When I told an elderly Singaporean that I had lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades, her first reaction was to scrunch up her nose and say, “Hong Kong is so dirty.” If you have gotten used to Singapore’s immaculate cleanliness, gritty and grubby Hong Kong does assail your senses. There are black mould streaks on most building exteriors; stray plants growing in crevices on the roof line; graffiti spray-painted on almost every available wall space; and, in particular neighbourhoods, waves of pungent smells—dried seafood, stinky tofu, a whiff of sewage.
The ‘dirtiness’ is what makes Hong Kong as a city delight me in ways Singapore does not. In its messiness is often an element of aesthetic surprise.
An apple nibbled to its core and a can of Nescafe coffee left by a green wall is an urban still life.
Pavement that has been hacked up at different times and redone in grey concrete of varying shades is reminiscent of a monochrome Mondrian.
Traces of double-sided tape carelessly left on a pillar draw the eye with their labyrinthine design.
Graffiti, torn-up old bills, and masking-tape strips on a weathered wall evoke the artlessness of a Basquiat. The T-shirt hanging off a cage that protects an air-conditioning unit is an added delight—a sign of someone boldly domesticating public space.
A broken-down grilled door held together with rope and chains has a ramshackle beauty born from the art of making do.
A patchwork of walls—blue, blue-green, mouldy grey—behind a gate covered with blue-and-white-striped plastic looks unexpectedly harmonious and pleasing.
Many an urbanite, I imagine, would have walked past these scenes and not noticed a thing. Some might have had a quick glance and seen only chaos, poverty, a selfish lack of regard for public order and cleanliness. Hong Kong is a tough place; everyone is just doing what they need to get by, but these marks left on the urbanscape are poignant to me. They are accidents of beauty. They are the unintended expressiveness of the inhabitants of Hong Kong. This city and her people are not afraid to let the warts show and that nonchalance is surprisingly charismatic. It seems to say, ‘Take me as I am, or not at all.’ And I have to admit I am one of the many who are happy to accept this city—less than clean and pristine—on her own terms.