Colonialism, capitalism, neoliberalism and political activism each contribute to Hong Kong’s unique psychosocial landscape. Often reduced to an East/West binary by external commentators this representation of Hong Kong reflects the Western centered view of the exotic outsider. As a British citizen who has lived here for almost three years I can certainly identify with the conflicts of identity that are reflected in the nuanced appearance of this vibrant city. Just as Hong Kong struggles to define itself I also consider the difficulties of naming and categorizing. Am I a ceramic artist, a potter, ceramic designer or perhaps even a writer?
Hong Kong provides a stimulating environment for an artist maker and like any city its layers of meaning become gradually more visible as the inhabitant penetrates deeper beneath the surface of glitzy skyscrapers and designer shopping malls. A journey across the Zoological and Botanical Gardens to and from the Pottery Workshop follows a path that bypasses a large fountain. The fountain now sports a leaking oil refinery aesthetic executed in grey concrete yet until recently was a construction decorated and protected from the elements by ceramic tiles with a minimalist aesthetic. The original tile covered fountain was demolished in the name of modernization, and according to park authorities, beautification, as apparently the pastel shades contradicted visitors’ expectations of park furniture.
The removal of tiles from Hong Kong facades reflects a general trend for the rampant destruction and rebuilding that afflicts this place. Land is in chronically short supply and is rigorously controlled by those in power, the government and wealthy landowners; there is little if any public consultation before building commences. Tiled surfaces on blocks of flats being updated in affluent mid-levels and tiled exteriors at the iconic Hopewell building, a cylindrical 1970s construction, represent instances where tiles are removed as part of updating programmes designed to justify up to fifty percent rent rise for commercial tenants.
Noise and dust pollution and the psychological disturbance allied to the sense of transience resulting from the state of environmental impermanence are an integral part of everyday life here. Campaigns by local people to save well-loved Hong Kong landmarks have failed in most instances to preserve buildings and conserve places of that are part of a collective temporal landscape and in some small part tiles are casualties of this incessant war in the name of economic progress. Local businesses, such as independent shop owners, and residents alike constantly strain to keep a grip on this evolving landscape as rents rise and ordinary people become increasingly marginalized.
The tiles that are being sacrificed by developers and public authorities in the name of progress represent the vanishing history of Hong Kong. These tiles were probably produced in China, Hong Kong’s troubled and ambiguously regarded motherland, but their inclusion as architectural elements reflects the global ubiquity of ceramic tiles as building materials especially in climates where humidity is a factor causing entropy and decay.