The chances are, as you read this, that you are sitting in a building that is covered with glazed tiles, a result of Hong Kong’s love affair with this type of building exterior.
Early photos show the city’s walls plastered in stucco, rendered in plaster or concrete, or faced with bricks of various kinds. The resultant effect could be pleasing, and this trend continued into the immediate post-war era.
Building maintenance and long-term planning have, sadly, never been Hong Kong’s strong points. The cultural preference for one-off, quick-fix, cheap-aspossible solutions is no more apparent than in the phenomenon of glazed-tile exterior surfaces.
They ensure there is no need to paint the building – one application is usually all that’s needed for the structure’s own fairly short life expectancy.
Shoddy building methods in the 1950s and 60s played a key role in the introduction of tiles.
Plastered over exterior surfaces, tiles helped waterproof substandard buildings.
Because of chronic shortages of fresh water in those years, combined with some of the best building inspectors money could buy, contractors often used salt water when making concrete.
This caused the corrosion of reinforcing bars, and cracks and leaks started appearing within a few years. By the time the damage had become obvious, a building had probably long since been sold – possibly several times.
Then, as now, it was virtually impossible to take serious action against property developers, as class-action suits are not permitted under local law.
Lee Iu-cheung (1896-1976), businessman, philanthropist and University of Hong Kong engineering graduate, was one of the first to popularise the tile.
Lee owned local factories that made tiles and sanitary ware, and for this reason was nicknamed Chee Saw Wong (“toilet king”).
Reasonably priced and practical, tiles were a universal feature of Hong Kong buildings by the end of the 60s, and so they remain.
Lee began building the extensive Dragon Garden complex in Sham Tseng, just north of Tsuen Wan, in 1949. Over the next 20 years, he enlarged the eighthectare compound into a Chinese pleasure ground to rival (perhaps intentionally) the better known, but now-demolished, Tiger Balm Garden in Tai Hang. Numerous bathroom and other types of tile were used in the construction of the gardens, and porcelain sinks were scattered around the site.
The use of glazed toilet tiles on every conceivable surface has become universal. The Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, conceived and designed by Hong Kong architects, is covered in dust-pink tiles. Similar surfaces cover the nearby Museum of Art, the Space Museum and Museum of History.
Across the New Territories, unsightly rashes of badly built, virtually unplanned “Spanish villa” developments have proliferated since the 80s. Whole tracts are encrusted with dust-pink and oyster-grey tiles, which – given a coating of grime, courtesy of our air pollution – soon become horribly dingy.
Because of the government’s need to mollify powerful vested interests in the New Territories at every opportunity, the construction of such homes, mandated by the small-house policy, seems set to continue – along with the sale of bathroom tiles for out-of-bathroom purposes.