Ugly bit planned for otherwise beautiful Sheung Wan

Perhaps not surprisingly for a city that owes its existence to unequal treaties, Hong Kong barely raises an eyebrow on learning that buyers of individual hotel suites at Cheung Kong’s Apex Horizon project in Kwai Chung are signing some rather lopsided contracts. The Standard emphasizes the disclaimers purchasers sign for lawyers, who want to duck any blame if the government seizes the property, while the South China Morning Post spells out more about the conditions attached by the developer, which (among other things) wants management and other fees but not the responsibility to renew the hotel licence in 2018. These buyers would make an excellent case study for a behavioral psychologist.

Meanwhile, back in civilization… I must have strolled down Sheung Wan’s Wing Lok Street where it turns into Bonham Strand dozens or hundreds of times – most recently a couple of weeks ago. I don’t recall ever seeing a rump of concrete and greenery at the intersection with Morrison Street. But apparently, there is one: a sort of sitting-out area with a very limited number of places to sit, apparently left as an open space as an emergency vehicle access route.

The District Council has decided to spend over HK$4 million on renovations, specifically the installation of a little covered performance stage and a pair of flagpoles. In the grand scheme of Hong Kong money-wasting urban-planning disasters, it is pretty minor. But the Central and Western Concern Group can’t, as their name suggests, resist an opportunity to fret. One of them complains about the blueprint’s ‘ugliness’ and ‘gross nationalism’, as well as the waste of money.

Flicking through the plan by Associated Architects, we find that the improvements are aimed at overcoming three problems: the benches are at an uncomfortable sitting height; the current sculpture, signboard and pillar box obstruct the intended performance stage; and the arrangement of planters is inconsistent. One possible set of solutions would be: buy a few more, bigger, seats (they’re cheap and the place could use them); stop ‘intending’ a performance stage, since nobody has asked for one; and get someone to move the planters to the desired degree of regimentation. But, hey, then we’ve still got HK$4 million lying around.

So here’s a better plan. First, replace the benches with seating with a different uncomfortable sitting height. Then, distract sitters’ attention from the discomfort by giving them flags to watch gently flapping in the balmy breeze, for which we need to install two flagpoles – a tall China one and a short Hong Kong one. Second, ‘intend’ the performance stage after all, move the obstructions, and put in a nice expensive platform, also at an uncomfortable sitting height, with a curved roof like one Zaha Hadid would design if she did bus shelters.  Third, move the disorderly planters around until the anal District Office woman who’s always straightening pictures on walls is happy.

Tragically, even the most expensive 40ft- and 35ft-flagpoles don’t run to HK$1 million, and there’s only so much you can spend on a concrete stage with recycled  plastic wood composite decking and canopy. We need something else, aside from Associated Architects Ltd’s invoice. And voila… 

…a new iconic sculpture is born.

Central and Western Concern Group Guy’s dislike of the plan’s ‘gross nationalism’ is a bit harsh. But ‘ugliness’ seems spot on. The ‘iconic sculpture’ bears all the hallmarks of having been designed by a panel of civil servants. It is a column of tilted cubes; one has ‘Sheung Wan arts platform’ in Chinese, while several others have a Central and Western District Board logo, apparently based on a traditional lattice window. I say ‘a’ logo, as another CWDC symbol, based on the Chinese character for ‘west’, is acid-etched into frosted laminated tempered glass, not once but twice on the new seats.

The most vivid image in Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, is of course the machine designed to acid-etch the name of the crime into the prisoner’s flesh. ‘Crap design’, perhaps. Or ‘Wasting public money’. Just a thought.

And could this plan be a rehearsal for when the District Council’s HK$100 million comes through?


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12 Responses to Ugly bit planned for otherwise beautiful Sheung Wan

  1. Bela Bucolic says:

    I often just stand and collapse into laughter when I see one of our “sitting out areas”. Eighty percent concrete, a token tree, withered shrubs expiring in the smog, and no one sitting. Even better are temporary sitting out areas and temporary parks.

    By this emphatic demarcation of urban space, the whole message given by Hong Kong to visitors and residents alike is buy, eat and fock off. One actually feels guilty sitting down anywhere. It nearly always brings out a “security guard”. I always tell them to call the police. They never do. Civil disobedience? I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. Stuff them!

    Don’t blame the planners alone. When they remodelled Stanley waterfront, the residents complained that there were too many trees. Pesky insect-and-bird-attracting things, trees are.

