Hong Kong (AFP)
In a crowded metropolis where old buildings are frequently replaced by sparkling skyscrapers, two Hong Kong model makers attempt to preserve the city’s architectural past – in painstakingly detailed miniature form.
Walking into Tony Lai and Maggie Chan’s studio is like stepping into a time machine, if that time machine has shrunk everything except yourself as well.
In one corner, a whole fairground is laid out, with moving merry-go-rounds and a spinning Ferris wheel.
On the other side, a small re-enactment of the city’s fire dragon festival is underway.
Elsewhere is a meticulously recreated revolving restaurant and entire residential block, complete with window linens and fast-disappearing neon signs that once lit the streets of Hong Kong with kaleidoscopic abandon.
The two artists share a common passion for bringing their childhood scenes back to life and say Hong Kong people are eager to peek into the past or rediscover faded memories.
“When the elderly see our creations, it ignites their memories,” said Lai, pointing to their recreation of Kai Tak Amusement Park, which was demolished in 1982.
“We even often saw old people whose eyes wept when they saw our models,” he added.
Preserving the past is difficult in Hong Kong.
Historic buildings are often pitted against powerful billionaire real estate developers and government planners eager to build more high-rise buildings in a city where housing is desperately scarce.
Many colonial buildings and features prized by architects, historians and locals have been demolished, although more recent governments have begun to take a somewhat more proactive role in protecting heritage sites.
– Fishing for memories –
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lai fondly remembers his father taking him on a boat to Lamma Island on the outskirts of the city, where fishing communities lived in dilapidated wooden houses on the shore.
One of the most intricate creations of the TOMA Miniatures studio of Chan and Lai is a diorama of inhabitants doing their daily chores in such a village.
“This memory has stuck with me until now,” he said.
Chan is equally talented in her memory and penchant for detail.
“Tony focuses on the big structures, I focus on the small details,” she said.
Chan was inspired by his father to bring home local dishes and snacks, and began his career creating miniature versions of Hong Kong foods.
“Even just a poster or a bowl of beef brisket noodles, it might get people to remember something and get emotional,” she explained.
Last year, a historic theater in the city’s North Point neighborhood that opened in 1952 met an uncertain fate after being bought by real estate developers.
With its distinctive parabolic concrete vaulted roofs, it was featured in the 1978 movie “Game of Death” starring Bruce Lee, during the golden era of Hong Kong cinema.
The theater was only saved from demolition last month, when real estate developers instead announced it would be redeveloped into a multibillion-dollar heritage site.
– ‘Disappear one by one’ –
Other buildings are not so lucky.
Hong Kong authorities recently gave the go-ahead to demolish a four-story pre-war heritage building in Jordan District, a move that has been condemned by heritage conservation groups.
Another likely casualty is the city’s General Post Office, a post-war modernist block on prominent harbor-side land that is set to be replaced by glitzy commercial development.
“Hong Kong is a big city, so there is a lot of architecture or things from our childhood that disappeared one by one,” Lai said.
“If we can use our abilities with miniature models as a way to recreate them, then that’s a happy thing.”
In addition to awakening happy and nostalgic memories for residents young and old, the two also hope international travelers can revisit their models once the pandemic is over.
“I hope that by visiting they can see that there is a lot here that they haven’t discovered yet,” Chan says.
“I hope that our designs can give an idea of what Hong Kong really is.”
© 2021 AFP