Underfoot marvels

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2011, 12:00am


Colour in the streets of Hong Kong is generally limited to neon signs and giant advertising billboards. More often than not, they seem like eyesores, rather than works of art.

And you certainly won't find much to marvel at underfoot.

Yet the very pavement we walk on could offer limitless possibilities for adding colour to our city.

Take the example of Japan. There, the government has managed to enliven one of the most mundane of public utilities: the manhole cover.

Called manhoru, manhole covers are used as canvases for street art. They add a welcome splash of colour and decoration to Japanese towns and cities.

The designs of manhole covers number in the hundreds, spreading across 1,750 municipalities. They vary from town to town. These steel canvases can even be seen as markers of regional identity: many of them bear symbols that locals feel best represent the character and geography of their region.

Many covers sport cartoon characters, local landmarks, township logos, historical figures and nature scenes. Images range from a scene of a 10th century folk tale in Fuji City and tuna riding the waves in the fishing port of Yaizu, to a football match in Saitama.

The manhole covers are testament to a unique blend of civic pride and people's appreciation for good designs.

Municipalities all around the country have actively encouraged the spread of manhole cover art.

The origins of colourful manhole covers date back to the 1980s. Local governments met with resistance when they tried to replace ageing sewer systems. In an ingenious compromise, a government official suggested the idea of customised manhole covers.

The idea caught on. Citizens began to take pride in manhoru designs as they set about emblazoning manhole covers with township symbols.

Customised covers are painted with durable tree resin, which makes it a more expensive form of street art.

In other countries, these beautiful works of art might be at risk of being stolen and sold for scrap metal. Yet the Japanese philosophy of treating the streets like one's own home has ensured the manhole covers have stayed in their places. Although manhoru art has been evident on the streets of Japan for much of the past three decades, it was only recently that this cultural phenomenon began gaining more widespread attention worldwide.

That is thanks to a rapidly increasing online community of manhole cover enthusiasts who call themselves 'drainspotters'. These enthusiasts dutifully document the different varieties of manhoru that they encounter, uploading pictures of them to photo-sharing websites.

Fascinated with Japanese manhole covers, some enthusiasts even go on sight-seeing trips just to admire these street-level marvels.