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New art exhibition at theDesk: ‘There’s Nobody Home’

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Join us for the opening of theDesk’s fourth art exhibition, which runs between July 7 and August 18. Meet Urban Fragments, the collective of photographers behind the display, who tell us about their photos of abandoned homes in Sai Wan and Kennedy Town

It seems skyscrapers, apartment blocks and MTR exits sprout up like weeds across the city. When we’re not looking, new developments grow in our periphery until we walk past them one day and think to ourselves ‘oh, that wasn’t there before’. This is no less true in Sai Wan, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. For decades the district saw the proliferation of noodle shops, laundromats and a population of people who’d decided to root themselves and spend the latter half of their lives in quaint tenement buildings, fortifying a strong community. As gentrification continues to make its way through our streets, this heritage slowly ekes its way into oblivion. Without dedicated historians, academics and artists, perhaps this heritage would be lost forever.

We speak to Urban Fragments, a collective of four photographers from across Hong Kong, who are dedicated to preserving the memory of forgotten spaces that are just on the cusp of disappearing forever. They’re holding an exhibition at theDesk co-working and events spaces from July 7 to August 18, which features several developments in the Sai Wan and Kennedy Town areas that are now long gone. These buildings, slated for redevelopment by the Urban Renewal Authority or already redeveloped, sometimes stand for years in an empty limbo, forgotten but largely intact, cordoned off from human entrance. Urban Fragments covertly enters these spaces to memorialise this in-between time, uncovering a ‘hidden beauty’ that’s so often concealed by concrete walls.

“Cinemas are always creepy because there are no windows. The silence is loud and the air is very oppressive.”

Urban Fragments started off with the four photographers – who prefer to remain anonymous – meeting five years ago on a Facebook forum and connecting through their mutual fascination with abandoned spaces. Soon, they ventured on their first expedition to an abandoned government school in Kwai Chung. Then, the trips grew in number and ambition. They’ve visited the old Kai Tak fire station, abandoned shipyards and the now-defunct Sai Kung ATV television studio.

The collective’s motivations behind their photographic ventures are varied and complex but they’re also purely simple, borne out of natural curiosity. One photographer tells us that he’s ‘obsessed with the possibilities’ of what took place before the spaces were abandoned. Another furthers that it’s fascinating to ‘imagine life in the space before these places were abandoned’. “There are lots of spaces like this,” he says. “It’s a different kind of beauty.” Another photographer tells us simply that she likes ‘going places people don’t go’. “I don’t like crowds,” she reflects. “I’m pretty weird.” Surely the fascination evoked by spaces suspended in time cannot be articulated in definite terms. It’s the awkward space between the modern and historic that makes these sites special, the collective tells us in consensus. An inevitable nostalgia permeates the musty air, regardless of whether or not you’ve been there before.

Over six years, the group has visited more than 100 abandoned spaces. When asked whether or not the illegality of their pursuits have caused any anxiety, the group doesn’t seem fazed, citing that security and fencing are usually very lax. These places are forgotten indeed. And when inside, curios present themselves organically to the group, which constitute most of the subjects of their photographs. They tell us how, visiting an abandoned primary school on an outlying island, the group was struck by a pristine taxidermy sheep that stood proudly atop a short shelf. Years later, when they revisited the school, the taxidermy sheep had degraded and gently collapsed into a natural sitting position, as if dozing off to sleep. Another visit to a cinema presented to them scattered film reels and a hauntingly desolate ticket office. It is the tempting possibility of these curiosities that lure the group into these spaces, regardless of the presence of fences.

It is not official action that Urban Fragments is nervous of – but what they might find when they get inside. They’ve encountered everything from deranged street-sleepers in the basement of Sai Kung villas to drug addicts bunking in the cramped rooms of tenement buildings. On one occasion, they entered the bathroom of an abandoned cinema on Peng Chau, only finding out afterwards that a woman had hung herself there. “Cinemas are always creepy,” a member tells us, “because there are no windows. The silence is loud and the air is very oppressive.” But these creepy chance encounters are all worth it for the pictures and the experiences. They often witness vintage knick-knacks like decades-old soda bottles, yellowed diaries and records that in reality could fetch a lot of coin. But, out of respect, the group have a policy of letting nature, or a wrecking ball, take its course.

“Why should we sacrifice these spaces? These are things that many people collected and kept over the first half of their lives. There’s such a strong sense of emptiness.”

There was one notable exception to the rule. The group, while exploring Western Court in Shek Tong Tsui before it was demolished to make way for an MTR exit, discovered what would later be deemed the only eye-witness Chinese account of the D-day landings in Normandy, France, in World War Two. “It’s things like that we’ll give to the appropriate experts,” says one of the photographers. “We’ve donated to museums before.”

At the upcoming exhibition at theDesk, the group features three Sai Wan and K-Town abandoned spaces: Western Court in Shek Tong Tsui plus the temporary Hong Kong Academy campus and the Police Married Quarters, both on Ka Wai Man Road, Kennedy Town. In these spaces, the collective finds and memorialises the ‘remnants of livelihood’ that once stood. Speaking of these spaces, a member reflects: “In this fast city, why should we sacrifice these spaces? These are things that many people collected and kept over the first half of their lives. There’s such a strong sense of emptiness.”

In the future, Urban Fragments hopes to be able to take their exhibitions abroad, citing Chernobyl in  Ukraine, which was home to a catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986, as one of their dream destinations. And despite the fact that Chernobyl is a well-trodden ground for curious photographers, they say, collectively: “We want to experience it for ourselves. Even if we all went to the same places, the pictures we take are all different.” And as Hong Kong continues to transform, the opportunities to enter these spaces continue to spring up and then disappear as the sites themselves do. To witness these spaces yourself, come to the exhibition opening at theDesk between 7pm and 10pm on July 7. We’ll see you there!

By Grace Fung

The opening of our ‘There’s Nobody Home’ exhibition is on Friday July 7, between 7pm and 10pm. RSVP to urbanfragments.eventbrite.hk.

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