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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

The sound gradient in Fo Tan

Text and photo by Alessandro Carboni

realised within Library – SoundPocket,  Hong Kong

with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute and the General Consulate of Italy in Hong Kong.

Published on

I’m on a train, heading to Fo Tan. I’m in the middle of the tunnel that goes through Lion Rock mountain, which separates Kowloon from the New Territories in the north of Hong Kong. The train comes out of the tunnel and the light gets inside. Through the window I observe the landscape flowing fast: Tai Wai, Sha Tin and finally Fo Tan. The doors open, and here I am, again in a urban space to be explored. After the first step off the train, I think: walking for the first time in an unknown place is always a revelation. If we pay attention, while walking, we realise that going from one place to another we continuously enter different sound layers. This place could be rewritten and re-mapped starting from the sound it produces, the odours it emanates, the light it projects. These are the elements that keep together a urban space: ephemeral, volatile, unique elements that characterise the essence and identity.

I keep walking inside the station and thoughts become images. A wide window shows me the Fo Tan’s landscape from above. One one side the Shing Mun River, one the other side the recently built residential buildings and the industrial area. Fo Tan is a space in transformation: in the early 70s, the whole area,  populated by some villages, becomes one of the most important industrial centres in Hong Kong. With China’s economic rise, particularly in the area of Guangdong, most of the industries moved their production in China. In 2001, little by little, more than 70 industrial units have been reopened as artists’ workshops and exhibitions. The industries haven’t completely left Fo Tan’s spaces, but have retained stock storage sites, offices etc.

After a few hundred metres from the metro station, I reach the industrial area. I enter the canyon of the industrial buildings. The streets are quite narrow, and the buildings are rectangular multi-storey blocks of concrete that rise up to the sky for hundreds of metres. Often the buildings are painted in blue, pink, pastels in varying shades of grey. The floors are easily visible and recognisable, because on the outside they are marked by enormous numbers painted on the walls. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on until 28, 30, 34 etc. On the lower floors are kept the stock materials that are transported in and out by large trucks. Sidewalks are worn and near the entrance and exit of the buildings they are covered with a metal platform. The sound of passing trucks creates a rhythm that echoes in the canyon and the empty car parks adjacent to the blocks. So far no signs of artists’ workshops. Only workers in overall loading and unloading pellet. The inner/whole urban area develops into a perfectly orthogonal grid of streets.

I keep walking nearly touching the polished walls of the buildings, following the oil stains on the floor and the mountain that marks the border of the industrial area to the north. A grave, continuous sound accompanies every step and centimetre of my movement. It is the fans, continuously on, that generate a low frequency constant throughout the industrial area. Walking on the pavement, I listen to the sonic stratification that accompanies the wind that fiercely blows from the fans’ pipes. Immediately after the last industrial block, I can see  an agglomeration of very low houses in the distance. I am in the village of Wo Liu Hang. Some houses, the ones opposite the industrial blocks, bear the building date 1968, 1970, 1954 (1974?) while others are grouped on a small hill. These are promiscuous houses, built with recycled materials, metal sheets, advertisement panels that remind me the incredible slums of Mumbai. I take some pictures from above and keep recording. In the distance, tall and new residential buildings, the industrial blocks and the village homes. I keep walking along a path of concrete and arrive in a clearing where a small concrete football pitch had been built. Adjacent to the pitch, there are 8 fans. The sound is very loud, a symphony… They create weird chords, escapes.

The wind coming out of the pipes reaches the branches, the leaves and some hanging plastic, swaying them like swings. Sound-absorbing structures have been installed around the football pitch, as a shield from sound and vibrations. I move around to find the best listening position. The centre of the field is the best position where converge most of sound waves and frequencies. It’s like standing in the centre of a Greek theatre, the football field is the resonance box of the space. I get closer to the fans, the sound gets louder, the wall is blackened by burnt engine oil. Stickers, papers, old posters hung on the wall vibrate rapidly, creating a blurry image. I take a few steps back and sit under the sound-absorbing structure to hear the same sound but through a filter. Not far from me, an old man lays asleep. I close my eyes to listen to every little variation. The layers, the sonic gradient are the accidental score of an inspected sound event. I open my eyes again, I resume the route among the canyon of Fo Tan.

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