  2. Old Timer says:

    Why the need for flags? Who’ll raise and lower them every day? Here’s an idea: Put the local cardboard collectors and bin scavengers on a rota and pay them to do it, to the crackling strains of the National Anthem played on the nearest available pyjama guy’s transistor radio. Cos those’ll be the only people going there.

  3. Phileas Fogg says:

    Concrete is better than grass. Entertainment is better than culture. Money is better than Life.

    Work, stuff your face, get some legover and buy a flat. What else is there?

    Space is just a theme park waiting to happen.

    (Allan Semen and James Tien’s HK Handbook)

  4. Stephen says:

    Good to see HK is back on form with thoroughly ugly, concrete open space areas. I was getting concerned as the new(ish) Hung Hom open area (that’s the Dark Side), by the (disused) ferry pier, actually features a grass verge you can sit on – radical! After all we soon have some large open areas for Government Departments to pour concrete over – The West Kowloon thingy and the Central Groundscraper.

    I wonder in a few years from now whether the Apex Hotel will feature a permanently closed swimming pool and overgrown landscaping etc as the Incorporated (?) Owners of Apex Hotel struggle to lower management costs ?

  5. Cerebos says:

    What – no reference to Jackie Chan’s Embraer jet on p4 of the Standard…

    “A fuselage with a pair of intertwined dragons…Inside we find the largest lavatory of its class.., a huge baggage compartment in its class (the same load as a big dump truck)”.

    The guy is quite simply ALL class.

  6. Failed Alchemist says:

    Although HK lacking a casino, HKers still know how to gamble. Its either “big or small” or trying to beat the house baccarrat. But in such games, there are always winners and losers – where the house wins most of the time. Buying a unit at the Apex is most probably legal (since extensive legal spade work has been put into it) and can’t be seized, only challenged by the authorities.

    Our only grouse is with Horizon marketing – hugh banners announcing rooms available for HK$7000-9000 per mth but a quick phone call will always tell you this price range is already fully booked and only the expensive ones are available. No biggie, maybe they are near the janitors cupboards anyway. But like all “time sharing” schemes go, there is a catch. Being legal in most countries but the buyer usually ends up with the short end of the stick. In this brief episode, one thing is certain, the owners are not allowed to stay in their own apt, only cross-renting is allowed. The Horizon marketing team didn’t train their CEO very well since he wasn’t familiar with the company’s sidestep – ie. rooms are full, you need to rent another more expensive one but its not like the one you bought.

    Hemmers is spot on – HK is so Kafkaesque, maybe even bordering on nihilism even in its aesthetic taste.

  7. Big Al says:

    The purpose of these sitting out areas, is to keep civil servants employed – especially the ones in LCSD, which I would guess is the lowest of the low in terms of departmental rankings. I heard that LCSD engage at least four civil servants to “manage” each m2 of sitting out area. By “manage” of course I mean sitting in their offices with the blinds down, the lights on, the air con on maximum, wearing a coat, and calculating their salary+allowances on an hourly basis whilst waiting for retirement and a big fat pension. Not that I’m bitter or twisted or anything …
    … still, that new library in Tin Shui Wai looks quite nice. If only the local population could read!

  8. Joe Blow says:


    what’s wrong with cross-renting ? HK’s civil servants have been doing it for decades. Wong from Dept A (paperclips)and Chan from Dept C (toilet paper) each buy an apartment. Wong rents from Chan, and Chan rents from Wong, paying the rent with their government housing allowance, which nicely covers the monthly mortgage. It is legal, you know, so stop knocking it.

    I wonder if there is a senior civil servant who does NOT cross-rent.

  9. Old Timer says:

    Jackie Chan would need a large lavatory, considering all the crap he produces.

  10. Failed Alchemist says:

    @ Joe. Hahahaha… That is a good one!! Unfortunately, the general public isn’t immerse in the culture of civil servants… or the civility of…… hahahaha…. let alone barbarians at the gate (several ladies already blaming CY for not warning them about Apex…. hahaha).

    Sorry for hogging… these are the weekly pick me ups that keep us alive in the midst of insanity…

  11. Bela Bitchy says:

    Just in…The SCMP reports:

    “The New York Times said that it was changing the name of the International Herald Tribune (IHT) to the International New York Times, putting an end to a more than 40-year-old brand.”

    And is the SCMP to become the International China Daily? I mean change the name to represent the reality? It’s the trend!

  12. Joe Blow says:

    The IHT is to international newspapers what the Standard is to local English rags. It’s free (under you hotel door), it’s everywhere and nobody reads it.

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