Portraits from Above – Hong Kong Rooftop Communities

I’m pleased to share my latest review: ‘Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities’ by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham.

‘Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities’ is a fascinating book using different mediums to explore the informal communities that have cropped up on the rooftops of Hong Kong over the past 50-60 years.

The book uses photographs and architectural drawings to depict each location documented in the book. The photographs give you a strong feeling for how the spaces are in reality, which the architectural drawings give you the opportunity to understand the spaces in relation to each another. One of my favourite things to do with the book is to match the photos to the drawings, to create a virtual tour for myself around the dwellings.

For each community that they visited, there is an accompanying essay which provides a strong sense of context for each community. It tells you how the people came to live here, what they do and how they find it. It is really the final piece of the jigsaw and complements the photographs and drawings wonderfully.

The book really appealed to me because it reveals a hidden side of a city that we all think we know to some extent. Hong Kong is known for being an affluent city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. But, as this book documents, there is another side with people struggling to get by and living in squalor. This is captured with real empathy by Canham, whose images inform but never judge the scene they capture.

Most of the settlements documented were self-built over many years on the highest peaks of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. They have now become an integral part of the urban landscape of the city, although lesser known to most of us due to their low-visibility. A large majority of the people who occupy these dwellings fled to Hong Kong illegally from China after the Civil War, or the Great Leap Forward and are still, today, undocumented. Their status prevents them from getting a place legally or even to sign up for social housing.

Many of the settlements began as small places for one, but were added to over the years to hold families. Others house colleagues with no families, all in one room, with improvised kitchens and bathrooms. Each settlement in the book is completely different from the next, yet all share many characteristics. The informality of each dwelling is perhaps the most striking characteristic of each.

‘Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities’ is published by Peperoni Books. The photographs in the book are by Stefan Canham, while the architectural drawings which breathe such life in the project as a whole were completed by Rufina Wu. In total there are 100 photographs and 58 architectural drawings depicting these informal communities atop Hong Kong’s high rises. The book was first published as a hardcover with a dust jacket, before a second softcover edition was released.

I forget exactly how I first learnt of this book, but when I did it was not available. The first edition had already sold out, so I waited patiently in hope of a second edition. And I was on luck! If anything I was more pleased to get the softcover edition as hardcover books can often be so cumbersome. As far as I can tell, none of the books charms have been lost in the transition to softcover.

This is one of the best examples I have seen of a photobook combining different mediums to great effect. This was perhaps the aspect which appealed to me most. When I pick it up I have so many options. I can look at the photos and and admire the lines and shapes and imagine I am there. Or I can look at the architectural drawings, which help me to understand the size and scale of the dwellings and how each room relates to the next. Or I can satisfy my curiosity for further information by reading the insightful essays that help to illuminate the social and historical context of these informal rooftop communities.

A highly recommended book on a fascinating subject!

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