Reuse at Yue Man Square
Miniature as Method for a Melancholic Thought Experiment
Emily Verla Bovino
The thousands of people who walked through the atrium of East Kowloon’s YM2 this summer passed the spectacle of Kwun Tong’s old town centre in demolition behind the glass walls of the new transit and shopping hub. The removal of Yue Man Square (裕民坊, 1959-1963) began the final phase of the Kwun Tong Town Centre Project (KTTCP), the largest redevelopment initiative of Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA).¹ The demolition was also the backdrop to ‘Love at Kwun Tong’ (官塘•傳情微縮藝術展), an exhibition held in the YM2 atrium from May to July which, supported by developer Sino Land, showed 38 miniatures of Hong Kong shops and street scenes made by members of the Joyful Miniature Association (JMA, 快樂微型藝術會). The URA also commissioned a 3D-printed model with hand-painted additions inspired by old Yue Man Square and seven hand-crafted recreations of local stores that had been run in nearby alleys, street-sides and corners .
Inside YM2, awed visitors crowded around the tiny Yue Man Square shop models with their thimble-size shoes and bowls of tau fu fa. Outside were slogans taped to the roll-down gates of shuttered stores: “Urban redevelopment destroys community, real estate hegemony wipes out old districts”.² Given this juxtaposition, the miniature exhibition looked like it had been organised to assuage the public over the gutting of Kwun Tong. The URA has a ‘5R Business Strategy’ – ‘Redevelopment, Rehabilitation, pReservation, Revitalization and Retrofitting’.³ Reuse is not one of them. Now, it is too late for Yue Man Square. But, prompted by YM2’s miniature exhibition, I would like to posit a thought experiment.
What new model of redevelopment for economic diversity and design engagement might the KTTCP have offered Hong Kong’s low-income residents with a scheme that had aimed at reusing Yue Man Square? In this context, reuse would not have meant replacing old uses for new ones in order to conserve architecture; instead, re-use would have called for ‘using again’ – retaining old uses in ways that re-engineered past designs for innovative social solutions through architecture. Using miniatures – models that explore the life of buildings after their construction rather than in their ideation – could have been a real design tool allowing for a practice-based form of civic engagement self-generated by city residents as a vector of new experiments.⁴
Cultivating design engagement and a sense of ownership
Just a short walk from YM2, the Tsun Yip Street Playground hosts an exhibition pavilion of adapted industrial containers designed by architect Wang Weijen called ‘The Spirit of Creation’. Launched in 2014, the pavilion was the result of a competition for Energising Kowloon East, a project of Hong Kong’s Development Bureau.⁵ The brief for the project asked for miniatures that visualised Kwun Tong’s industrial past, but Wang instead used the project to explore ideas of open space, the facilitation of interactions between white- and blue-collar workers and to promote reuse.⁶ Fostering awareness of Kwun Tong’s industrial history, the pavilion’s adapted containers, interlinked as a cluster of open shelters, encourage passers-by to make their own use of its broad benches amid information panels and industrial objects, allowing them to share a sensibility with design strategies once found at Yue Man Square.
The translation of the character 坊 (fang) in 裕民坊 (Yue Man Fang) as ‘square’ is misleading: Yue Man Square was primarily a road, approximately 400 metres-long. It accommodated bus stops and vendor carts and was flanked by a green sitting-out area and shops, but was never the open area that might have been expected in a ‘square’. The five shop-and-tenement buildings on Yue Man Square, designed by local and migrant Chinese architects, functioned like a gate, marking the end of an industrial area and the beginning of a residential zone. 坊has historically been used to refer to enclosed urban wards in ancient Chinese cities,⁷ and Kwun Tong had indeed become an urban ward and sub-regional centre for the surrounding villages that had had grown up as waves of migrants arrived from mainland China. The district had played an important role in the development of manufacturing, of construction techniques (for example, for slip-forming), of modes of vocational education, of architecture for healthcare and of mass housing.⁸ Indeed, it could be seen as Hong Kong’s ‘first completely planned new town’ due to its provision of ‘housing, roads, sewerage and other services’ before development.⁹
