Tastemaker: a design for life by Michael Leung

Michael Leung is dedicated to urban design with a conscience, writes Christopher DeWolf

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 3:47pm

Sometimes it seems as though everyone knows Michael Leung - even the owner of a Kwun Tong dai pai dong, who chats amiably with the young designer as he sits down for lunch. "We made a 'zine about him," Leung says. "He's really proud of it."

Scratch the surface of Hong Kong's creative scene and you're bound to come across something Leung is involved in. There's Shanghai Street Studios, which runs art, design and cultural initiatives in Yau Ma Tei; HK Honey, the urban beekeeping project he founded two years ago; HK Farm, an experiment in rooftop agriculture; and 2 Years Ahead, a publishing and furniture-building project.

And that doesn't even begin to cover Leung's freelance work or his teaching at Polytechnic University's School of Design, where he will lecture on "design for the Asian lifestyle" next month.

"I think all the projects are related, so it's almost like they're the same thing," says Leung, settling into a wicker chair on the roof of the Easy-Pack Industrial Building in Kwun Tong, where he maintains an organic farm and apiary with the help of photographer Glenn Eugen Ellingesen and archivist Matthew Edmondson. "I'll do a food-safety project and I won't know whether to put it in HK Honey or HK Farm."

Leung is 28, with a shaved head, and wearing a printed T-shirt made by his friends at Start from Zero, the street art crew whose studio is just down the street.

It has been three years since Leung left his native London - where he worked as a product designer for Motorola - to study for a master of design degree at PolyU. Soon after he arrived, he realised Hong Kong was lacking in socially conscious design, so for his final project he created HK Honey, an attempt to bridge the city's rural beekeeping culture with the urban reality of most of its residents.

Leung didn't know anything about bees - "I used to be really scared of them" - so he contacted Yip Ki-hok, a beekeeper who runs an apiary in Sha Tin. Yip taught him how to manage a hive and collect honey and beeswax, and Leung began to install hives on rooftops around the city. He also packaged Yip's honey in elegant glass bottles sealed with beeswax, which could be turned into candles when the honey ran out, and sold them at design shops such as Kapok in Wan Chai. Leung now has 26 stings to show for his work. "I keep count," he says.

He rented an old tong lau flat on Shanghai Street, complete with decades-old furniture and wood partitions, and started working with photographer Martin Cheung Chun-yeung to document the life and culture of Yau Ma Tei. For one of his early projects, they sifted through unclaimed photos from a local photo developer, collecting enough to create a surprisingly intimate and evocative peek into neighbourhood life.

Lately, HK Farm has been taking up much of Leung's attention. Walking past rows of home-made wooden containers, Leung points out the latest crops. "Here's some okra. The sweet basil is doing really well because of the bees, which pollinate it."

The project is primarily educational in scope: school groups often visit the roof to learn about the potential of urban agriculture, and sometimes more basic concepts such as the relationship between bees and plants.

It's also a model of community participation. "We fertilise it with food scraps from the local dai pai dong and factory canteens," says Leung. "One of them even delivers it to us."

Leung is a media darling of sorts, with glowing coverage in local Chinese and English press, and his work is drawing international attention, too.

HK Honey and HK Farm are taking part in Hong Kong's exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world's most high-profile showcase of architecture and urban design. Leung was also invited to speak at Design East, a cutting-edge design festival held last month in Osaka.

"Sometimes I feel quite lonely here because there aren't many designers doing what I do. But going to Japan was a real eye-opener. There I was surrounded by people doing the same thing as me."

Leung says he has run into a bit of a roadblock because, although he speaks Cantonese, he cannot read Chinese, which prevents him from fully delving into the social issues with which he is concerned.

"Connecting with landlords in Kwun Tong or local schools - things where I might need to approach them in writing - that's where I feel a communication barrier," he says.

He also wants to refocus his efforts on his social mission, with less emphasis on selling expensive HK Honey products. One bottle of honey sells for HK$240, most of which goes to support the project's free workshops, tours and other initiatives. "When people buy the honey, it's almost like an ethical quick fix, because they can feel good about buying something local," says Leung.

A better solution is to give consumers first-hand experience with the origin of their products. "You can buy a clean-burning candle from Kapok or you can come up onto the rooftop, see where the wax comes from and make a candle yourself," he says.

HK Farm has been approached to open a rooftop farm on a new government-run building. The details haven't been made public, but Leung is working to overcome the government's resistance to matters such as composting.

"It's a slow process, but as a product designer you're trained to work with constraints. When I was working on mobile phones, a structural engineer would sometimes come up to me and say, 'That's impossible.' So you adapt."