those activities?

I teach part-time at the Baptist University and I produce my own objects that involve other ideas. I have chosen quite a flexible lifestyle. I have been recently researching this idea of “bullshit jobs”, a term David Graeber wrote about. In Hong Kong, there are a lot of people working full-time or over-time: the work-life balance is completely… imbalanced. I hope that throughout our projects we can show an alternative way of living and encourage people to reflect on what kind of work-life balance they would like. If you had spare time, what would you like to do? Are there any ideas or ambitions that people have and want to pursue? Would people stop working for corporations and start doing something they actually enjoy? Could they be self-sustainable with work or projects that they love doing and generate enough money for rent or travelling the world?

For example with the street market stall, I am personally interested to see if I could work less and still be commercially sustainable. If that works as a model, then, maybe other people can use the market stall for their own experiments, and see if they could work at a level that they are happy and comfortable with in order to survive. It would be an opportunity for them to get away from those bullshit jobs and to choose the lifestyle that they want.

街坊排檔 Kai Fong Pai Dong, the neighbourhood street market stall. Illustration by Flyingpig.

Similarly to the work of Dunne & Raby, your work acts as a critique of our society. How are those approaches received in the Hong Kong context?

I am quite familiar with Dunne & Raby’s work and I really like what they are doing with their critical design approach. It is really important to have these kind of designers. It also relates to design education as well. In Hong Kong, the leading design universities are not supportive of this kind of critical design thinking approach. They aim at creating design graduates ready to be plugged into industry and corporations, fuelling unnecessary consumerism. This is a fact because I have been working at a design university for five years and have observed this from within. It is unfortunate that even the education system has become corporatised with questionable gentrification projects and exhibitions. More examples of critical and social design projects, applied or speculative, could act as a wake up call for institutions, as well as for current and future design students. It will be difficult because the older generation and faculty believe in the current system. The key question is how can we provide alternative systems? It might be up to the students to choose!

What are your next steps?

The next project is about activating the street market stall to be a platform for urban agriculture as well as be a proposition of an alternative or autonomous life. I am also working on a book of fictional stories. A lot of those stories talk about social and political issues in Hong Kong and China. That would be another outlet. I also want to open a cafe, but for the moment the market stall project will come first. The cafe would, of course, deal with alternative practices, self-sustainability, autonomy and all the other issues we’ve been speaking about. All of which are definitely street level community-based projects. Let’s see…

Discover more of Michael’s projects on his website