What happens when you take the paint and neon out of the megacity? Pascal Greco’s stark photos reveal a harshly built environment.
Swiss photographer Pascal Greco was enthralled when he first arrived in Hong Kong around 2010, and determined to capture the city in all its brilliance. The more time he spent there, the more he learned about the worlds that lived behind the tall colorful buildings and piercing neon lights.
By using a Polaroid camera and sticking to black and white, Greco’s self-imposed restraints highlight Hong Kong’s gritty facade. He sees the brilliant and vibrant colors as distracting from the angular and graphic nature of the buildings.
The city is a mess of contradictions. It has some of the tallest buildings in the world, and some of the least stable land (the government says 27 percent of the population lives on reclaimed land). Its famous and stunning downtown and financial district belies a city with a vast gap between the wealthy and the poor, and a huge low-income population. Its wealthiest 10 percent of households make an astonishing 44 times more than its poorest 10 percent of households. The city’s economy is largely reliant on property values that, given the land shortage, are prohibitively high. The largest landowner is the government which, since the 1970s, has received huge windfalls from land sales and property development.
The result: medium- and low-income residents can’t afford land, while the city’s wealth explodes and attracts economic activity that doesn’t keep its poor residents in the loop. This was the Hong Kong Greco wanted to show.
“Perhaps one should adopt a special lens in looking at Hong Kong, not only to see its superficial beauty, but also the social undercurrents that sustain its structures,” writes Dr. Ernest Chui in Greco’s book.
His photos follow the historic trajectory of Hong Kong as it grew—vertically and by population. The first in the series depict mid-century five- and six-story buildings that once quietly dotted a lush landscape. Hong Kong’s early public housing was constructed in an H-block design in order to maximize space and still provide each tenant a window. As the city outgrew these largely government-run housing developments set aside for the working class, it needed to build higher and higher.
For Greco, this presented a problem. With the limited size and scope of his Polaroid camera, getting the right angles required he enter some buildings to shoot others from multiple stories up. “It was really difficult to explain that I needed to go into one building to shoot another, so it was a bit complicated to ask for authorization,” he says. Over the course of several month-long trips to the city, Greco often found himself attempting to nonchalantly follow residents into buildings unspotted.
The towers, many of which now climb over 500 feet high, hide away Hong Kong’s poorest in its compact urban centers. To a large degree, the H-block has been left behind and other designs have developed with the same underlying principles, like the Trident block, which has three wings in a Y shape and elevators going up the middle.
To Greco, these photos help demonstrate the well-hidden secret of Hong Kong: that behind the city’s financial center, with its flowing money and large expat community lies a large and still-growing population that lives in the compact concrete structures rising stoically over the South China Sea.