Shanghai Street Studios (SSS) is Photographer, Martin Cheung (above right), and Designer/Beekeeper, Michael Leung (above left). Photographed at Shanghai Street Studios in Hong Kong by Carmen Chan for HOW I MET YOUR STYLE May 2012. Interview by JJ.Acuna for theWanderlister+ Asia.
The work is part active preservation and part interactive archiving of life on the street and neighborhood where Shanghai Street Studios (SSS) is currently located in the Yau Ma Tei District within Kowloon. The street as it exists now is rustic, and one of Hong Kong’s last remaining authentic central urban environments pre-gentrification. For nostalgia sake, tourists and visitors come to this area to take in the original architecture and street scales which make every block a “neighborhood” in the way that HK’s city dwellers lived so many years ago.
These days, much of what once was still remains, but the street’s luster has moved on. Buildings are in a state of decay, and a few need upkeep. The neighborhood is known for its number of brothels and gang activities. That said a few original shopkeepers and residents are still staying strong enjoying their life in Yau Ma Tei, almost oblivious to the “urban renewal” which has transformed much of Hong Kong Island. For the time being, photographer Martin Cheung, and Designer/Beekeeper, Micheal Leung (HK Honey), have set up a workshop space, SSS, on Shanghai Street to concentrate on collabortive projects with each other and other artists (signed on via Airbnb.com) to help capture life in the neighborhood via the production of works which pay homage to the context.
Last year, photographer and Brew&Post member, Carmen Chan, of How I Met Your Style (HIMYS), and I have done a portrait visit to Moustache Tailors on Aberdeen Street, documenting the creative shop space of proprietors, Alex Daye and Ellis Kreuger. This time, we come together to do a similar documentation of the colorful work environment of SSS, which to us we love for its authenticity as a museum of artifacts and a product of a love for Hong Kong heritage.
We thank Martin and Michael for sitting with Carmen and I at their studio. The visit was around two hours long. We were served Tea and Honey from tea leaves grown from Michael’s HK Farm project, and honey from HK Honey. Additionally all teaware were sourced from the neighborhood and found originally in the studio space from the residence’s original tenant.
W+: What is Shanghai Street Studios (SSS)? It’s a very cool space. Tell us a little bit about SSS, what is it all about?
Martin Cheung: SSS is a space where we do community projects on things that relate to the community around here (in Yau Ma Tei.)
Michael Leung: I found this place two years ago when I moved here to Hong Kong from London where I was born and raised. It was both of our ideas to set up SSS.
W+: So How did you guys meet each other?
ML: He photographed my bees.
MC: There was one of those seminar talks where we were both speakers, and Michael saw what I did, which I usually do pinhole developing and he thought, “Oh can you come and photograph these bees for me?”. So I thought okay (chuckles) we give a try. So we made some tests and then I made a camera that has 8 holes in it. It’s a custom made camera I made for Michael to fit into the bee hive. That’s how we met.
ML: Martin wasn’t familiar with the beehive, so I mostly taught him how to be more comfortable with the beehive…
MC: For the first few times I went there I was really scared. It was actually fine. I just thought, “Oh, I must have these photographs done, so I just had to do it.”
ML: Since then we worked on other projects, so for example I designed these candles for Amnesty International, and Martin had done the photography for it.
W+: Tell us more about the space.
ML: I found this space three months after I moved to Hong Kong. I was living in Hung Hom in the funeral district. My mom’s in London and my Dad’s in Hong Kong, they split up when I was 3 years old. And of course I don’t want to live at home, so I moved out when I was 17. If I moved back in with my Dad… haha that wouldn’t work out to well. So, I picked this area because it’s very unique. It’s adjacent to three great streets, Portland Street, Shanghai Street, and Reclamation Street. For us both we get most of our materials, tools, and equipment from these streets.
W+: There’s just so much here for “STUFF” in this neighborhood. All these appliances stores, gift shops, homestores, and little things.
ML: Yeh, so the biggest stationary shop in Hong Kong is just like 1 minute away from here.
W+: You didn’t even think of going to Hong Kong island, you knew you wanted this area from the start.
ML: I have to be near this three streets.
MC: I’ve always been living in Tseun Kwan O. And then a few years ago I moved to Sai Kung, even further away. But I come to this area to buy stuff very often because I make cameras like the one I made for the bees.
ML: So we moved in and it wasn’t as developed as you see now. But most of the furniture and everything in that area there (pointing to the bedrooms) are pretty much untouched. These are original glass partitions which is very unique and were all already here. This big grand cupboard is untouched, and even the soy sauce in here, the plates, the stuff… I just haven’t had time to go through it. I found a type writer underneath that chair, only two months ago.
W+: Is the space rented?
ML: We’re renting. And the story with this flat is that it used to be that it was the home of the landlord and his family. So the landlord, Mr. Choi, has two younger sisters, who lived in that room. And Mr. Choi had two older brothers who lived in that room with their granddad. And the Mom and Dad lived in the room with the curtain there. However, the mom later in her life wanted to have air conditioning, so they built this room… the air con Airbnb.com room.
The toilet was just a hole in the floor, with a cold water sink and then I asked the landlord to create a bathtub. They left the flat because the mom went into a nursing home, the Dad died, the son’s moved away, this place became empty for one year because of the location. It’s not grimey, but the first floor is a brothel. The second floor is a family. Third floor is SSS. The fourth floor is a film studio. And the fifth floor is a Nepalese Association, and the roof is for everyone.
This area is known for its prostitution, triads, drugs, and low-income families. This place was empty because it was a third floor walk-up, and very old inside, there were rats everywhere.
MC: These old window frames is a minus for most local people, and an amazing plus for everyone else.
ML: So for one year this place was empty so I decided to take it. I moved in here to live in that room there.
MC: I come here very often actually because in Sai Kung I have this minibus that comes here often.
ML: No one lives here but me and my Airbnb guests.
W+: So you guys basically use this as a workshop and inspiration area and your photography studios are here where are your bees?
ML: The bees are in Kwun Tong at the moment. I’m going to be moving the beehive to Shanghai Street, but not this side. I will move it to the Shanghai Street Art Space. They’re really cool. Martin and I built a dark room in the bathroom, but right now it’s a library. (Pointing to a tiled SSS Surface leaning on the wall.) That’s the table we built for the dark room.
W+: So other artists and photographers can use the space?
ML: I need to double check, but through Airbnb.com we’ve had about 5 artists in residency so to speak. We had an acoustic guitarist from Malaysia, a film maker from New York, a Singaporean couple who works with Large format photography, a Dutch couple… one’s an editor, and the other’s a poet. He wrote a poem about Shanghai Street which I’m not sure if we should put it online because it’s quite sexually explicit (laughing). The Singaporean photographer took a large format photograph of the space, it’s on his Facebook wall, but he hasn’t sent us a hi-res version.
MC: Even for one week artists live here, and try to find inspiration around this street.
W+: For the foreign artists who do stay here, how long do they stay at a time?
ML: From 3 days to one week.
W+: How did your collaboration with Airbnb get started?
ML: My sister knew about Airbnb before I did. I saw it on the iPhone app, and I just saw it as a good medium to use, rather than Craigslist which is a bit old school. Airbnb is pretty safe. And we say creatives only, because we feel creatives would feel more appreciative of this place. It sounds very elitist, but we want people to put something back into the space, not financially, but more like one photo, one drawing, or poem, or one Polaroid. This is very meaningful for SSS I think.
W+: So tell us about your latest project, “Collective Memory”.
ML: So this is “Collective Memory”. These photos here. (Pointing at a stack of developed photos). But it starts off as something like this (a stack of negatives). The photo shop downstairs, he’s very creative I think. And he really likes the work that Martin and I do at SSS. SSS is also a bit like a map to introduce the area, culturally, so we show cafes we like, places to buy fruit and vegetables, we also show heritage spots. But this guy, he’s been in here and he really likes what we’re trying to do in Yau Ma Tei, and we developed photos from him quite often. He also gives us his empty film rolls, for his workshop.
So one time we asked him, “Hey Tommy, what do you do for photos that people don’t collect?”, and he says “OH I just leave them in this drawer here.” And then I asked “if it’s often?” and he says “yes in Hong Kong, a lot of people buy cameras, for hobby, and then they move on to something else. And then they just leave their prints and photos there.”
And then we thought, that maybe we should ask him for some. We had to convince him that it wasn’t to be used for anything personal, that it was just a way to utilize these left over photos from a creative perspective, and to also reunite people with their photos. So Tommy gave us three packs of film, of which we used to curate the project, and also people that came to stay here form Airbnb.
W+: The full collection will be how many prints?
MC: We haven’t decided. We want to keep extending the collection.
ML: At least ten photos we’ll be happy with, and maybe we can do a book, an exhibition, a shop, a poster. Some sort of production work with these photos. I think postcards could be quite nice. Or maybe some exhibition downstairs at Tommy’s shop. We actually just found out that this particular roll has the email of the person, so we can actually reunite them with these photos straight away.
W+: So tell me about your background, Martin?
MC: I grew up in Hong Kong, in 1995, I went to Melbourne to study. I studied photography in 1997 in High School. I graduated in 2002, and came back to Hong Kong always wanted to make a living as a photographer, however, you know it’s a very different working method in Hong Kong, compared to Australia. Anyway I came back and worked in a camera place to sell camera in LOMO, and then later on after 5 years, I started teaching in High School and University.
W+: Michael, what was your experience in London before you moved here.
ML: Well I studied product design, then I moved to Amsterdam for about 7 months, designed there, then moved back to LDN, to be a mobile phone designer for about 3 years. It was very intense, after which I then decided to leave the industry and leave the city.
ML: I would say 3 years of designing phones really kind of changed me. I kind of just lost the sense of what real design was. I wanted to experience a different place. And coming to Hong Kong every year for Holiday, kind of made me feel like it could work here. I felt that Hong Kong was more convenient, more accessible, more raw, more flexible. I saw a lot of craftsmen on the street, making things, welding things, cutting things, sewing things. In London, you don’t really get that any more.
