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‘Ghost staircase’, outdoor gym: Hong Kong architecture tour opens eyes to urban quirks


It drew some 20 people – including couples in their twenties, fifties and sixties – who had read about the event on City Unseen’s Facebook page.

City Unseen’s tour of Prince Edward drew attention to details of its urban architecture that participants may previously have been unaware of. Photo: Joshua Wolper

The participants, many wearing shorts and safari hats, gathered at 10am ready to explore the neighbourhood’s nooks and crannies on the approximately 90-minute tour.

“We use everything from old maps to photo archives and expert interviews to understand how certain aspects of Hong Kong came to be,” said Carine Lai, an urban design researcher with City Unseen.

“First-hand interviews with people [living] in the area give us the most direct account, and valuable insights too,” she added.

Lai has lived in Prince Edward all her life apart from during a stint studying abroad. It is because of her intimate connection with the neighbourhood that City Unseen chose to make it the subject of its first walking tour.

The first stop on the tour is under a footbridge on Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok, just south of Prince Edward, in front of a row of shops selling street food such as fish balls and siu mai.

The space is dotted with bollards planted seemingly haphazardly, facing in all directions and each of a slightly different height.

People sit on concrete bollards beneath a footbridge on Tung Choi Street. Intended as hostile architecture, they have been repurposed by residents. Photo: Vicky Kung

“City planning in reality is really messy, and how people actually end up using certain spaces may be very different from the original intention,” the City Unseen tour guide explains in Cantonese.

“This is what we call hostile architecture. These bollards were built to stop homeless people staying here, but they ended up becoming somewhere where a lot of people sit down and gather,” the guide says, gesturing at the half-dozen people sitting on them.

The tour continues north up Tung Choi Street to a six-storey pink building which, at first glance, looks unremarkable. But look closer and there is a rectangular hollow extending vertically from street level to the fourth floor.

The space seems odd in a city where seldom is a square inch of real estate wasted. And, given the location, it is unlikely the space was created for feng shui. (Some of the city’s luxury residential buildings have large holes in their centre, made to allow mythical dragons to pass through them, but this is gritty Prince Edward, not leafy Repulse Bay).
A pink building with a “ghost staircase” on Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok. Photo: Vicky Kung
“That space was not intentional and was created during the redevelopment process. In the past, the pink building and the white building next to it were two tong lau that once shared a staircase,” the guide explains.

Tong lau are a type of building common in southern China in which the ground floor is traditionally used as a shop space and the upper floors as living quarters.

When one of the tong lau where the pink building stands today was redeveloped in the 1960s, the staircase had to stay because the neighbouring tong lau was still using it.

The negative space shows something about the past that people often don’t know about

Carine Lai, researcher and tour leader with City Unseen

The developer did not just have to sacrifice space; it had to build a strange-looking structure that enclosed the old staircase. To make matters worse, another set of stairs had to be built in the new structure – one that residents could actually use.

The original staircase was eventually demolished in the 1970s when the neighbouring tong lau was redeveloped. The portion of the space the old staircase occupied that extended beyond the dividing line between the two tong lau to the side of the pink building was left hollow.

“The negative space shows something about the past that people often don’t know about,” Lai says, adding that there are other “phantom staircases” like this scattered across urban Hong Kong.

After making a couple of more stops, the tour ends at the foot of Bishop Hill, where there is a peculiar mix of sights and sounds.

On one side of the hill, elderly people are working out in an outdoor gym with equipment that has been ingeniously put together by hand using items such as bicycle chains.

A resident uses equipment cobbled together by residents at an outdoor gym beside Bishop Hill. Photo: Joshua Wolper
On the other side, there is a makeshift shrine with almost 100 religious effigies – some of Buddha and Taoist deities Kwun Yum and Wong Tai Sin.

A middle-aged woman stands in front of the shrine, speaking loudly on a speakerphone while managing to not miss a beat as she rhythmically hits a wooden fish with her free hand.

Our tour guide explains that both the outdoor gym and the shrine on Bishop Hill were spontaneously created by local residents.

There are around 324,000 people living in the vicinity of the hill and an unofficial community centre came into existence when the residents created the exercise space.

The shrine formed as people left unwanted religious statues, possibly belonging to deceased loved ones, there. Voluntary shrine keepers take care of them.

A makeshift shrine on Bishop Hill formed as people left unwanted religious statues there. Photo: Joshua Wolper
A resident visits the makeshift shrine on Bishop Hill, which features almost 100 religious effigies. Photo: Erika Na

Every day, between 500 and 600 people visit Bishop Hill to work out, pray or both.

At the end of the tour, the organisers say they hope participants leave inspired to pay more attention to the urban environment in their neighbourhoods, and to the history behind their design.

There is a saying that familiarity breeds contempt, and for many of the more than seven million people who live in Hong Kong – one of the world’s most densely populated cities – that might ring true.

In the course of daily life it can be easy to miss interesting developments that happen organically – especially so, perhaps, for non-Cantonese speakers who may be inclined to stick to familiar neighbourhoods.

City Unseen’s walking tours provide a valuable opportunity to break one’s routine and gain new perspectives that make for more interesting engagement with one’s surroundings.

See City Unseen’s Facebook and Instagram pages for information about future walking tours.



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