It is easy to forget, in a city as modern and seemingly functional as Hong Kong, how it has been shaped by a long succession of disasters, both natural and man-made. There have been outbreaks of plague, the notorious Happy Valley racecourse fire, which took place 100 years ago this month, other conflagrations such as the one that destroyed Shek Kip Mei in 1954, and typhoons and landslides, all of which prompted the city’s authorities to improve infrastructure and safety measures to ward off future dangers.
One of the more gruelling effects of the storms Hong Kong is regularly subject to has been flooding, particular in areas of central Kowloon, which were vulnerable due to their location on flood plains downhill from the Lion Rock. As recently as the 1990s, Tai Hang Tung, Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok were prone to serious flooding during the rainy season as 19th-century drainage infrastructure struggled to keep up with an increased population density and the challenges posed by the West Kowloon land reclamation. In response to a number of floods in the late 1990s, the city decided to build an underground stormwater storage tank to take the strain off the drainage system. It was built underneath Tai Hang Tung Recreation Playground on the corner of Boundary Street and Tai Hang Tung Road.
The Tai Hang Tung Stormwater Storage Tank is rarely open to the public and, a couple of times a year aside, is not even pressed into use very often. An exciting opportunity was however recently afforded members of the public, when the tank served as the venue for after the deluge, an installation by artist, Cha contributor and my colleague at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts—Kingsley Ng. The work, mounted as part of the Jockey Club New Arts Power programme, takes the tank’s very purpose and the meteorological history of the surrounding area, as its theme. A three-part immersive experience, it brings the audience up close to the extreme weather phenomena that fill the tank—100,000 m3 in capacity—during storms. It also foregrounds the experiences of local residents whose lives were regularly disrupted by the flood waters.
The installation was viewable only as part of a guided tour—groups of no more than 30 people were fitted out in protective high-vis gear and at first given an outline of the project and its subject by a docent. The group were then given headphones through which they listened to the installation’s soundtrack, an eerie ambient composition by Ng’s regular collaborator Angus Lee. This set the scene as the group passed through the pumping station, which drives the floodwaters into the underground repository, and then along Tai Hang Tung Road, where the visitors descended into the facility itself.
Past testimonies from residents were collected in the programme by curator Stephanie Cheung, and were also projected along the walls of the tunnel leading to the tank. These recollections spoke of inconvenience and livelihoods threatened by the rising waters, but there was also at times a more sinister undercurrent, with darker episodes from the neighbourhood’s past. One of the testimonies talks of people throwing unwanted newborn babies in the Boundary Street nullah, which served as an imperfect drainage channel in times past. This nullah is also visible in a photo of the devastation of Tai Hang Tung following the Shek Kip Mei fire, which features in the programme. A densely populated urban area has been turned into what appears to be a rural wasteland.
This sense of menace was also evident in the installation in the underground tank itself, which was mounted as a short theatrical show, with the visiting groups ranged closely together, in a viewing space in front. The show consisted of a series of huge banners strewn between the tank’s concrete columns, which were buffeted and raised by a system of fans and pulleys, bathed in an intense blue light. With Angus Lee’s music continuing in the background, the banners billowed and rose towards the ceiling, at first gradually, and then rapidly, replicating the exponential speed at which floodwaters invade and fill a space. It was a spectacle that was awe-inspiring and also an uncomfortable reminder that one was trespassing on a space intended to welcome different visitors, unfeeling ferocious forces that would waste no time filling the tank and destroying anything in their path not tied down or cast in concrete. It’s not so much after the deluge, as between regular deluges.