W+: Then you established HK Honey.
ML: Having grown up in the city I was very detached form nature, as most people are. I had a holiday with my then girlfriend in Sweden. It’s winter time very romantic, the snow, there was a forest there, and we were walking around the forest where I saw these two boxes, which turned out to be her Dad’s beehive. And I was like… Beehives? What the hell is that? And then unfortunately they couldn’t be opened because it’s winter time and they would have been frozen to death, and so we went back to the house I had a conversation with her Dad. And because he couldn’t speak English, my ex had to translate the conversation with him about Bees, which was a very long conversation that when on for about three days. And after that Holiday, I went WOW, I learned a lot from him about Bees, and I’m actually really curious… I spoke with him for hours about bees, I must have been very interested in them. So when I moved back to Hong Kong after Holiday, I then started to look into urban beekeeping in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo… and then I met Mr. Yip in Shatin and learned how to be a beekeeper through him, and in two months later, he supplied me with my first two beehives.
Mr. Yip is suburban/rural beekeeper, he does it in the mountains. He was quite open to me doing it in the city, and he even helped me install them. And then it went from there. Beekeeping started out as a hobby, and like some hobbies, they start really influencing your life. And then you mix your discipline into that, and suddenly you drag other people in.
W+: Do you get the support you need for all your projects?
ML: It’s all about relationships. With SSS we’ve learned its about relationships, so with MIDO Café (a historic cafe in Yau Ma Tei) for example, we have a good relationship with the people there. All the staff have let us shoot films in there, do photography in there. I even asked to do an exhibition in there which they agreed. So the guy that sells us the second hand stuff, we’re trying to do an exhibition with him, it more tough.
MC: He has stacks of film slides that has the old HK scene, and then we were thinking of organizing an exhibition with him, so that the neighborhood gets a recognition, and it can give him a bit of income as well.
ML: He tried to take these slides to a photography shop, and the photography shop wanted a keep a copy for themselves because they are quite rare, so the guy is a bit suspicious. We’re contributors to CITY Magazine, who has asked us to name 5 places good for design…. And he’s on one of them. So we’re softening him up. He’s going to be on an APP which is really weird! Because he’s like a very raw and dirty shop.
W+: How is the reception from everyone else, like media and the press?
ML: SSS is never the thing people know us for. Our friends know us but we mostly get interviewed for our personal work, and Martin, is always interviewed for his photography. Im always interviewed for the bees.
MC: I think plenty of people do interesting design in Hong Kong, but I think it’s difficult to be seen because we often are located in industrial areas, so it’s not like its open to the public to visit easily. Not easily found.
W+: With all the active art projects happening around the area, would you say you were instigating something with SSS?
ML: I don’t think we’re instigating anything. I think we just found an area which was a suitable place for us to try our work for us. And these things either existed or bounced off based on projects we wanted to do. Like Kubrick café, we’re going to do an exhibition there. We love Kubrick because it’s cultural, and theres an art house cinema next door. We plan to do workshops at Kubrick.
W+: What was the most difficult thing about setting up SSS?
MC: For me I think it’s finance. We have to have our money to sustain our lives before we spend money here.
ML: Nothing we do here is profit making. It’s just a lab. The money from Airbnb goes to materials for making works. We only host max one person per month.
W+: Finance is one thing, but how about reception from Government, Neighbors, Landlords…
ML: Everyone is quite supportive and okay. The stairs is the biggest problem actually. It smells like piss. Usually when there’s a workshop we clean the stairs before hand. We cant have a permanent lock on the door because there’s a brothel haha.
W+: Where do you see this going from now on? What form would you like SSS to turn into?
ML: We’re happy where it’s moving, its moving organically. We need at least five or ten collaborations with different shops and organizations in this area until we feel substantial. So we need to do the exhibition in Kubrick, and we need to do the exhibition with the photo shop downstairs, and we need to create a book with the junk shop down the street, we need to do maybe some sort of food guide to the area.
W+: What is the overarching goal of SSS?
ML: We aim for SSS to be a self sustaining platform for artists and designers who want to engage in the space and the neighborhood. It would be great to do an exhibition in here one day to help artists and their works. And to show people a different way of using a residential space.
MC: We like to create a contradiction actually. You know to take a residential space, and create things for non-residential usage.
W+: You have to be careful actually, about the noise, and how much traffic you bring up here… well you’ll probably not have as much traffic as the brothel downstairs haha but. for me its seems like what you’re actually doing is capturing the moment of the street and the neighborhood and creating something out of that moment. Its literally about producing something with what you’ve got but at the same time preservation as well.
ML: Something that Martin and I always talk about, is what will happen to Yau Ma Tei after West Kowloon. Once the West Kowloon Cultural District is being developed in 2014 this area is going to completely change. Its going to go through an extreme version of gentrification we feel.
MC: We need to move quicker before things disappear.
For more information about the neighborhood of Shanghai Street, check out this article by Christopher DeWolf in CNNGo.
ART Shanghai Street Studios / STAY Airbnb / GIFT HK Honey / DRINK MIDO Cafe / SHOP Kubrick Cafe and Cinema