We’re 43 storeys above ground level on the dizzying rooftop of the Bank of East Asia building in Kwun Tong, and Michelle Hong is planting a cabbage. The incessant honking of Hong Kong’s iconic red taxis caught in the lunchtime traffic is just a faint buzz up here, in what must be the city’s highest rooftop garden. Wooden crates filled with rosemary, mint, okra, cucumber, water spinach and Ceylon spinach scent the air, transforming what was previously a barren concrete landscape into a nurturing green space, where the bank’s employees can escape the daily grind
This is all in a day’s work for Hong. In 2015, she quit her job in marketing and communications to co-found Rooftop Republic, a social enterprise that aims to turn the city’s rooftops green. Pol Fàbrega, who came from the non-profit sector, and Andrew Tsui, who had been working at a private equity fund, joined her in setting up the venture, putting their own cash into the business.
“As born-and-bred city people, we realised how disconnected we all are from our food sources,” says Hong. The city currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food, with most of that produce coming from mainland China, where several food safety scandals have caused concern about the quality of the items coming over the border.
“Hongkongers are increasingly worried about the food they put on their dinner tables and are demanding that it’s safe, healthy and sustainably produced,” says Hong. “We looked around and realised there was huge untapped potential in the city. While we were surrounded by the dense build-up of concrete, there were many under-utilised spaces on the roofs of buildings.”
Today, Rooftop Republic has set up 40 urban farming projects, and manages 11 urban farms across the city. They’re not alone. Matthew Pryor, an associate professor and head of the Landscape and Architecture division at the University of Hong Kong, estimates the city is now home to 60 rooftop farms and 1,400 local farmers. And there’s plenty of room to grow. According to Pryor, of the six million square metres of rooftop space in the city that is suitable for gardening, only one per cent is being used, creating huge opportunity for locals to get creative on their concrete peaks.
It’s not just gardening that they’re doing up there. From yoga classes to rock concerts, beekeeping to aerial parklands, Hong Kong is reaching for the sky like no other place on earth – and in the process it’s creating a template for a new type of city.
From yoga classes to rock concerts, Hong Kong is reaching for the sky like no other place on earth
Much of this is due to necessity: Hong Kong’s mountainous land can’t be built on, while much of what’s available has been ring-fenced as a country park or beach area. That means that a population of seven million people is living on just 2,754km2 of land, making Hong Kong one of the world’s most densely populated cities. This has forced its citizens to think out of the box. Or rather, on top of it.
In 2015, one Airbnb listing caused a stir when a host called Steve offered a rooftop camping experience: for HK$250 (US$32), guests could sleep in a tent on his rooftop in Central. While the local reaction was one of outrage, the listing featured several positive reviews from satisfied guests.
“I was surprised how common it is to see people doing fashion-oriented shoots on these rooftops nowadays,” concurs Hong Kong-based French photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, noting how rooftop use has diversified and even caught the attention of the city’s hipsters. In recent years, solar panels, water stills and even mini wind turbines have also appeared on the rooftops of more environmentally minded households.
Rooftop sport has also become a thing. At the Chinese Recreation Club in Causeway Bay, a private members club founded in 1910 by barrister Sir Kai Ho, the roof of the five-storey car park has been re-purposed to house three tennis courts. At Hotel Indigo in Wan Chai an infinity pool juts out from the rooftop over the city, in a piece of daring design which has become something of a local landmark, while the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Kowloon has the highest infinity swimming pool in the world on its 118th floor.
Zak Thorp, a resident of Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, lives in a rooftop flat and recalls that every morning his previous neighbour would go up to his rooftop and spent 30 minutes doing laps around the 65m2 space. “It seemed crazy, but the roof was doubling up as his private gym, I guess,” Thorp says.
Seven years ago, Spaniard Steffi López González, now aged 35, moved to Kerala, in south India, where she began to study yoga. When she relocated to Hong Kong, she set up a yoga practice called Your Life, Your Playground on her rooftop in the upmarket Mid-Levels district, which affords some of the best – and most expensive – views of the city.
“Seeing things from this altitude, overseeing the whole city, the mountains, the ocean and feeling the elements gave me such a feeling of gratitude,” she says. “I wanted to share this space with others while I share yoga, with the intention of helping my students feel healthier and happier within.” López González’s classes typically feature four to 10 students, and focus on vinyasa teachings as well as vipassana mindfulness. From her rooftop, she can see ferries passing through the harbour, and right out to the mountains of the New Territories.
In many ways this is not a new trend. Manfred Yuen, founder of architecture firm Groundwork Architecture+Urbanism and a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, explains that Hongkongers have been doing much more on their roofs than other cities for a long time. The original tong lau (walk-up) tenements in Hong Kong, he says, initially enabled the city’s citizens to get onto their rooftops, which are pretty much always flat. “The traditional tenement buildings in Hong Kong were three to eight storeys high, and accessed by stairs,” he says. “Rooftops would serve as shared laundry and drying areas, which everyone living in the building could use. Thus, they were intrinsically social spaces for the apartment community.”
Photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze was so inspired by Hong Kong’s rooftops that he produced an entire series, Concrete Stories, documenting life on the city’s concrete peaks. “From the beginning of its development there has been one constant in Hong Kong,” he says. “The lack of space. This led people to occupy rooftops in many different ways. In the past, school lessons would be performed on building tops. There have also been many cases of people building shanty houses on the top of residential buildings.”
Today, perhaps the biggest shift has been from small-scale, private enterprises to large-scale lifestyle developments. At the top of the ICC tower in Kowloon, sits the vertiginously named Ozone, the world’s highest bar, part of the Ritz-Carlton hotel and 484m above sea level. Located on the 118th floor of Hong Kong’s tallest building, your ears will pop as you ride the lift to enjoy the 360º panorama.
Indeed, Hong Kong has become famous for high-altitude drinking. Just type “rooftop bar Hong Kong” into Google and admire the barrage of options that come up. Favourites include Wooloomooloo in Wan Chai, which offers a stunning view of the Happy Valley Race Course; SEVVA, a rooftop bar in Central overlooking Statue Square and the Old Supreme Court Building, one of Hong Kong’s few remaining colonial landmarks; and Above at the Ovolo Southside, which boasts mountain views and a peek at Ocean Park, the family-friendly attraction known for its giant pandas.
For Yuen, however, the city’s obsession with life on its rooftops is also a sign of the city’s slow, stuttering pace of development. “We are not short of space,” he says, with a shrug. “We are short of designated developable space. The right to develop 32 per cent of Hong Kong’s land lies in the hands of real estate developers, investment banking conglomerates or second-generation local tycoons… For one reason or the other, we have not provided social housing quickly enough to meet the social demands.” The rise of so-called “nano-flats” which sell for astonishing prices – an 11m2 apartment recently fetched HK$1.93m (US$245,000) – hasn’t helped the housing situation, he adds.
Still, even Yuen admits that there is something romantic about eating a bowl of steaming noodles with a loved one on an abandoned rooftop, or watching the sunrise 25 floors up in the sky. He smiles and recalls an office he used to work at which was a five-storey tong lau, with a rooftop accessible to all in the building through the internal staircase. His band would use the space to play rock music. “Hiking up those stairs with our equipment was a nightmare,” he says. “But then, we would be playing loud music at the heart of Hong Kong directly under the sky. They were pretty awesome experiences.”