Hong Kong upcycling group on urban renewal, community and making good use of what’s thrown away

Designers, cyclists, artists and architects show people in run-down To Kwa Wan how to turn waste into things of value, and hope to help preserve community’s spirit as redevelopment looms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 5:16pm

In the crumbling old Kowloon neighbourhood of To Kwa Wan, cha chaan teng – Hong Kong tea restaurants – rub shoulders with traditional Chinese medicine shops and family-run grocery stores. The area of low-rise residential blocks and factory buildings near the city’s former Kai Tak airport has maintained much of its local character.

On a corner of Kowloon City Road, next to a string of car repair workshops, is the On Lok Factory Building. Although it’s no longer churning out commercial goods, it is still a centre of production as the base of creative group Wheel Thing Makers.

Sourcing their raw materials from refuse bins and workshops around the neighbourhood, the group upcycles anything useful they find into bikes, carts and various other items. Their inventions are usually given back to the To Kwa Wan community or put on display during regular exhibitions at the nearby Cattle Depot Artist Village.

A recent show at the artist village included wooden horses on wheels, with tyres for seating, which were painted by young children during a workshop.

Established by Gary Chan Pui-gay and Paddy Ng Pak-fung, Wheel Thing Makers welcomes people from all walks of life. The members include professional cyclists, designers, architects and artists.

Chan was nicknamed “Bike Mad” by local media after being arrested in 2014 for driving an unregistered vehicle. He was fined HK$3,000 and had his driver’s licence suspended for a year – a high price to pay for testing his experimental solar-powered bike on a public road.

The episode did not deter him from inventing and building more bikes, though. Before long he had joined forces with Ng, a former social policy consultant, and established Wheel Thing Makers.

The aim was very simple in the beginning: to realise Chan’s ideas for his bicycle designs and to encourage more Hongkongers to take up cycling.

Hong Kong accessories designer Vincci Ching committed to upcycling for sake of environment

The longer they spent hanging out in To Kwa Wan, however, the more they realised they could do much more than just make bikes – they could also use their skills to help local residents.

“This community has provided us with a lot of raw materials – old car tyres, among other things. We usually test our products in the neighbourhood and some of these creations have ended up being very popular among the community. Locals now contact us if they have waste materials, knowing that we can perhaps come up with something that will help them,” Ng says.

Among the group’s most popular products are flowerpots crafted from old tyres. The tyres are cleaned, cut in half and assembled using a few metal rods. The planters have been given away to residents for their homes and to car repair shops.

The group has also held free workshops on how to assemble these alternative planters. Children and their parents come along for a day, get their hands dirty and take their unique upcycled products home.

Wheel Thing Makers also collaborate with secondary schools and universities to raise awareness about the importance of community and recycling.

“We are offering something that the school curriculum does not – how to make things with our own hands,” Chan says.

The group recently worked on a project with visual arts students from Pooi To Middle School. Using old tyres as their raw material, the young artists were encouraged to tell their own stories.

Kate Lum Sum-yuen, 17, used her project to explore how Hong Kong children can be self-centred. She placed a doll in front of a tyre on which were fixed objects representing a mother, helper, teacher and other figures. As the wheel turned, the figures span around the doll – representing how children may think the world revolves around them.

“Using old tyres as a material is challenging. They were so heavy to carry back to the workshop. Although it was hard to clean and cut them, it was great fun giving new life to materials that had been thrown in dumpsters,” Kate says.

Last June, the government announced an extensive HK$10 billion urban regeneration initiative for the To Kwa Wan area. Many old homes and factory buildings will be demolished to make way for modern residential high-rises. Inevitably, some of the neighbourhood’s local character will also vanish. Many shop owners live in the area, and they worry about how they’ll make a living if they are forced to leave, or if their local customers are also displaced.

We came up with the affordable food bike. We are already doing way better in terms of mobility than the new food trucks
Paddy Ng

Another of the Wheel Thing Makers’ projects seeks to help To Kwa Wan residents find new sources of income. The group has begun collaborating with apprentices at some of the car repair workshops.

Ng says the technical skills the mechanics possess – welding, for example – are valuable and often hard to learn. So the group is also acting as a research and development centre, trying to create new products that will utilise the mechanics’ skills.

“We want to show them that they could actually use their skills to find other commissioned work, and in turn make more money,” Ng says.

With an estimated 200 car repair shops in the area, Ng is hopeful that the project will interest a growing number of mechanics.

The group has also responded to government initiatives. One example is the food trucks announced by former financial secretary John Tsang during his 2015 budget address. In a bid to boost tourism in Hong Kong, 16 licences have been issued by the government for food trucks to operate in various locations. Run-down To Kwa Wan is not one of them.

The Wheel Thing Makers responded by building several “affordable food bikes”. Old wheels and other scrap materials were pieced together, with a wooden box in front.

“The whole point of the food trucks is mobility, but the problem in Hong Kong is that we do not have a lot of space for such massive vehicles. So we came up with the affordable food bike. We are already doing way better in terms of mobility than the new food trucks, and the cost of the bikes is also minimal,” Ng adds.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival last year, the group took one of the bikes for a test run – despite not having a licence to sell food. Collaborating with shops in Yau Ma Tei, Wheel Thing Makers was part of an activity called “Peasants’ Food Truck”.

Taste test reveals truth about Hong Kong’s food trucks: snacks that are bland, overpriced and hard to eat

The members also showed off their coffee bean bike, made in a similar style. Using pedal power, coffee beans are pulverised for making fresh coffee.

The group recently had to move out of its rooftop workshop – an unauthorised structure that the government demolished. Fortunately, a more spacious and reasonably priced space in the same factory building was available.

But Ng says that for many makers’ groups in Hong Kong, the lack of affordable space is a huge challenge. As the old factory buildings gradually disappear, workshop space will go the same way.

Despite all of the challenges, Ng believes that Hongkongers are beginning to recognise the importance of community work. He is optimistic that an increasing number of people will support their cause and come to appreciate their alternative art works.

As to the future of To Kwa Wan, Ng understands the importance of urban renewal, but it is the human connections and community character, he says, that he is hoping to help preserve.