When Urban Studies Fall in Love with Peng Chau – On ‘Borrowing the Shoreline’ Workshops by Islanders Space
Anthony Leung Po Shan is an art critic, Island Studies enthusiast, co-curator of the public art project ‘Lamma Mia’, and author of Mo Tat Then and Now: Historical and Social Research of Mo Tat Wan, Lamma Island.
The Islanders Space founded by Kit and his wife Myriem often reminds me of C&G Artpartment’s classic couple partnership in the art field. Both couples believe in making a living while chasing the dream, and that work and family are not antagonistic to each other. Starting off with the first issue of the zine Islanders, this little space located on Peng Chau Wing Hing Street organized in 2021 the first ‘Inter-island Festival’, which opened up a route of exploration on cable ferry connecting Lantau Island, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau. Kit already had his own shop on Peng Chau before he met Myriem, who was then studying politics in France focusing on the Arabic world, but later went to London and switched to urban studies. Disheartened by the European cities with no publicness left, she came to Asia to seek what she aspired. Playtime Festival (https://www.instagram.com/playtime.city/ ) in Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam was organized by Myriem. Finally, arriving in Peng Chau with the lenses of urban studies, she was immensely impressed by the diversity on the island and the vibrancy in lifestyle. Inexpensive rents allow for possibilities unattainable elsewhere. Besides offering books to read on site, the Islanders Space also sells green products and books, holds exhibitions and events, and is the working place of Kit and Myriem. The less than 500 square feet of area on the ground floor demonstrates an economy of time and space, just like Peng Chau having all the essentials within a limited area. On weekends without scheduled work, events and workshops would be held, some open on a regular basis while others happen now and then. For instance, the monthly concerts in 2022 conducted by acclaimed Hong Kong musician Nelson Hiu attracted a full house of audience every time. In 2023, screenings are to be held in place of concerts. Notably, six ‘Borrowing the Shoreline’ workshops took place there three weekends in a row last November and December, and the participants’ works made during the studies are being exhibited at the shop.
The so-called public spaces in the city are in fact under rigorous management and serve no more than places for visitors to stay awhile or take photos. Their daily-life purpose and practical value exist no more. Public spaces cannot escape that fate even on an outlying island. Last month I went to Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. The fading graffiti near the shore was covered by advertisement signboards, while the posts about daily necessities which used to be seen along the road to the pier overlooked by Po Hua Yuen had all been removed by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. In contrast to Yung Shue Wan and Cheung Chau which are crowded with visitors, Peng Chau makes great use of its ‘uselessness’ in cradling possibilities. Bearing the title ‘borrowing’, the workshop not only attempts to gain insights in research from collective wisdom, but also reveals how the people living on both land and water distant from city centre practice ‘sharing of land’ in everyday life. As one steps ashore at the pier, the first thing that comes into view is not a store selling fish balls or a seafood restaurant, but the plaza with a Tin Hau temple and the one and only supermarket on the island. People living on Peng Chau would sit on their own chairs near a lamp post or a wall and spend the whole day chatting and chilling. To Myriem, the shoreline more than illustrates the island’s physical change over time; it denotes the various relations between the sea and different people. For example, the former industrial area where the Great China Match Factory had been situated was turned into a residential zone under Home Ownership Scheme; the bay it faces has been developed into Paloma Bay, a luxury housing estate with restricted access. Docked yachts dot the straight jetty that was once a curvy natural bay. Also, the originally ‘outlying’ island Tai Lei Island is now accessible with the new bridge; under the trees along the coast are entertainment facilities for locals to have fun. Further away, the North Bay is now a well-equipped local swimming beach, whereas the South Bay in proximity to Islanders Space is a perfect spot to play with cats, watch sunset or have a leisure walk – but it actually offers much more than that. Once and again Myriem had reminded me to check out the other side of the jetty to see the hidden wonder. The boats docking here are for making a living, unlike the yachts for entertainment near Paloma Bay. Genius designs utilizing the environment can be found along the coast, ranging from footboards and ropes to storage spaces hidden under rocks. Islanders treat themselves as a big family, sharing the same identity, so these clever designs do not get in the way of other users; they extended and enriched the functions of the jetty, turning the coast into a well-utilized living space.
