Portraits from Above

TEXT Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham
PHOTOS Stefan Canham

No publicly accessible maps or guidebooks offer the specific locations of Hong Kong’s rooftop communities. The best way to find them is to simply walk the city, with your head tilted upward. There is a broad range of self-built rooftop structures: in more affluent areas they are used as storage sheds; others are living-space extensions from the floor below. The roofs of tenement buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s are often transformed into low-cost housing catering to low-income groups and new immigrants. Quite a few consist of intricate two- to three-storey-high structures equipped with amenities like high-speed Internet connections and rooftop gardens, while others provide little more than basic shelter.

Self-built settlements on the roofs of high-rise buildings have been an integral part of Hong Kong’s history for over half a century. The rise of rooftop communities is closely linked to the migration history from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong. Large influxes of migrants arrived in the city with each of China’s tumultuous political movements in the 20th century. The resultant severe housing shortage fostered the emergence of a plethora of informal settlements, and the flat roofs of buildings became attractive sites for bricolages of self-built homes.

The majority of rooftop residents climb four to nine storeys to their homes. When seen from higher buildings across the street, the roofs resemble small villages. A maze-like system of corridors and stairs provides access to each unit. Building services, typically found on the exterior of the building envelope in subtropical climates, are easily extended upwards to serve rooftop units. The strata of various building materials offer clues to the evolution of a rooftop settlement. The metre-high parapets act as secure armatures for subsequent layers of construction, and the first layer of units provides the foundation for a second, and sometimes a third. Over time, the huts grow to be structurally dependent on each other. Remove one, and the rest may collapse.

Today, rooftop housing remains a vibrant phenomenon in the city’s older districts. For the underprivileged, rooftop housing continues to be an affordable housing choice where it is needed–in central urban areas, in the vicinity of employment opportunities, and in areas with well-established social networks. Officially, rooftop structures are classified as “unauthorized building works” and are subject to demolition at any time. In the course of the city’s rapid urban renewal, areas with older buildings and a large number of inhabited roofs generally receive a tabula rasa redevelopment approach–whole building blocks and traditional urban fabric are demolished to make way for new, more profitable developments. In the face of imminent urban renewal, the future of Hong Kong’s rooftop legacy remains precarious at best. CA

Portraits from Above is a book and exhibition project by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham. For more information, please visit www.peperoni-books.de.