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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

Along the border of City One, Siu Lek Yuen Village

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 standing at the exit of City One station. It is one of those over-ground metro stations, made of concrete, that connects the most remote parts of the suburbs of Hong Kong. Passed the gate, I go down the stairs and reach the street. The flyover is a perfect sinusoidal line that gently penetrates the mountains around here. The line goes towards the infinity between buildings that seem to grow continuously like weed pest. City One is a new neighbourhood, built around the Mtr (bus?)stop and Prince of Wales Hospital. A metro station can dramatically change the landscape morphology. It is able to redefine the geometry and the balance of the urban space. This is what happened in the valley of Lek Yuen where before the rise of the new towns, it used to be populated by rural villages belonging to different local cultures, including Hakka nomads etc. Each village could be considered as a node, as the meeting point of the force-carrying lines that make the urban grill. Following massive land reclamation and the creation of new land stolen from the sea, new patterns have emerged and the equilibrium of the new urban implant of Sha Tin have been rewritten. City One station has become the focus, the barycentre of the forces where dwelling, transport, shops and people converge.

In the morning. Like all mid mornings in the suburbs, the streets are semi-desert. The real flows, those that push people to move towards the city centre, are temporarily absent. The light is grainy, the sun is warm and an oddly strong  wind blows from the nearby mountains. I follow the pavement that runs along the flyover while observing the green mountains that rise for several hundred metres. Not far from here is the tunnel that goes over the mountain and straight towards Kowloon. A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Choi, an elderly Tai Wai villager. The meeting is interesting because Mr. Choi tells me about the evolution, the geography of the Lek Yuen area through the history of its villages. Mr. Choi’s descriptions are enriched with anecdotes, legends and stories of the other world. I take notes locating the names and the roads right on a map. And it is exactly with this map that I am here today to follow the areas and the villages that Mr. Choi has shown me.

The streets are clear and from time to time a speeding car breaks the silence. I keep walking towards the river Lek Yuen, which takes its name from the valley. I cross the road, illuminated by the sun and alternating with sharp shadows that are projected on the pavement. I enter the buildings, walking along passages that bring me to the industrial area, that looks like it’s been inactive for a long time. Beyond the flyover, which I see between the warehouses, I see other buildings, the huge social houses that go up to the Shing Mun River. I keep walking and an ascent brings me towards the river which, starting from the mountain flows and arrives to the Shing Mun River. I head towards the mountain searching for Siu Lek Yuen Village, indicated by Mr. Choi as one of the first villages built in the valley. The river flows very slowly, as slowly as the bicycles and the athletes who run along the river in the morning. The birds above the trees along the river sing loudly! I slow down and keep recording the birds while observing in the distance another flyover where numerous cars are passing. Beyond the road, clouded by haze, a wall of buildings that irregularly climbs the mountain. I stop under the flyover to listen to the sound of the water that slowly flows, overlapping the sound of the tyres of the trucks whizzing fast. A white heron, still, awaits on the other side. In this point two rivers meet, like the two roads right over my head. The streams that flow in parallel, one above and the other below, create an incredible sonic matter. I quietly listen to the details, recording every little detail. The heron takes off, and I begin to walk again. The light filters at times, amongst the trees and the road junctions. The dirty water and debris of the bottom are perfectly visible. The reflections of light on the water are projected on the submerged pillars, becoming maps, liquid geography, territories in transformation. The space created below the flyover, the flowing river, the trees that dive into the water, create a sort of hybrid environment, a urban micro-climate that reminds me of a tropical forest. The flyover drops, making the passage very narrow, almost impenetrable. I cross the river and arrive on a wide road that leads to Siu Lek Yuen Village. Children play football by the shadow of a very tall building. The same shadow stretches out over the valley partly covering the village. The sound of the game, the screams of the children resound up to the entrance of the village. The space shrinks, gets lower and the streets become narrow turning the village into a labyrinth. In the village, I don’t find what I expected, that is the characteristic traits of an ancient village of the past. The houses are polished, renovated, probably in the 70s. The village tells another story, perhaps unexpected but alive, not at all touristy. Outside the village I walk along a road that penetrates a wooded area, again a flyover and a small stream which probably joins the river Siu Lek Yuen.

Passed over a wooded hillside, I see a large belt of buildings below which passes a flyover that leads to Sh Tin Wai station. I am right on a boundary line, a separation line where on one side there is the urban agglomeration, on the other the mountain and the villages. In fact, right in front of me I can see another village. I keep walking on a quite steep downhill road which leads to the entrance of the village. It really is not easy to figure out where the entrance is, as the village seems to be closed by a fence. On the other side I can see an open gate with a shiny padlock which must be still in use. The fenced areas, as the many I’ve seen around Hong Kong, probably are government areas. Unbelievably, unlike many others, these areas, uncultivated, without care, hide a lush and varied vegetation. Up to now, in urban areas, human intervention on nature has always been repressive. Parks, flower beds, trees are extremely controlled and rationalised. The fenced government areas become temporarily uncontrolled zones, a third landscape as often described by Gilles Clement. In these areas, where also village houses are fenced, nature is no longer a natural landscape like that found in the mountains over there. Nor is it an artificial landscape of lines of buildings like the ones I saw beyond the flyover. So, what is this space? Perhaps a new type of space, perhaps the interstitial spaces that the city cannot define and leaves them hanging while awaiting to designate them to a more definite function? These extremely fascinating border areas gain an even more special value in Hong Kong. A few days ago, I read an article by Rey Chow, an important intellectual from Hong Kong who, in her numerous essays on Hong Kong, dealt with the issues of identity and post-colonialism. Referring to the return of Hong Kong to China, after being a British colony for 150 years, Rey Chow talks about a “Third Space”, that is the place where Hong Kong should rediscover itself, its own identity and cultural roots beyond the cultural impositions of colonial Britain and post-colonial China. But Ms. Chow asks how can Hong Kong find its identity, if by identity we refer to history, folklore, the roots that are part of a history that does not belong to it? Hong Kong is located in the middle, in a hybrid space, between two worlds that crush it.

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