By Roger Hill

To a visitor central Hong Kong and Kowloon are all towers. We look up, or we go to The Peak to take a momentary overview of one of the most densely populated cities on earth. What we don’t do is associate the city with farming. Business, finance and retail, yes, but the idea that urban farming is happening within that urban mass, and on rooftops, would strike a tourist as unlikely.

It might also seem strange that a city which represents for many the apex of eastern prosperity and economic activity, should need the food grown by rooftop farmers.

Photo: Vincent Assante di Cupillo.

But this is the capitalist world and one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line. Fresh, free or affordable food is needed by many, and rooftop farms are part of a response to the problem. Urban farming is not new and nor are rooftop farms – Brooklyn and Rotterdam, for example, have been home to some major enterprises for some time – but Hong Kong is now waking up to the need for such green initiatives.

One such initiative brings me to the roof of the Fringe Club in the Central district of Hong Kong Island. Rooftop farms do not involve large tracts of earth and here the roofscape is an array of neatly organized planting boxes. It is Spring and growth is starting to be abundant.

Andrew Tsui is a co-founder of Rooftop Republic, a Community Interest project with farms all over the city. The project began four years ago as a collaboration between a number of individuals who wanted to do something for the city they were living in.

Andrew studied civil engineering and has a love of structures. An interest in green building and bringing nature into the city has combined with his sense of social responsibility to provide the impetus for a project which can bring people together and grow communities at the same time.

Andrew Tsui, co-founder of Rooftop Republic. Photo: Vincent Assante di Cupillo.

It’s not all about rooftops, Andrew explains, “it could be any space that’s available in the urban area, common area on ground level, a balcony, a window-ledge or kitchen table – what we are looking for is under-utilized or “idling” urban spaces and a lot of them are rooftops” The project has set up ten such growing projects in the last year and one of the most spectacular initiatives is located on the top of a corporate building, 39 stories above the city on a decommissioned helicopter landing pad. It has survived the increasingly restless Hong Kong weather of typhoons and heatwaves for nearly three years and is still going strong.

Each growing project has its own character. The roof of the Fringe Club is dedicated to herbs and vegetables: basil, rosemary, mint, lemon-balm, okra, cucumbers and spinach. Rooftop Republic work with local chefs and some of these crops go to local restaurants, so if you have consumed a particularly tasty meal or cocktail in Central it may be thanks to this rooftop-farm.

Other produce goes to the foodbanks in the city, and Rooftop Republic runs projects with schools which allow students to take home some of the fruits of their curricular studies in science and biology. Similarly the project runs training and workshops for local participants who can enjoy the rewards of their growing labours.

For all of its green credentials the project is not primarily about the produce. Its principal aims are social, as Andrew explains, “We want to re-connect city dwellers with one another, in a physical space, to enjoy the fun of farming, and to reconnect busy city people with the food we are eating every day.”

In the larger picture it is about developing communities. Each growing initiative is designed with a group of local stakeholders and takes into consideration issues of access and sustainability, commitment and environmental factors. The aim is, as Andrew puts it, “to unlock the relational potential in that particular situation, to unlock the space for the community.”

There has been an encouraging level of support from corporate interests, ready to fulfil their responsibilities to the wider community. Rooftop Republic has looked abroad for inspiration and received interest from other countries, in particular from South Korea.

They welcome visitors, both local and international, as much for what they can learn from them as what they can share, about, “how we can live more sustainably with nature, but also with people. The harvests from the gardens, they are merely the bonus from the care and love everybody puts in.” Somewhere in this picture of a future is, I think, the idea of global citizenship.

Perhaps for a visitor the most surprising perspective from all this is to see Hong Kong, this busy city of 7 million people, as a place of poverty, want and need. Some kind of crisis seems to be developing. Statistics suggest that the city has the widest income gap, between rich and poor, of any developed country in the world. Also, 3,200 tonnes of food go to waste in the city each day. 21 charities and community organizations provide direct food-banking services and the city’s landfill is at capacity.

Vegetable seller in market in Hong Kong. Photo: David Guyler via Flickr.

Rooftop Republic is not the only such project in Hong Kong. HK Farm is pursuing similar initiatives and Feeding Hong Kong has a very developed network for the re-distribution of waste food, but can a city where everybody seems to be focused on money find enough green initiatives to offset these alarming tendencies?

“We need to put through a lot of innovation,” says, Andrew, “to think one step further. I think the world realizes today that there are things that money can’t buy. As the saying goes, ‘Money can buy you a house, but it can’t buy you a home’. It’s the people who make it a home and it’s the relationships – how can we balance both? I guess that’s the journey we’re on now. We don’t have the answers yet, but we’re optimistic.“

Roger Hill is a broadcaster and writer based in the UK. He is also involved in theatre, education and arts work for local and international agencies. He has a particular interest in architecture and has carried out a number of performance projects in Southern China. Follow him on the Rooftop Republic website and Facebook page.

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