For a long time, Kowloon – often dubbed “the dark side” by foreigners – has gone about its business, largely untouched by Western influence. But the “raw grittiness” of Kowloon is now increasingly seen as alluring rather than off-putting and – as places on Hong Kong Island such as Sheung Wan and Western District become more expensive and gentrified – many are now setting their sights elsewhere. Just months ago, popular underground club XXX announced that it was moving away from Shek Tong Tsui to Tai Kok Tsui, and last weekend, HKWalls held their annual street art festival, now in its third year, in Sham Shui Po. Local and overseas artists splashed colours all over the walls and the press lauded the project for turning the district – one of the oldest in the city – into an “art oasis”.

Not everyone, however, was happy with these developments. Some worry that the art event was merely the beginning of yet another gentrification process that would soon consume the rest of Sham Shui Po, driving up rents and subsequently making life even more difficult for the local grassroots population.

hk walls
HKWall’s street art in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Already, cafes and bars have been popping up in Sham Shui Po while smaller local shops struggle to stay afloat. Recently, a restaurant on Tai Nan Street which gives food to low income individuals was forced to move after its original landlord hiked up the rent, and was only saved from going out of business because the owner of a nearby shop decided to rent out the premises cheaply. Other restaurants in the area were not as lucky and two others will be closing down at the end of the month, Ming Pao reported.

When a culture critic decided to draw attention to these issues, a heated debate ensued on HKWall’s official Facebook page.

“Whoever participated in this event made life for the poorest Hong Kong community harder than ever, thanks to your ‘art’ and top-down ‘aesthetics’, the real-estate market will thank you for it,” Ahkok Wong, culture critic and lecturer at Lingnan University, said on Facebook. “Shame on HKWalls who used the artists as a tool for gentrification, without providing the non-local artists with the cultural context of the [Sham Shui Po] community. For any artists who are local, you are stupid twats.”

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HKWalls, however, said that the project came into being only after taking into consideration the wishes of those in the area. “[Our] process is quite the opposite of top-down; one reason we chose Sham Shui Po this year is because we had been previously contacted by a number of young local shop owners in the area about painting their shops. For the rest, we literally spent three months walking around the area speaking with people in the neighbourhood, going door to door and talking to owners and tenants to ask for permission.”

hk walls street art
Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“Any response on how your ‘community art’ is collaborating with urban renewal forces? And how your ‘art oasis’ is gonna help rent and property values soar? Does it ever occur to you that the benefactors of this project are those who invested heavily in order to change the most affordable community into something fancy, something petit-bourgeois? So that the rent will rise and people are forced to live on the street?” Wong said on Facebook.

HKWalls offered a brisk reply: “I’m not sure what you mean by collaborating with urban renewal forces, but we have no association or contact with Urban Renewal or any other developers. Nor do we have any interest in gentrification… Private owners and tenants in the area contacted us. We are just four people, two from the US and two from Hong Kong and no, we have no association or support from the government.”

Other commentators on the thread pointed to the fact that the event was heavily supported by different brands and drips with commercialism. One commentator said, referring to Vans’ involvement in the project, “[In] fact, I have no idea, if this is a event for grassroots or an event to promote [brands]. This event sets up a pop-up store in Sham Shui Po to promote [branded] shoes.”

Wong agreed. “Did I say one word about not liking graffiti? I have been writing, supporting graffiti writers, for those who blur vandalism and the power structure of our landscape, reclaiming spaces back from mega branding company and authority controls. I swear by real graffiti,” Wong said. “If there’s a point in my message, [it’s] this: what you lot are doing is not graffiti, and definitely not community art, it is an advertisement for Vans and the artists that Vans supported. And what you do will affect this poorest community in Hong Kong.”

‘Positive change’

Jason Dembski, co-founder of HKWalls, later admitted to HKFP following the exchange on Facebook that gentrification was not something that had been on their minds when they initiated the project. “We’re not experts in gentrification, and we would like to understand the issue more – it’s not something that we want to contribute to, we don’t want to affect the community negatively. Our whole goal is to create positive change,” he said.

