The Loss of Human Scale: Old Hong Kong vs New Hong Kong
August 30, 2009 3:43 AM   Subscribe

For the last two years, Flickr user HK Man has been collecting old photos of Hong Kong, finding the exact spots at which they were taken, and taking them again. The result, from his first photo of Victoria Harbor to a more recent one of Nathan Road, comprises a chronicle of Hong Kong's unrestrained vertical development over the past few decades. In a similar vein, Gwulo is a community site for "for everyone that is interested in old Hong Kong" and includes photos, mysteries, and discussions -- such as this one about old Kai Tak Airport.

More on HK Man at URBANPHOTO here and here.

Bonus Kai Tak videos: Overview and Landings over Kowloon.
posted by milquetoast (28 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I love this kind of stuff
posted by jsavimbi at 4:03 AM on August 30, 2009

I used to worked week for a charity that took over a massive bit of Kai Tak Airport for warehousing space when it closed. Specifically, we got the basement, where all the baggage sorting equipment was, so I spent a good bit of time helping to tear it all out, and put in masses of shelving. After that, I spent many many weekends there, fixing up old computers. Seeing all this stuff about Kai Tak brings me right back to my teen years. Thanks for this post.
posted by Dysk at 4:45 AM on August 30, 2009

What a wonderful resource. One of the nice things about the "future." We may not have flying cars but amateur and professional photographers from around the world can share their portfolios and exchange ideas. Photographers stuck back in the 50's can only gnash their teeth in envy.

Looking at the comparison shots of HK old and new, what I noticed immediately is the loss of green spaces. I grew up in So. Cal and in my lifetime there (1957 til 2000) watched it turn from cities surrounded by farms and rolling pastures to solid concrete. Now I live near Raleigh, NC and the same thing is happening here-- farms are being paved over and undeveloped forest land is being razed. Who knows what the area will look like in 40 years?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:26 AM on August 30, 2009

Secret Life of Gravy, in fairness, three quarters of Hong Kong (by area) is countryside, and roughly 40% is Country Park, so while green spaces are being lost, it's not going to turn into sheer grey horror or anything, either. You'll always be able to get out to some gorgeous hiking trails in an hour or less, pretty much regardless of where you are.
posted by Dysk at 6:34 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow, as a 14 year old in Hong Kong who's only lived here for about 8 or 9 years, this is cool. I think with the more obvious landmarks it's easy to find the place to take pictures, but how easy is it to find places where it's not as obvious?
posted by Michael Leung at 6:34 AM on August 30, 2009

Hong Kong was the first city I visited that really felt like it lived up to the all the hype I had created about the place in my head. I felt like I was standing in the future.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:49 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Great post!

I grew up in HK in the early seventies, just across from the Causeway bay typhoon shelter(see those two short buildings on the right, just in front of what looks like a pool - I think it was one of them), and I can tell you that it looked nothing like the HK you see today. I was watching a dvd last week my dad put together of old films and photos and I wish I could figure out how to upload it to the internet, because it is just an amazing treasure trove/ time capsule of HK in the seventies. Bun festivals, dragon boats, street life, foot bound women...

and yes to what brother dysk says. We used to go hiking in the hills (and lan tau!) every sunday.
posted by vronsky at 7:00 AM on August 30, 2009

I have hundreds of personal slides [selflink] that my parent's made in the 60s in Hong Kong and Kowloon. They have captured some fascinating incidental history.
There was a bit of a craze on at school around this time, get as many people as you can to sign your autograph book (this was well before the Facebook version of friends, but very similar).
My mother was head of Kai Tak hotel reservations. My large regret is the loss of that autograph book she compiled for me that had so many movie and music stars.
posted by tellurian at 7:27 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Beautiful... and another reason to renew my passport.
posted by Kikkoman at 8:41 AM on August 30, 2009

Great photos, but the really incredible part must be the research he puts into finding where each pick was taken.
posted by DU at 8:43 AM on August 30, 2009

Thanks for the post! Being away from HK really makes me appreciate my hometown more and more. The place is a glorious mishmash of ultramodern and old messy chaos.

I'm not quite old enough to remember the contrast in most of these photos but hopefully the furor caused by the demolition of the Queen's pier is a sign that (young) people actually disagree with the "destroy build destroy" modus operandi of the property developers / government.
posted by monocot at 9:33 AM on August 30, 2009

As a city/regional planner by trade, I support vertical growth instead of lateral. Vertical growth will save the countryside from additional buildings and expanded roadways, as well as providing a denser population for mass transit. Views to/of places other than the ever-rising city are more rare, but I think that's a better way to deal with increased demand for building space.

In regards to the post title, "human scale" can refer to more than the sheer height of buildings. In the United States, Big Box Stores play with the sense of scale, matching "car scale" rather than human. Best Buy is one of the weirdest, as their facade design standard is to seem even bigger. When driving along freeways or high-speed arterial roads, the buildings seem to be a reasonable scale. The design of such stores implies that you don't walk to them, but you are supposed to drive there. Typical design features are enlarged, dwarfing you as you enter the building, but completely recognizable at a distance.

