Spirit of Hong Kong

Fan of public housing photography chronicles Hong Kong’s old estates where life was simpler ... and more spacious

William Leung’s award-winning works offer glimpse into community life and human interaction among residents that is fast disappearing in city’s urban sprawl

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 10:00am

It has been 22 years since William Leung Wai-yum first set foot on Wah Fu Estate in Hong Kong’s Southern district.

Having visited the public housing estate many times, the 38-year-old hobbyist still finds the neighbourhood fascinating.

“You will see different things when you come at different times of the day or in different seasons,” he said, citing the century-long tradition of dragon dance performances in the district during the Mid-Autumn Festival as an example. “It is one of the several public housing estates that I stop by at regularly.”

Leung, who works in the exhibition industry, began touring public housing estates across the city in the 1990s.

He has visited over 200 estates and taken more than 200,000 photos of residential blocks, chronicling the changes in Hong Kong’s public housing schemes that now accommodate about 2 million people, or 30 per cent of the city’s population.

It all started in his teens when Leung, who was not a public housing resident, wanted to see estates slated for demolition. Armed with just a map and his father’s camera, he embarked on excursions by bus throughout the city.

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“I started to keep a record of things that I found interesting at these estates with a film camera,” he recalled. “The process became a lot easier and cheaper as I could afford a digital camera in the 2000s.”

Over the years he has grown into his role as a witness to Hong Kong’s evolving public housing estates.

A photograph of Jat Min Chuen in Sha Tin, which offered a glimpse of the lives of residents in the small flats there, won Leung a major photography award earlier this year.

He shares most of his work on his Hong Kong Estate Gallery Facebook page.

For his efforts to document community development and capture the lives of residents, Leung has been nominated by the South China Morning Post for its Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, which honour inspirational individuals and groups that make the city a better place to live in.

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The Post has recommended him for the Cultural Preservation category, which recognises people who have made a sustainable impact on cultural conservation.

Leung said he believed the ambience of many old public housing estates was unique.

“There are large community areas. Residents stroll around and have all kinds of activities there.

“In the past, public housing tenants [hung their clothes out to dry on poles that can be attached to sockets beneath windows]. That’s real life,” he said.

The Hongkonger said he wanted to tell the stories about the relationship between people and their homes.

New public housing estates that usually featured purpose-designed facilities rarely retained that experience of spaces for community interaction, he added.