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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

Children of the collapsed cities, Tai Po

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

Today is Sunday. The sky has been grey for a few days and the temperature is not hot. There is no wind, low clouds make everything crushed and static. I am in Tai Wo, in the district of Tai Po (1). After the initial exploration in the Tai Wai area, I’ve decided to not follow a linear exploration, but to focus on specific urban areas connected with the Shing Mun River. Tai Po is opposite to Tai Wai. Precisely in the delta of the Shing Mung River and Tolo Harbour. I am in the far side of the New Territories, in fact, not far from here there is China. Dylan, a friend who lives nearby, told me several stories, useful to understand the complexity of Tai Po area.

Arrived at Tai Wo station, I walk through the shopping mall, deserted. The human flows are almost non-existent on Sunday mornings. I’m now outside the station. I start walking and once beyond the buildings I find myself in front of the river, the Lam Tsuen River. I decide to walk along it up to Tolo Harbour, the bay where also the Shing Mun River flows. The river is similar to the Shing Mun River which I explored in Tai Wai area: it is completely covered with concrete. The fear of flooding prompted the English settlers to rebuild most of the rivers and transform them into drainage channels. I cross a pedestrians bridge, covered colonnade that arrives just in front of the village of Kam Shek. I’ve read that in fact the new village of Kam Shek was probably rebuilt in the 70s. The air feels fresh, light. On my right, the river water is low: a small line of water that flows in the concrete. After a short distance the water rises filling the whole bed of the river. Looking on the left, I see the water flowing, and not far away it is possible to see the river delta and Tolo Harbour. The space is fragmented, there is no real separation, but rather a balance between the elements. I see a number of layers, villages, reconstructions of the 70s and finally the most recent buildings: roads and shopping centres. I cannot see a discontinuity but rather a strange dialogue between materials, between forms, between people.

While I walk, I think. I see the fragmentation in the things I encounter: the cracks on the stones caused by a tree, that forced its way into a small temple perched on the river. The cracks appear also in the chipped paint I see under the pillars that hold up the bridge over which Mtr trains run. The walk continues slowly, the sound of the passing train the few cars on the street and the flow of Sundays’ cyclists. Along the river there are some ladies talk loudly while a group of elderly men play cards or chess under a tree and a plastic cover.

I slow down to listen to the overlapping sound layers. After about 300 metres I turn right, remembering that Dylan’s suggestions on exploring the markets and the old area of Tai Wo, the inner side on the right of the river. In this area the boundaries of the old village are easily visible. Not far away the old train station, now a museum. The streets are relatively narrow and the stratification of the buildings is easily visible: small faded buildings overlap with the highest, newer and transparent ones.

Nestled between these buildings, a small temple, perhaps one of the oldest temples in the area. I keep walking through the block, arriving at the entrance of the market. The street is for pedestrians only and it is crowded. Sunday is an important day for the market, because most people in the neighbourhood are off work and have a chance to do shopping with no rush. I walk through the stalls of fruit, very old shops selling dry fish, fresh vegetables, pots etc. The stalls tents block off the sunlight. I walk in a tunnel of rumorous sounds, smells and colours. On my right, from the temple I glimpsed a few hundreds metres before, comes out thick smoke that creates streaks of light in the sky which becomes even darker. I keep walking through the stalls of the ladies selling vegetables. They have been sitting for hours by their stall waiting for someone to buy some.

Beyond the market, I arrive at the transit area towards Tai Po centre. Here they’ve built a new market. After 20 years, the temporary market that was built in a square, has been replaced by a new grey building that hosts not only vegetables, fruit, meat, fish etc, but also a large common area where there are many small local restaurants. This area is quite crowded on Sundays, so I decide to explore it to understand its dynamics. Luckily I manage to take a seat in a small table in front of a noodle shop. Some time ago, some friends told me that government markets have specific rules on granting tables to each restaurant. According to the size of the premises, the government allocates tables and chairs bolted to the floor. This organisation, allows the government to control the flow of people who enter, eat and leave the building. Every restaurant, however, at its discretion, thus without permission, put tables and chairs occupying the free space for the passage of people from a table to the other. I’ve also heard that there is another management of the tables, in the hands of organised crime that manages, through bribe, the number of extra tables allocated to each restaurant. Clearly, these are only legends! Whatever happens, the result is incredible! A crowd of people continuously occupy the indefinite number of microscopic tables that collide with each other. Eating in this market becomes a very interesting community experience…

