Review: Ngau Tau Kok Estate

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The closing of the Ngau Tau Kok Estate marks the end of a bygone way of life. Ever since the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire began the era of Resettlement Housing Estate (the old term for public housing estates), Ngau Tau Kok is the oldest surviving developement left to be torn down.

Little has changed over the past 40 years for its residents, who lived in typically one-room quarters (each apartment is 88 to 424 sq ft, with each person having an average of 50 sq ft),  and the estate as a whole is practically a living museum of Hong Kong’s early grassroot culture. 

After the housing authority’s announcement that they plan to demolish and renovate the estate, Ngau Tau Kok is enjoying a last minute revival like its former cousin, the Shek Kip Mei estate, which fell under the wrecking ball several years ago. The neighbourhood has suddenly became a must-see sight for urban bohemians, who’ve gone with cameras to linger in the estate’s various ground floor shops, playgrounds and stairwells, capturing the residents’ everyday lives with their lenses.

Photography veteran Simon Go and his wife, Iman Fok, were part of that wave of visitors, lovingly documenting what they saw. Having visited the estate regularly for over a year, they now almost see it as their second home, and it led to their launch of Dine at Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate – Farewell to the Last Resettlement Public Rental Housing Exhibition.

Says Fok, curator of the exhibition:  “the intimacy and unconditional trust between the neighbours, together with the spontaneous development of the community, are the unique grassroots spirit found in public housing. Regretfully, this spirit is gradually fading away through the elimination of Resettlement Housing. So we called for a group of art and culture people who share the same thoughts. Under the condition of no sponsors, we used multimedia art forms to record the indigenous Hong Kong culture that Ngau Tau Kok represents, so as to preserve our heritage.”

The art exhibition reaches beyond the usual forms of presentation: photographs, videos and sound installations by Juno Chan, Hang Siu, Da, Martin Chan, Patsy Chan, Terris Choi, Mon Chan, Simon Go, Stella So, Cally Yu and Happy Action are displayed within shops. Even cement floors in the hallways, flecked with sunlight coming through the netlike walls, could be a surrealist exhibit.

The essence of the exhibition is the tour that highlights the unique lifestyle only found in old public housing. While you can follow the recommended route, you’ll discover much more by wandering aimlessly: perhaps stumbling across the humble but hardworking middle-aged woman Shun Sao, endless chatter in the beauty salons, graffiti that has been daubed and then painted out hundreds of times, and the snoozing grandpa in the corridor. The public is also welcome to attend various talks and workshops.

In sum, Ngau Tau Kok is an organic art exhibition showcasing the everyday story and history of its residents. As Fok says, “Hong Kong’s landmark is not IFC, but half of the local population’s home – the public housing estate.” Emily Liu Yi

The exhibition is on until April 30 or when the estate is fully knocked down. A guidebook can be purchased at Hing Kee Tea Restaurant, G/F, Block 10, Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate, Kowloon Bay; 9746 4391. Visit the event website.

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