Along with façade customisations and neon signboards, a focal point in the Yue Man Square miniature at ‘Love at Kwun Tong’ is the ground level of Yue Wah Mansion (407-431 Kwun Tong Road), where a pillared open area with broad stairs designed by architect Chau Ho Ming (周浩明) encouraged foot traffic and commerce under the buildings between Yue Man Square and Kwun Tong Road .¹⁰ This variation on the Hong Kong tenement recalls George Howe, Louis Kahn and Oscar Storonov’s reconfiguration of the American row house with a customisable ground floor at Pennsylvania’s Carver Court. Listed in the United States National Register of Historic Places in 2016, Carver Court was planned to encourage customisation with a garage and a workshop or additional living space and to give the black steelworkers for whom it was built ‘a sense of ownership and design engagement’.¹¹ Kostis Kourelis, an architectural historian involved in strategising the conservation of Carver Court, identifies these two values as critical to the project’s historical significance.¹²
The URA-commissioned miniature of Yue Man Square similarly acknowledges these values, but the KTTCP’s design outcomes for YM2, where ‘Love at Kwun Tong’ was on view this summer, ultimately undermines them. YM2’s Yue Man Lane and Hawker Bazaar show that concerns about the future of old uses were considered in YM2’s planning, but the resulting attempts at social sustainability fail. Yue Man Lane is a corridor of shops off the atrium, some reserved for former shop operators of Yue Man Square (only 15 of 110 accepted).¹³ The Hawker Bazaar, accessed by escalator from the minibus terminus on the ground floor, is an enclosed air-conditioned area with in-built stalls. Visits to these spaces and the digital simulations of their operation on the YM2 website disappoint hopes that the grassroots vitality of Yue Man Square might have survived.
The colonial legacy of bureaucratic elitism and technicism has left urban planning in Hong Kong with few means for open and inclusive public engagement.¹⁴ Studies show the KTTCP attempted engagement innovations between 2005 and 2007, but the steering of issues in surveys and workshops, the lack of transparency around commissioned studies, and the absence of will to share power persisted.¹⁵ The KTTCP has been criticised as a ‘gentrification’ machine, increasing rent and operation costs to eliminate family-operated businesses, low-income groups and working-class participation.¹⁶ Planner and geographer Mee Kam Ng compares ‘the death of the community’ in Kwun Tong with the ‘resilience’ of the Blue House in Wan Chai which a now hobbled District Council helped retain its old uses when threatened by a URA proposal.¹⁷ As it becomes increasingly difficult for civil society to mobilise due to anxieties around the new national security law, public engagement efforts are at risk. How will the URA respond?
Opposing classist beautification
At the 1964 annual dinner of the Hong Kong Society of Architects, Governor David Trench made an appeal for ‘beautification’, referring to what he considered disappointing architectural efforts in Kwun Tong’s town centre.¹⁸ As Carver Court and similarly spirited contemporary plans such as Alejandro Aravena’s half-built houses show, architecture can support vernacular design tactics. According to the China Principles, ‘sites (…) where the traditional way of life has become an integral part of the site’s values, should be encouraged to continue that function.’¹⁹ The URA miniatures on view in YM2 staked the claim that Yue Man Square facilitated the development of Kwun Tong traditions integral to Hong Kong values. The mandate should have been for them to continue that function.
Yue Man Square, an environment designed by local and migrant Chinese architects trained within the modern movement, could have been the focus of re-use for future design innovations in Kwun Tong. Though in name the use of Yue Man Square has remained the same – a town centre – the complex sociality once denoted has dissolved. Miniatures might have fostered it had they been taken seriously as a method. Instead, miniatures, which are not about smallness, but about the emotional and symbolic power acquired by the act of scaling and the practice of modelling from an object-in-use, are now being deployed to placate the masses with public art at InPARK.²⁰ In the sculpture park at the Tsun Yip Street Playground behind Wang Weijen’s exhibition pavilion, the ball courts and skating rink of the 1970s have been replaced by an undulating lawn punctuated by oversized objects of a caricatured industrial past: broken toy robots and deflated watermelon balls.
Emily Verla Bovino is a research fellow in Design Trust.
Emily Verla Bovino是信言設計大使的研究員。
¹ Urban Renewal Authority, Kwun Tong Town Centre Project (K7). Urban Renewal Authority, published 2021, https://www.ura.org.hk/en/project/redevelopment/kwun-tong-town-centre-project, accessed August 2021.
² Translation from Candice Chau, ‘The Last Merchants of Hong Kong’s Yue Man Square’, Hong Kong Free Press. March 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/03/21/the-last-merchants-of-hong-kongs-yue-man-square/, accessed August 2021.
³ Urban Renewal Authority, Planning Led for Sustainable Urban Renewal by Collaboration and Vision: Annual Report, 2018-19, published 2019, http://annualreport.ura.org.hk/2018-2019/en/, accessed August 2021.