The journey to Tolo Harbour continues and after the market I find myself once again immersed in the city. I walk past another boundary and I find myself an elevated area, a hill in which the paths go through lush green trees and ferns. Among the vegetation, there are crumbling colonial houses with blue windows and doors. Probably these buildings were a military or government outpost during the British colony. The downhill path leads me back to the Lam Tsuen River. I walk along the river bank for a short distance and I find one of the oldest Social Houses in the area. Unlike other Social Houses in the area, that have a cross shape with a central body, Kwong Ping House has a different shape. The central body does not exist, the building has been built around a quadrangle that leaves a central void. The building, very tall, was probably built in the 60s or 70s. The quadrangle at the centre is poorly lit, the light from above cannot penetrate. From below, I observe the endless floors of the building rising to the sky. The balconies are protected by green railings and the entrances of the flats are closed by reticular sliding doors. No movement, no sound. I clap my hands and make a sound to test the reverberation.

The journey into the Social House continues between the colonnades, the elderly playing JeungChi, commonly known as the Chinese chess, and the children chasing each other in the wide spaces. A breeze of wind moves the clothes hanging in the distance. The grey concrete with no tiling that covers the entire space, has the same shade of grey of the clouds that are still above the city. I follow the signs in the raw concrete marked by grooves, cracks and moss growing between the cracks in the humidity. I keep walking towards Tolo Harbour and this time the path leads me right in the delta of the river. A bridge, used as storage for the fishing boats, marks the beginning of the bay. The horizon opens up extending throughout the visual plane. The mist hides the islands in the distance, I can catch a glimpse of the walls of residential buildings built on the other side of the bay. The sound at this point seems to have vanished. Urban noise for the moment is far.

The sound of the water pushed by the breeze, overlaps with the sound of the bicycles that flow fast behind me. I keep walking for about 600 metres with slow pace that allows me to analyse every single sonic and visual fragment. The breeze rises up and the kites rise in the air. On my right, the railing, the sea, the grey of the clouds. On my left, the trees perfectly aligned that endlessly follow the bending of the pavement. Families, children, bikers, live the space in different ways. But Filipino women who work here in Hong Kong are truly special. They are able to reorganise and reinvent the spaces simply by using a tablecloth. In fact, on Sundays, the only day of the week they are off work, meet and eat together outdoors and in the most unbelievable corners of the city.

Beyond the trees, starts a new landscape, something strange. The buildings have been transformed into silos and the sound of the wind has become the buzz of an industrial fan. Even the sky has changed, there are other shades of grey, but this time the clouds come out from the chimneys of the industrial plant. I try to understand how to get to that area so different and interesting. I finally find a way out, a road that leads me to the industrial area. I discover at a later stage that this is one of the few industrial areas of Hong Kong. It is Sunday, there aren’t many people around, and thanks to this I can understand the boundaries, the layers and the morphology of the new landscape just discovered adjacent to the bay. Beyond the entrance door, I find a cypress lined path that ends in front of a very large tree. I walk past yet another gate, a steel structure that marks the pedestrian passage, I find myself in a concrete car park. On my right, satellite TV dishes and on my left the biggest gas station in Hong Kong. The bus stops are empty and I feel like entering another world. I walk on for 500 metres leaving behind the clouds of vapour that after a while dissolve in the sky. In front of me, a white building marked by rust of the iron that comes out of the structure; I read the writing ‘Oriental Press Centre’, a very important press centre. Further down Watson, one of the most important purified water companies in Hong Kong. Further on, another bus station, but this time abandoned. The shelters are rusty as well as the railings. The concrete on the floor still hides the marks of the passage of buses that become traces, sonic elements that I can only imagine. I try to reconstruct the flow of the workers that jump in and out of the bus, in the concrete cracked by moss and humidity. Time crumbles the materials little by little, transforming them into dust.

Adjacent to the wall, not far from the last station shelter, it is possible to see some columns of metallic shiny materials that reflect the grey light of the sky. Intrigued, I get closer beyond the wall and from the gate I can see columns of aluminium ingots and sheets. The grey sky and the shadows of the railing on the aluminium transform the sheets into silver plates on which the scraped signs resemble engravings, signs of a map of who knows what territory.

I am standing in front of the road and the wall of trees that mark the border between the industrial area and something else. I am in the middle of the countryside, here begin the hills full of vegetation. I hear again the birds singing and dogs barking in the distance. I entered a new sound bubble: distance, perspective, remoteness. The first 200 metres of dirt track, go through a transiting area of construction sites, homes under construction, vegetation and small groups of very low houses that seem to have existed for many years. They probably are one of those indigenous villages of the Hakka culture who used to live in the New Territories. I continue along the path until I reach the top of the hill, close to some rural houses and the family loans that develop along the flat areas. Dogs bark continuously.

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