John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Photographer Manuel Alvarez Diestro gives these monolithic boneyards a grim celebration.
Hong Kong is an incredibly packed city, so why should its cemeteries be any different? Shoe-horned into the urban hillside, these terraced monoliths of granite and bone dominate the skyline like the architecture of a forgotten, death-obsessed civilization.
It was actually the similarity between these structures and those of ancient civilizations that attracted the interest of Manuel Alvarez Diestro, a self-described "photographer of cities" from London. He explains over email:
The inspiration for the specific angle to conduct this series came some years ago when I was visiting the Roman amphitheatre of Leptis Magna in Libya right before the Arab Spring. From its top after climbing its many steps, I would see the different seating levels (the cavea) surrounding the stage right next to the Mediterranean Sea. Looking at this particular ruin right next to the sea, I remembered the Hong Kong cemeteries that I climbed some months before in order to view the city from the top. I saw a clear resemblance with the similar scales, levels, and circular shapes. There's also the fact that the cemeteries, like the Classical ruins, are normally next to nature and in a prominent location where they can be easily seen.
Alvarez Diestro had been sniffing around for a Hong Kong project with an unusual angle, and in the graveyards found the perfect material. Over the past two years he's taken several trips to the city to shoot the cemeteries, lining them up with tall buildings and other vertical structures to show their titanic scale.
If this series appears a little grim, visually speaking, that's intentional. "Most of the times the images were captured very early in the morning and right before dusk," the photographer says. "I also decided to travel during the rainy season, as I did not want to portray the sky as sunny and blue."
Have a look at how the living city exists in the same super-dense environment as its dead. There are 10 portrayed in the full series, including ones in Tsuen Wan, Fanling, Chai Wan, and (for the purposes of this story) the rather unfortunately named Happy Valley: