imomus (imomus) wrote,

Mr Pantouffle's self-fab skyhut

I escaped yesterday from winter-glitched Berlin (grit, dark, dirt, slush and slither) into the warm, clean capsule of sunlight-and-elsewhere which is the Walther Koenig bookstore. Soon I found myself flipping through an interesting architect's-coffee-table book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above: Hong Kong's Informal Rooftop Communities.

Up on the roofs of Hong Kong buildings you often find them: corrugated shacks, little huts, self-built structures which replicate, up in the air, rural Chinese villages. "Informal" means, of course, that they don't meet any building standards and don't have any legal status, so living in one of these skyhuts is a precarious business in every sense; a government inspector will sooner or later mark your dwelling with a fluorescent ink stain which means that you have a minimal window of a day or two to vacate before they pull the place down and chuck its constituent parts onto a skip thirty stories below.

Wu (the Chinese-Canadian who did the meticulous cut-away drawings) and Canham (German, photographs) asked themselves the same questions I did: Who lives here? How do they live? Do they have wifi? Do they have running water and electricity? What's it like in there? Luckily, the pair were invited in quite readily, and allowed to document the living spaces.

Did I tell you I once lived for a year in a hen hutch? Well, it wasn't really a hen hutch, more a garden shed behind a house in Torry, Aberdeen. It was my last year at university, and I actually really enjoyed living there. I put a picture of Alexander Pope on the wall, taught myself Brel songs, warmed myself with a two-bar heater, and, when I had to use the loo or the bath, let myself into the adjacent house belonging to my landlady, Mrs Ross. So that's what I imagine living on a Hong Kong roof to be like.

Humble, fleeting, homemade, ramshackle and cheap, the self-fab skyhut is admirable in all sorts of ways. Okay, so the toilet appears to be in the kitchen in some of these photos, and they wouldn't keep the cold out if Hong Kong ever did get cold (today it's 20c, perfect!). But from the point of view of density, recycling, efficiency and sustainability these structures -- built in a spirit of dung-beetle bricolage -- have a lot to teach us. Up on the roof it's cooler and quieter, you're out of people's way, you have good views out over the city, you can befriend the birds and watch the sun set. You haven't used up any extra land, and you haven't spent a ridiculous amount of money on construction. You're up on the roof, hurting no-one, minding your own business, listening to the aircon.

The nice thing about books like Portraits from Above is that they provide a detailed decor into which you can insert characters of your own. Yesterday, after playing Grand Theft Auto for a while at the Transmediale hub, I invented a character called Mr Pantouffle. He's a semi-retired clown with a heart of gold, always being cheated by the people he meets down on the ground. Only up in his skyhut, with his beloved avifauna around him, is Pantouffle free. He hums, he feeds the birds, he works on his clown act, he scatters fresh rice into his pink plug-in cooker and flips the switch.

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I live in one of those, with my aunt, for several weeks when I was small. It can be quite comfortable if it is located at a not-so-noisy area. You can make the rest of the rooftop as a private garden, something most people cannot enjoy in this city.

One of these old buildings just collapsed on 29th, killing 4 people, because someone was making renovation and mistakenly taken down a supporting wall. Something of this scale has not happened before, it's really tragic...

This German photographer called Michael Wolf also photographs old buildings in Hong Kong.
I like his corner house collection because he documented some post war buildings which are somewhat Corbusian with their ribbon windows, roof garden and occasional pilotis.
I also recommend this film
which talks about a widowed housewife taking care of her father-in-law who has worsening Alzheimer's disease. They live in a building similar to those in the book. It is one of my all time favourite Hong Kong films. The lead Josephine Siao was like the Anna Karenina of Hong Kong in the 60s.

(Part1-4 of the film with English subtitle)

oo.. Karina*
Aha, the Person Who Knows What He Is Talking About strikes again! Welcome, great to have this information! (Sorry to hear about the collapse on the 29th, though.)

I also like what you say on your blog about Scotland: "It seems that Scottish life doesn't have a big difference to the rest of the British one.(at least in the university). Alcohol, going out, gossips, irregular and unhealthy meals and trashy magazines. What they aspire for is the kitschy glamour found in a club. Where do the rolling landscapes, ever-flowing rivers and the clear sky play in this culture? Where are the people who can speak eloquently of what they think, instead of using that self-contained pool of thought-terminating cliches. Just answer every question with the standard answer: cool. I am sure that there is something underneath this glass layer. Can anyone tell me how to read the Scottish psyche?"

Momus posing in front of "slums" in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

Thanks Momus


February 6 2010, 08:50:16 UTC 10 years ago

Blimey! You're balder than I realised. You must be very selective with the photos you post of yourself, Momus!


10 years ago

Great photos! Thanks. Second row center is very much like the building I grew up in. We were right on the harbor though, just across the street from Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. We looked out over a floating city of san pans and junks. Googling a bit earlier I found out that it is now one of the most expensive sections in HK, but I remember my dad telling me we paid something like 75 dollars in rent. I wonder what a three bedroom harbor front goes for now? 10, 000/month? Google says wan chai now has the highest rents on earth!

(thanks for the movie too, will watch tonight)
Yes, the movie is pretty good!


February 5 2010, 23:47:37 UTC 10 years ago

But this blog is your cobbled-together hut, Momus, and you're abandoning it for some less-austere more-capitalist haven. Here you are so stylish that I quote you constantly - taking pictures of you, like a curious German - but when you're locked away behind paid doors you'll just be another Maureen Dowd.

When you leave it'll be the senseless triumph of capitalist sensualism over free love, again.
i have always liked humble, modest living spaces. the chinese (or the hongkongese, if you prefer) have such amazing tolerance for clutter. i admire it, but i could never live it.


February 6 2010, 03:56:59 UTC 10 years ago

reminds me of kyoichi tsuzuki.
once he photographed an apartment room with no bath in daikanyama.
the person who lives there built himself a bath, right in front of his bed.
it's interesting that a daikanyama room have same atmosphere with these "informal" hong kong rooms (and also slum houses' rooms in jakarta).
i don't know if they live like that because they choose to, or because there are no options. but they definitely able to create similar atmosphere which is heartwarming, cozy and modest.

this is one of my favorite words from him (straight typing from the "universe for rent" book):
"again, this is not to say that wearing million yen suits or driving ten million yen cars or living in billion yen homes is necessarily bad. but it also has nothing to do with "achieving" with being "ahead" or "behind" in the game. once you know it's just a matter of taste, life is so much easier."

it is!!!


Niken! Hello!

Yes, I love Kyoichi Tsuzuki's investigations into living spaces and domestic habits, he has a generosity and curiosity which is very inspiring.


February 7 2010, 02:07:08 UTC 10 years ago

でも、ハワイ島のVera Wangのドレスも念のため、
I can sympathize with the general sentiment here, but, having lived in a rooftop hut like this (yes, it had a shared toilet and kitchen - which I never once cooked in) for a stretch in Taipei (a city I think you would like, Momus), I can assure you that except in winter it is certainly not cooler, especially when your hut's ceiling is constructed using corrugated iron sheets like some of those in the photos. I'm not sure of the situation in Hong Kong, but most often in Taiwan these things are constructed illegally by the owners of the top-floor apartments, who see the roof as theirs to colonize, rather than the collective property of all the building's residents.

But I suppose I'm talking to myself now anyway - you've long since left these shores...
No, I'm here! And I welcome the correction. I can imagine the sun must heat those tin roofs like an electric hot plate.
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