Yarn bomb queen's next Hong Kong target is Tsing Ma Bridge

The craze began in the US with a doorknob cosy. Now, Hong Kong's Esther Poon is eyeing the Tsing Ma Bridge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm

You've probably seen Esther Poon Suk-han's work around Hong Kong. Her creations hang not on the walls of galleries, but from public railings, poles, trees and - for her most recent and ambitious project - from a footbridge.

Poon is the city's celebrity yarn bomber - the term used for street art in which knitters and crocheters put swatches of knitted or crocheted yarn on public objects. The Lek Yuen Bridge in Sha Tin, spanning the Shing Mun River Channel, was the latest structure to be measured and fitted out by Poon, the project part of the Jockey Club Community Arts Biennale 2015.

With the help of 1,000 volunteers, Poon and her crew weaved a colourful palette of knitted and crochet squares, the final piece standing bright against a backdrop of grey housing estates stretching towards an equally grey sky. It added much-needed colour to the area.

It's hard to stop the corners of your mouth curling skyward when you see Poon's works - and that's the reaction she wants. "What fuelled my enthusiasm for yarn bombing, what made me want to take my creations to the streets, was seeing how these colourful creations could have a positive effect on passers-by," she says.

Adding colour to otherwise sterile public places is one reason yarn bombing - also known as guerilla knitting, kniffiti, urban knitting and graffiti knitting - has won fans globally. And before thoughts wander to graffiti for needle-bearing grandmas, think again: while the legion of fans worldwide are mostly women, they span all ages. There's even an International Yarn Bombing Day, which this year falls on June 13.

Poon says she was inspired to take up yarn bombing after meeting Magda Sayeg, the Texan woman often referred to as the mother of the craft. Sayeg is credited with having kickstarted the yarn craze in 2005 when, on a slow day at work, she decided to cover the door handle of her boutique with a cosy. Her stitchery soon spread to Houston, where she was soon covering buses, trees, cars and staircases.

The police have walked by and said things like ‘Did you do that?’ and ‘They look great’

Her fame has taken her around the world, where she's covered objects from parking meters in New York to buses in Mexico. On the Indonesian island of Bali, Sayeg covered the gun held by an eight-metre-high statue of a soldier, sending a message of peace; she also dressed a rock on the Great Wall.

Corporations have jumped on the bandwagon, commissioning Sayeg to knit sweaters for Prius, Smart Cars and Mini Cooper vehicles. And she sells knitted iPhone covers online.

In 2012, Sayeg staged "I Knit MK" in Mong Kok. She collaborated with Langham Place to knit a goldfish stall like those at the famous goldfish market, as well as a giant "I (heart) MK" sign. "I had no idea about yarn bombing before 'I Knit MK'," says Poon. "When I searched online, I realised it was a big deal, but it hadn't taken off here in Hong Kong."

Poon is changing that. As for how much space she has covered, Poon says she has no idea. "I haven't calculated how many kilometres I've covered. I do it because I enjoy it."

The process is simple: once she locates a target, she takes the measurements and does most of the knitting at home. "With 30 years of knitting and crocheting experience, I'm really fast-fingered and can complete a job in a few days."

For her first project along Hollywood Road, Poon was nervous. "I was shaking. I did the 'bombing' very quickly in the morning. But after a lot of positive reactions, I started to relax."

She says she's never had any problems with the police or with government officials. "When I've been installing my works, the police have walked by and said things like 'Did you do that?' and 'They look great'. Because the installations are not permanent, they don't seem to mind."

Before picking up her needles, Poon spent 15 years as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. She now freelances as a fitness instructor, her flexible hours allowing her to focus more on yarn-bombing projects. "I can't do yarn bombing full-time yet - you can't make money from it."

A self-taught knitter, Poon plans to spread the woolly word. "I want to inspire more people to learn knitting and crocheting and continue spreading the graffiti-knitting message. I offer lessons to the public, and last year I formed my first crew, about eight members. They are now working with me on large projects. I always tell my crew to follow these mottoes: 'Never give up' and 'Nothing is impossible'."

For the Sha Tin project, Poon worked with more than 20 school students. "They picked up the techniques really quickly and designed the poles for the bridge. It was amazing. I use 100 per cent acrylic yarn for my street works. All these are temporary installations, so it's not a problem when it rains."

While Poon works alone most of the time, she is occasionally joined by her small terrier, Way Way, when taking measurements and installing her works. "I think he's the world's first yarn-bombing doggie," she says, laughing. "I seldom knit for him. Winters in Hong Kong aren't cold enough for a jacket, but I'll knit some doggie accessories."

As for future projects, Poon has set her sights high: the Tsing Ma Bridge, which links the New Territories and Lantau (with a main span of 1,377 metres and a height of 206 metres, the span is the largest of all bridges in the world carrying rail traffic). "When my crew asked me what's my next step, I thought: 'How about the Tsing Ma Bridge?'"

Seems nothing is too big, or too long, for this yarn bomber.