Sky scrapers might tower over you, but the entrances are generally human scale. The intent is that you walk in the front door from the street, rather than drive up to an acre of parking in front of the building as found with suburban malls.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

I like how there doesn't seem to be a strong selective pressure among the shots towards those that support some sort of political pressure. While there are pictures that show a progression from rural to urban and from artistic to commercial, there are also pairs where the new picture features a park or landscaping that didn't exist before or where the number of advertisements has actually decreased. And while this is far from the first time I've seen this gimmick, it has yet to get stale. I especially like when the photographer goes through the effort of getting an angle that's as close to the original as possible. It's not necessary to give the impression of change, but it's a cute touch that I appreciate.
posted by ErWenn at 12:01 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of my most cherished possessions is City of Darkness, a photo essay on life in the Walled City of Kowloon. Something about photos of places that no longer exist, or have been radically changed, fascinates me. Hong Kong, with its near constant change, is probably one of the best places for this kind of thing. My first visit was in 1998, and I'm sure that even from then, the photos I took are "out of date."

Thanks for the great post.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:32 PM on August 30, 2009

Great post, thanks. (Flying into Kai Tak was one of the most terrifying airport experiences around, back in the day.)
posted by languagehat at 12:53 PM on August 30, 2009

If you look at that causeway bay pic it is amazing how much that has changed. In the seventies there would have been hundreds of san pans and junks in there, its own floating city. Now it looks like a yacht club - yuck!
posted by vronsky at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2009

You can get a surprisingly good look at 60s HK, and the HK I love, in the opening to The World of Suzie Wong - scroll to 1:30
posted by vronsky at 1:23 PM on August 30, 2009

languagehat: Great post, thanks. (Flying into Kai Tak was one of the most terrifying airport experiences around, back in the day.)

Slight derail, but I was always told by pilot acquaintances in Hong Kong that Kai Tak was one of the safest airports to fly into, as airlines tended to put their best pilots on routes in and out of Hong Kong, and the approach was unusual enough that it kept them on their toes. Once they moved to Chep Lap Kok it became the same routine as everywhere else, increasing the risk of carelessness and pilot error, which is the prime cause of crashes. I just thought that was quite interesting.
posted by Dysk at 1:23 PM on August 30, 2009

Couple of amazing things - the photographer frequently tries to also mirror the buses and trains in the pic too quite often, showing the diff between the old buses or trains or cars and the new, in the same location on the street even. As far as how HK as changed, its amazing how in a few instances the old pic has shoreline and a large section of ocean (I assume) filling the edge of the picture, and in the new pic the ocean is gone, which could be an effect of landfilling activities, or of course it could be the angle taken on the photograph, but since the photographer was so fastidious about mirroring each picture origin, I'd like to think that wasn't it.
posted by uni verse at 1:56 PM on August 30, 2009

uni verse, the term is land reclamation, and it is indeed something that has happened a lot in Hong Kong, due to its small area, and the fact that a lot of what little land there is, is marsh or mountain.
posted by Dysk at 1:58 PM on August 30, 2009

"... land reclamation..."
Thanks, thats what I meant, and what I was imagining when I saw the photos.
posted by uni verse at 2:12 PM on August 30, 2009

I've often been asked to do this sort of thing on my web site, and although I never did I do have a collection of old HK images from various sources for those who are interested.

On my photography site I prefer instead to concentrate on the the details of Hong Kong rather than the whole.
posted by bwg at 5:16 PM on August 30, 2009

As a city/regional planner by trade, I support vertical growth instead of lateral. Vertical growth will save the countryside from additional buildings and expanded roadways, as well as providing a denser population for mass transit.

Well, that's true, but there are unpleasant side-effects. All the tall buildings here in Hong Kong have created massive canyons, which in turn have a 'wall-effect', trapping in large amounts of pollution. The smog never gets blown away - it just sits there, getting thicker and thicker. Most of the smog at road-level comes from the buses (there are a lot of them) and they belch foul diesel fumes all day long. Frankly, Hong Kong could do with less skyscrapers and much better use of the land locked up in the New Territories by the Small House Policy. Hong Kong doesn't have to be this way you know - it's just that there are three groups with vested interests in keeping it so:
1) the government, which makes most of its revenue from vastly inflated land sales
2) the property developers, who play with the artificial shortage to their hearts' content
3) the Heung Yee Kuk that furiously rejects any attempt to change the Small House Policy.

Hong Kong has a low personal income tax rate that makes it the darling of right-wing thinktanks everywhere, but the cost of that tax rate is the ridiculously high cost of housing, the reclamation of the harbour, steep polluted canyons, and a reduced quality of life.

hm, that was a bit of a rant...
posted by awfurby at 6:52 PM on August 30, 2009

awfurby, it's nearly five years since I lived in Hong Kong, so I'm surprised they haven't moved the busses away from diesel, given how long ago they changed all taxis and minibuses over to LPG...
posted by Dysk at 6:58 PM on August 30, 2009

Not all the minibuses have changed to LPG - there are a lot that are still on diesel.
There are programs to encourage bus companies to switch over to a better standard of diesel, but they aren't working.
posted by awfurby at 7:04 PM on August 30, 2009

awfurby, fair enough. I lived in Shatin and used the minibus network there extensively, and never saw anything but LPG in the last year before I left. Regional variance wouldn't suprise me in the slightest, however.
posted by Dysk at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2009

Very cool. One of the weird things about visiting Hong Kong were the "historic sites" where you could visit a plaque that marked the spot where Sun Yat Sen's house used to be. Because it's been torn down and rebuilt 5 times and is now a bank.

There's a book about Baltimore, along a similar theme.
posted by electroboy at 7:38 AM on August 31, 2009

Similar approach for Paris: rephotographing classical 19th-centura images from Eugène Atget, an ongoing project from the University of South Florida School of Art and Art History's Paris Summer program.
posted by megob at 2:32 AM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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