As I read the selection of books at Islanders Space, I came across topics ranging from sustainable architecture, humanity and care, Anthropocene to travel records on various islands. Islanders Space is at the frontiers of academic research and practice. I asked Myriem why she chose to gather amateur participants to carry out research work, which would be rather inefficient as compared to doing the job herself with a professional team. She replied, ‘If I do it by myself, it’s not gonna be interesting. It will be just about my ego. […] The island belongs to everyone living here. There is the “Lantau tomorrow” project, there is the rising sea problem … all ecological problems cannot be solved isolated. We need to be together to hold the culture.’ Following this principle, five out of the six workshops were all conducted by islanders and non-islander professionals, and she was the instructor only in the ‘Mapping’ workshop. During the ‘Sketching’ workshop, also the first session of the series, islander and landscape designer Wing guided participants in making sketches on the way they explored the island. Kids were also welcomed to join. The second workshop was ‘Sound Collecting’, where ‘soundpocket’ and artist Andio Lai taught participants to make DIY recording equipment and use their creations to collect sounds at different places while listening attentively. The most popular workshop was ‘Model Making’ hosted by Zi-Zaat (Chinese handicraft with paper and bamboo) master Ha Wah-keung. Over about forty years on Peng Chau, he has made more than fifty Hoklo style ‘Ghost Kings’ using paper and bamboo. He taught workshop participants basic Zi-zaat techniques, which were then used to design tools for the shared coast. To me, the most interesting workshop was ‘Mapping’ which Myriem herself conducted. Maps were constructed in an exceptional manner – participants recorded the people, objects and happenings they encountered as they travelled along the coast following the route and timeline designed by themselves. If you think that books and coffee attract only artsy teens, you are mistaken. In fact, Islanders Space is constantly wary of bringing gentrification to Peng Chau. Take the example of the ‘Story-telling’ workshop that was led by me and emerging artist Lee Ka-yee. The handful of participants already manifest Islanders’ diversity: one of them lives in Discovery Bay and came from Malaysia, one lives in a housing estate on Peng Chau, and another one is a descendent of a local boat dweller family. Through writing in first-person about objects, one participant attempted to trace his roots and look for his ancestral house, while another participant chose the perspective of a mirror lying outside a second-hand shop to reveal social changes and street culture on the island through narration. Most important of all about the workshops is the ‘sharing’ spirit and openness – the same old place, when studied through different approaches, offers novel knowledge, sensations and experience.
I live on another outlying island. Every time Islanders Space invites me to come over, we communicate using ‘islanders’ sense of time’ – ‘the ferry at around 3’, ‘leave by the 7pm ferry’. People living in the city envy the ‘community bonding’ in old districts or remote areas as residents know each other well. Yet, what troubles me the most is that many community projects are satisfied with the heart-warming human touch offered to the audience, treating them as consumers, but the projects never prompt reflection upon the social conditions that have made such human touch possible, thus motivates the audience to take actions in their own communities. Myriem shares a similar view with me. She believes that islanders’ sense of bonding and unity derives from island’s enclosed nature. As the crowd in the day disperse, only islanders are left strolling on the streets and alleys at night. Inadequate facilities and difficult logistics drive them to think of their own solutions in face of problems instead of seeking help passively. Utility-oriented urban planning increasingly distances work from living: it’s actually the time lost in commuting that kills the community bonding.
Exchanging space for time, a tactic borrowed from Michel de Certeau, manifests not only in the public space on Peng Chau but also the all-in-one complex. In the past, Myriem and Kit had to travel to and fro between the shop and their residence every day, which was tiring and troublesome. When they found this ground-floor shop with anterior and posterior spaces connected, they decided to experiment with a new mode of living that work and daily life are merged. It is why the Islanders Space is also the home of the family of three. The garden behind the shop is both the kid’s playground and an open sitting room. Visitors may cause disturbance indeed, but pleasant surprises arise with the fluidity here: ‘I like to have a conversation with people, it really makes my day. It’s about the quality of people. It’s like a living and it’s open.’ Every time when a workshop draws to an end, L who is still babbling her first words would call out for Dad or Mum. Afterwards, this small family would take a walk on the streets of Peng Chau. L is like an ambassador, allowing Myriem to feel the islanders’ kindness and have conversation topic despite the language barrier.
The core vision of island studies is connection and decentralization. It also encourages horizontal comparison. The fruits of this ‘Borrowing the Shoreline’ Workshop series will be displayed in the shop and later be organized to serve as case study material at Marine Connections Laboratory of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland (HETS-Geneva). Some of the works are now being exhibited. Interpretation and organization will be done in February and March for a more complete sharing with the public.
The temporary exhibition in the shop displays just the tip of the iceberg of all the works. In Spring 2023, the works will be further organized, analysed and displayed. (Photographed by Leung Po Shan.)
- Campling, L., & Colás, A. (2021). Capitalism and the Sea. London: Verso.
- Harmon, K. (2003). You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
- Hugh, P. E. (2013). The Act of Creative Sketching. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.
- 林詠純譯，手繪地圖推動委員會編：《手繪地圖畫起來! 》（台灣：行人出版社，2021）
- 地味手帖編輯部：《地味手帖 03: 秘密據點, 地方工作者的地下事務所》（台灣：裏路文化有限公司，2020）
- 地味手帖編輯部：《地味手帖 08: 聲音風景, 聆聽地方的不可見》（台灣：裏路文化有限公司，2021）