Years ago when I lived in Hong Kong, some good friends rented an unauthorized apartment constructed on top of a building in a fancy neighborhood. The apartment was spacious and beautiful. We laughed about the illegal top floor, but nothing about it really seemed unsafe.
But that’s not the case with most of Hong Kong’s rooftop communities. I recently read a stunning book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham titled Portraits from Above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities (MCCM Creations/Peperoni Books, 2010).
Comprised of photos, architectural drawings, and bilingual text, this book tells the story of residents in five buildings in Kowloon that have multiple, illegal rooftop dwellings.
The first thing that struck me about these apartments wasn’t their compact size. I’ve lived in cramped rooms or flats there, although they were still spacious compared to many homes in Hong Kong. No, what stood out were the all-in-one rooms that people lived in for many years. Many of these dwellings were small studio apartments with the toilet right next to the bed or kitchen hotplate.
Reading about the residents’ lives was fascinating. Many were immigrants from China, although not all had come to Hong Kong in recent years. Some were single men who did labor work; others were families. Some were South Asian men, saving up for bigger flats. Others had lived in dormitories and preferred their own space, even though these rooftop structures are not very sturdy and often cannot keep out the rain and wind.
The combination of photos and architectural drawings work well together. The text is minimal, but still gives the reader a snippet of what it’s like for residents in rooftop communities.
I found this book through the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, but it’s also available on Amazon for those of us who don’t live in Hong Kong.