⁴ Drawing Architecture Studio is interested in a similar approach to miniatures. See Li Han and Jin Qiuye’s projects Hutong Mushroom (2018) and Apartment Blossom (2020). L. Han and Q. Jin, Hutong Mushroom, Urban Studies Degree Zero Series. Beijing, China: China Architecture & Building Press, 2018 and L. Han and Q. Jin, Apartment Blossom, Urban Studies Degree Zero Series. Shanghai, China: Donghua University Press, 2020.
⁵ Energising Kowloon East, EKEO Studies & Activities: “The Spirit of Creation” – Study on Industrial Culture of Kowloon East, last revision date August 6 2021, https://www.ekeo.gov.hk/en/activities/140903_The_Spirit_of_Creation.html, accessed August 2021.
⁶ W. Wang, In Studio Interview, Hong Kong, June 21, 2021.
⁷ J. Xie, Chinese Urbanism: Urban Form and Life in the Tang-Song Dynasties. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2020. 44.
⁸ See various issues of Hong Kong & Far East Builder, Far East Architect & Builder and Far East Builder from 1959 to 1971.
⁹ D. C. Y. Lai and D. J. Dwyer, “Kwun Tong, Hong Kong: A Study of Industrial Planning.” The Town Planning Review, vol. 35, no. 4, January 1965, 299-300.
¹º Chau was already a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (then the Hong Kong Society of Architects) in 1960. Hong Kong Institute of Architects, HKIA Membership List 1956-2009. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute of Architects, 2009.
¹¹ K. Kourelis, “Louis Kahn’s African-American Vernacular,” Society for Architectural Historians. March 26, 2014, https://www.sah.org/publications-and-research/sah-blog/sah-blog/2014/03/26/louis-kahn’s-african-american-vernacular, accessed August 2021.
¹² Kourelis, “Louis Kahn’s African-American Vernacular.”
¹³ Z. Low, “Hong Kong businesses being forced out by massive Kwun Tong regeneration project slam relocation, compensation packages.” South China Morning Post, May 3, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/society/article/3132131/hong-kong-businesses-being-forced-out-massive-kwun-tong (accessed August 2021).
¹⁴ E. W. Y. Lee, E. Y. M. Chan, J. C. W. Chan, P. T. Y. Cheung, W. F. Lam and W.-M. Lam, Public Policymaking in Hong Kong: Civic Engagement and State-Society Relations in a Semi-Democracy. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2013, 129.
¹⁵ H. Y. Yeung, Civic Engagement in the Redevelopment of Kwun Tong Town Centre (Master’s Thesis). Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, August 2011.
¹⁶ X. Qian and C. Yin, “From Redevelopment to Gentrification in Hong Kong: A Case Study of Kwun Tong Town Center Project,” Open House International, vol. 43, no. 3, September 2018.
¹⁷ Ng, “Urban Renewal, Sense of Community and Social Capital,” 2018, 20-21.
¹⁸ “Governor Appeals for H.K. Beautification.” The Hong Kong & Far East Builder, vol. 19, no. 4, 1964.
¹⁹ L. D. DiStefano, “Adaptive Reuse: Introduction,” in Asian Revitalization: Adaptive Reuse in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, ed. by K. Cummer and L. D. DiStefano. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2021, 7.
²º Energising Kowloon East, EKEO Studies & Activities: Public Art Scheme of Tsun Yip Street Playground, last revision date August 6 2021, https://www.ekeo.gov.hk/en/activities/Public_Art_Scheme_of_TY_Street_Playground.html (accessed August, 2021).
Old Yue Man Fong (Credit Jimmy Cheng)
A View of Kwun Tong – Yue Man Square on left; Kwun Tong Road
Industrial Area is on the right (1963). Photo: Information Ser vices Department, Hong Kong.
Source: Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
Four traditional shops from Yue Man Square at ‘Love at Kwun Tong’miniature exhibition.
Includes Hing Fat Fruits, Mixing Fruit Juices,
Wing Hing Soy Milk and King of Chicken Cake (Ann Pang, Carmen Poon, Vivian Lee),
1:12 hand-modelled food and display elements. (Photo by author).
Yue Man Square, 1:76 3D-printed model with hand-painted additions
at ‘Love at Kwun Tong’ miniature exhibition.
Ian Choi, Tim Ho, Chan Hung Fai (Photo by author).
Old Yue Man Fong (Credit Jimmy Cheng)