SCAD Hong Kong: Dedicated to 'awesome' Sham Shui Po

SCAD Hong Kong: Dedicated to 'awesome' Sham Shui Po

How 150 students at the U.S. art school are documenting the "missing puzzle piece" in Hong Kong's history -- the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po

Excerpts from the SCAD students' book on Shan Shui Po.

Two years ago, when the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) won a bid to convert the vacant North Kowloon Magistracy into a new Hong Kong campus, some wondered whether the private U.S. art school would find itself out of sorts in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighbourhood -- Sham Shui Po. 

But the university has done more than just settle into its new home. 

Students are now working on a project about the history, architecture and culture of Sham Shui Po, which will eventually be published as a book and an online collection of photos and data. 

Hitting the streets

Sixteen of the school’s 150 students are involved in the project, focusing on photography, historic preservation and graphic design. 

“We want to capture Sham Shui Po the way it should be captured, the way it deserves to be captured,” says one of the photographers, 28-year-old graduate student Dru Phillips.

Until coming to Hong Kong earlier this year, Phillips had never left the east coast of the United States. Sham Shui Po was a shock -- the good kind.

“There’s so much color, so many people walking everywhere, guys with propane tanks on their bikes, stuff I’d never seen before,” says Phillips. “I love it. I feel more comfortable in Sham Shui Po than I do anywhere else in Hong Kong.”

Lately, Phillips has been taking photos around the neighborhood with a Linhof large-format camera that produces 4x5-inch negatives. It’s a big, old-fashioned-looking contraption that hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced in 1946, so whenever Phillips stages a shoot, he attracts a lot of attention. 

But that’s not a problem, since the key to “making photographs, instead of just taking pictures,” as Phillips puts it, is to forge a good relationship with your subject. Even if he speaks only a bit of Cantonese, Phillips has already won over enough people in Sham Shui Po that he is offered free waffles and soy milk whenever he walks past some of the shops he has photographed. 

SCAD’s other students have received a similar reception. Some were taking photos outside the 86-year-old Sham Shui Po police station when they were invited to take photos of the station’s interior. The police liked the photos so much they hung them on the station’s walls. 

Leaving a record

Despite being one of Hong Kong’s oldest neighborhoods, with a diverse population that includes everyone from merchants-made-good to street sleepers, Sham Shui Po is remarkably under-documented.

Simon Go, co-founder of Hulu Culture, calls it “the missing puzzle piece in Hong Kong’s history.” He gave students an introductory tour of the neighborhood after they first arrived.

“It’s almost like people have been waiting for this to happen,” says Steven Aishman, one of SCAD’s photography professors. “People asked us why we wanted to focus on Sham Shui Po. This book will answer why. Sham Shui Po is awesome.”

In addition to the book, SCAD’s students are working on a website with a searchable archive of Sham Shui Po photos. Students are already blogging about their work

Building a hub for the arts

SCAD’s legacy in Sham Shui Po goes well beyond the book project. Its restoration of the former North Kowloon Magistracy has saved a local landmark from dereliction. 

Though the building has been modernized and adapted for use as a school, most of its original architectural details have been preserved, including a jail cell in the basement (complete with prisoners’ graffiti on the walls and an old squat toilet) and a courtroom, which is now used as a lecture hall. 

While the public can visit an art gallery on the building’s main level, SCAD also holds guided tours, giving the public a chance to appreciate both the building and the student, staff and alumni artwork that fills it. 

“It’s always interesting to see people who’ve lived in Sham Shui Po their whole lives come and visit the building,” says John Paul Rowan, the vice president of SCAD Hong Kong. “Of course, when they say they remember what it used to look like, you have to ask them why. So far we haven’t had anyone who was actually on trial here.”

In the future, SCAD hopes to expand its presence in Hong Kong, much the same way it has done in other cities, like Atlanta.

“When we first started there, we had 77 students, and now there’s more than 2,000,” says Rowan. 

About 60 percent of SCAD’s students are locals while the remainder come from overseas. While its US$29,000 annual tuition is comparable to that of many private American universities, it is significantly higher than other Hong Kong universities, but Rowan doesn’t think this will be a barrier to attracting more students.

Scholarships and financial aid are available to qualified applicants who can’t afford the fees. “We try never to have the finances stand in the way of students,” he says. 

SCAD is part of a growing network of creative spaces around Sham Shui Po, including the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre and the future Mei Ho House museum and youth center. Rowan says that initiatives like the Sham Shui Po book project are just the start of its commitment to the neighborhood.

“There will be a book, but as far as I’m concerned, this project will never be complete,” says Dru Phillips. “We’re small now, but our impact will keep growing. When we get bigger, it will be epic.” 

Click through the pages to see how the North Kowloon Magistracy has been transformed into a place of learning. 

Old jails at the North Kowloon Magistracy.

The jails tranformed by SCAD.

The main staircase of the North Kowloon Magistracy.

Is now the entrance to an institute of learning.

North Kowloon Magistracy's characteristic windows.

SCAD took advantage of the natural light and turned the area into a common room.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf