Architect Manfred Yuen Man-to looks every bit the city slicker with his gelled quiff and clean-cut appearance. But despite his relative youth Yuen, 33, has a social awareness one would expect from an older person.
Yuen has an architectural firm, Groundwork.
“My clients are divided,” he says. “There’s a bunch of commercial clients who bring in the money”, those starting up businesses, opening factories, developing land.
And then there’s the other side of his work – collaborating with non-governmental organisations, Yuen’s contribution to improving the world around him.
There’s Christian Action, Oxfam, the Hong Kong Society of Education and Arts. He’s an honorary adviser to the Hong Kong Scout Association and helps the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
Yuen’s internationally prize-winning designs include a place for elderly people – but not a static one, where people sit on sofas in front of the television. It’s a train. Yuen’s thinks the elderly should be able to travel and live their dreams, even meet others for romance aboard the train, a chance to have an adventure in their twilight years.
“Some architects tend to work from the ego,” says Yuen, and he’s frustrated by them. An architect needs to think about the people he or she is serving, not just go on some aesthetic whim.
Yuen finds that his “passion for helping people” is escalating. He sometimes ropes in students from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he also teaches, to help on his social projects.
His “retired” father smiles from a table in the corner of the office. One of Yuen’s key supporters, he also handles the accounts. Another key figure has been his godfather, Suen Kwai-ping, a retired civil servant who is active with the Tung Wah and inspired Yuen to start his latest project.
“I decided to get together with some friends and I’d also been thinking about the students at Hong Kong Space and the Polytechnic University, and I thought: ‘how do I mobilise these kids’?”
He wanted to see students used to working with computers in an air-conditioned environment do some real labour – with a purpose. So he got them to join his team and go to housing estates where Tung Wah already has community projects to paint the flats of elderly residents.
“Many were living with their families but their children have moved out and their spouse has died.”
It can be a very lonely existence.
They are usually delighted when Yuen’s friends and the students turn up, not only because they paint the flat but also it shows people care and there’s the chance for a chat. Yuen also gets young neighbours to join in.
The elderly residents are part of a programme run by Yuen’s godfather.
“We’re able to get through three to five flats in a day if we allocate 10 amateur painters to the job,” he says.
Yuen would like to see a system whereby young neighbours visit these elderly residents regularly, particularly during winter or during a typhoon, to check that they are alright and to develop a connection between the generations.
“In that way, these young people can take care of the elderly and contribute to their own community,” he says. “They can simply be there to take care when necessary. I definitely don’t think it is the case that youngsters don’t want to help, they simply don’t have the platform.”
Yuen recently designed a Chinese Opera stand for an elderly home in Tai Po.
And so the ideas keep coming.