“We’re trying to do good things – we have no intention of changing the economic status of the neighbourhood – we didn’t even think about that. We think Sham Shui Po is super interesting and very cool,” Dembski said. “We saw a lot of interest from the community there, which is why we chose that district – we wanted to move away from Hong Kong island just to reach a different population… a more local population.”

Dembski also said that they had chosen the area because they had been contacted by many interested parties, and that they had spent a tremendous amount of time on the ground. “At that level, we’ve engaged the community quite a lot. Since Sunday, we’ve been contacted by two other NGOs and the Hong Kong Kowloon Textile Wholesale Association that deals with all the fabric stores in the district and came to us directly, expressing interest in doing more, involving local schools and learning centres, students of SCAD, volunteers and workshop facilitators who live in Sham Shui Po.

“For me, it still feels overwhelmingly positive, and I hope that whatever conversation we can come to with [Ahkok Wong] and the people who seem to have a sinister opinion of us would hopefully lead to our improving things in the future. We certainly don’t want to make things worse for anything in the neighbourhood,” Dembski said.

sham shui po
Sham Shui Po. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“Should the neighbourhood be left to rot? By some of his comments, you would think that because there are poor people in the neighbourhood, nothing should be done because it might somehow affect the neighbourhood positively, making things harder for them… that’s kind of hard for me to understand,” Dembski said.

“If he looked a little bit harder, he would see that a lot of shops we were involved with were not the cafes or boutiques, it was fabric shops and private families who own the building, very local people and not any outside influence. We do bring in artists from overseas… if everyone painted a yin yang [or] a Hong Kong skyline, it wouldn’t be interesting. Variety’s good. And we do incorporate a lot of local artists, and we continue to, and we’re always looking for more.”

“If we add value to individual shopowner businesses and properties that aren’t owned by the government or developers, and it encourages people to visit the neighbourhood, could that positively affect the economy there, bring in more business and allow them to maintain, take control of their neighbourhood? A lot of the shops are closing because people aren’t visiting, going to the fabric district anymore, they’re going to China. They’re closing because business is slowing… I would hope that if there’s any effect, it’s a positive one and not a negative one for the business owners.”

The community responds

Many people in the community have had a positive response to the sudden splash of colour and design. Nick, a hip hop dancer who works at Cafe Sausalito on Tai Nan Street, said, “I think it’s a brilliant idea, that they’re doing this street art around this neighbourhood… I think it’s a great opportunity, [bringing] artists together.”

When asked whether the art might contribute to the gentrification in the area, Nick said, “It’s like gambling – you never know what’s going to happen. I think it’s better than nothing, because for a really long time Hong Kong has been missing art like this,” – unlike places in the U.S. such as New York or L.A., he said. “I love street art, and I totally support it. Even though later on it might be commercialised or gimmicky, it’s still good to draw people’s attention [to art].”

Shopkeepers whose shops’ walls have been used as canvasses for HKWalls also generally seem happy with the project; most of them were owners of fabric wholesale stores. “I think it’s good for the Hong Kong society. It’s less dreary and dead,” Mr Ku at Lam Shing Piece Goods Co. on Shek Kip Mei Street told HKFP. “The spirit is great – the government should put more money into these events, now that society’s so torn apart.”

hk walls street art
Mr Ku, Lam Shing Piece Goods Co. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

However, while some also said that they did not mind the walls being painted, they also said they were not the ones who had the say in whether to take part in HKWall’s project. “It was decided by the landlord,” the female shopkeeper at Hing Yip Textile Trading Co said.   

Shop owners were doubtful that the art brought a push to their business, despite a spike in flow of visitors to the area. “There’s not much of an impact… people just mostly come to take photos,” the shop owner at Super Shinning Trading Ltd on Wong Chuk Street told HKFP. Another also said, “If they want to make purchases, they would – the art doesn’t really have anything to do with the business.”

hk walls street art
Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Meanwhile, some in the community were troubled by another recent change to the neighbourhood – one that was far more unsettling than the street art. Old signboards that once littered the skyline were suddenly deemed “unauthorised” and were taken down over the past couple of months at the government’s orders. Many mourned their demise, and Mr Chow, who has for years worked in the fashion wholesale business in Sham Shui Po, was one of them. “Hollywood movies have been shot here,” he said; indeed, the street had served as the backdrop for Transformers 4. 

“Now, without these distinctive features, people don’t really come here anymore. The flavour of the community here has been lost, the signs were what made Tai Nan Street unique.”

When asked whether he thought the incoming art brought by HKWalls could perhaps replace that, Chow said, “These original local characteristics couldn’t be replaced no matter what. This street had many hardware stores – but now it’s all changing and new people are taking over. Maybe this [artwork] would benefit them. The art isn’t bad though, it’s neat.”

Gentrification fears

These were the very changes that Wong wished to draw attention to; it may perhaps be difficult to understand why he had such a strong response to HKWalls’ project without this context. When Wong protested that HKWalls was contributing to the government’s urban renewal process, he was not suggesting that HKWalls was colluding in secret with the government or developers. Rather, he was pointing out that HKWalls’ project “to promote art” would essentially, even if inadvertently, have the same effect as what the government does in the name of renewing the district: make property prices go up, put an end to small businesses that had flourished there organically, and force out those at the very bottom.

This was not a myth; it had already taken place in Kowloon East, when the government’s initiative to build a cultural hub in the area ejected many local bands from their practice spaces in industrial buildings in Kwun Tong. A community group raising awareness of urban renewal issues said in 2014 that in Sham Shui Po 187 old-style buildings have been demolished and over 6800 residents have been forced to move since 2001. Over 5000 subdivided flats have been taken apart, and the shops that closed down as a result of urban renewal was estimated at almost 500.

Another controversial move by the government was the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s decision – without prior consultation – to close down Pang Jai – the largest fabric and accessories hawker market in Sham Shui Po, frequented by fashion students and designers. Perhaps an indication of how unpopular the decision was that both the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camp said they were opposed to the plan earlier this year.

save pang jai market
Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“Sham Shui Po was originally one of the most affordable places in Hong Kong, because it’s one of the poorest. You can get a meal for HK$20. I have some friends there living in subdivided flats,” Wong told HKFP. “But now it’s going through a period of transition and elimination. The area wasn’t quite ‘pretty’ enough, so expensive coffee shops and fancy restaurants come into the picture. This is gentrification – the organic community doesn’t fetch much market value, so it gets ‘boosted’ [to] look creative, attractive to tourists and so on…”

“I have nothing against street art or murals. I appreciate these things, and as an artist of course I want to take part too. But you need to look at the whole picture. People have been citing examples of Brazil or Brooklyn, but context and economic structure is important. Hong Kong’s culture of creativity is just the packaging, the wrapping paper – it’s branding. It’s very detached from the true state of art, which is supposed to be about empowerment, but the only thing this empowers is merchants.”

hk walls street art
Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Wong said he was not, as Dembski suggested, against the idea of bringing art to the poor. “Of course it’s something to be supported. But what kind of legacy is produced after it’s done? This is what’s important. It’s pointless if people suffer as a result of it.”

“The worst part is, artists act out of good intentions, thinking they want to share with others the beauty and aesthetics of art, but they end up achieving the opposite of what they want… to me, Sham Shui Po is really warm, and I grew up there. But the way discussions on these topics go – there’s a class war. They use a ‘bourgeois gaze’ to look at the grassroots community, and see it as their playground. They think they can do whatever they want, and that they have this gift to bring here, which is art. But the community itself has their own kind of creativity, just not the type they’re used to. It’s like colonisation.”

“I want to warn artists all over the world, to reflect on what they are doing by taking part in these one-off community projects, for this kind of creative branding,” Wong added. “Local artists who are critical may refuse to take part, but then artists from other parts of the world, from Paris, Barcelona, who might not know what’s going on might be flown in to achieve that purpose, and then they leave.”

If there was one thing both Dembski and Wong could agree on, it is that more discussion was needed.  “For example, you could really ask the opinions of those living in subdivided flats, or artists who are aware of gentrification – others really might not know about this at all,” Wong said. “We could look at ways to protect the community facing the threat of gentrification, such as having rent control, or guaranteeing the rights of existing shops and ensuring they don’t disappear, or coming up with mechanisms to counter big corporations.”

“It shouldn’t be an egocentric event when you come and paint, and then you leave. It’s never just about the art – it’s also about poverty.”

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.