A Brief History of Playgrounds in Hong Kong
The below article was written by Fan Lok Yi, curator and artist based in Hong Kong, who, in a team with curator, artist, and academic Sampson Wong, is a recipient of the 2018 M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship. They have been studying the international trends and local factors that shaped 20th-century Hong Kong playscapes.
In the early twentieth century, Hong Kong was plagued by a problem with street children caused by widespread poverty and a lack of social welfare support. To address this issue, in 1929, the government started to construct the first urban playgrounds for children to spend time in and let off steam.
From the 1950s onwards, the Hong Kong government tried to cope with the exploding population by building large-scale public housing developments. After public parks, public housing estates thus became another major source of playgrounds.
Other than the basic facilities like swings and slides, there were some unique designs, likely related to the trend of ‘play sculptures’. From the 1930s to the 1970s, numerous European and American artists and designers created abstract sculptures that doubled as play pieces, believing that these objects, which didn’t offer a prescribed way to play, could stimulate children’s creativity better than traditional equipment.
In 1953–1954, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a toy manufacturer named Creative Playthings, and Parents’ Magazine co-sponsored the ‘Play Sculpture’ design competition. The ‘Tunnel Maze’ play sculpture (also named ‘Tunnel Bridge’), designed by American artist Sidney Gordin, came third in the competition and could be found in a number of Hong Kong housing estates between the 1960s and ‘80s. While it is unclear whether the Hong Kong Tunnel Mazes were authentic Creative Playthings products or counterfeits, they have definitely contributed to Hong Kong’s urban landscape and collective memory.
Tunnel Mazes were small and minimal, and were often placed side by side with standard playground equipment. A much larger experiment was a playscape called Shek Lei Playground. Paul Selinger, an American artist then living in Hong Kong, offered to design a sculptural playground for the government, as he found local playgrounds uninspiring. The proposed playground came into reality in 1969, with financial support from the then Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. Sculptural playgrounds of this scale have not been seen afterwards in Hong Kong, but local designers have still tried to create interesting playscapes using simpler physical forms, sometimes integrated with imported facilities.
According to the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines, playgrounds are a type of open space, which falls within the territory of landscape architecture. The landscape profession was only introduced to Hong Kong in the late 1970s. In the early days, most landscape architects were either expatriates from Western countries or Hong Kongers trained overseas. These Western-trained designers had shaped the urban landscape of Hong Kong: the Chinese-style fortresses and imported proprietary equipment of Sha Tin Central Park (opened in 1988), for example, make an interesting localization experiment. Another example, the play mounds of Choi Po Court (completed circa 1985), may appear a bit unrefined, but they reflect how designers tried to create economical yet interesting play environments within various constraints.
The playscapes of Hong Kong are constantly evolving under Western influences. The city has always relied on imported equipment for its playgrounds, which explains why, from the late 1980s onwards, when American playground manufacturers turned towards safer (and often less exciting) designs due to increasing lawsuits and liability issues, Hong Kong’s playgrounds also started to become more and more conservative.
In recent years, as in other Asian and American cities, Hong Kong citizens have suddenly realised how uninspiring and monotonous their playgrounds have become. The newly opened inclusive playground in Tuen Mun Park and the many play experiments in town are reactions against this, and hopeful signs that the city is entering a new worldwide movement towards the creation of more open and inclusive play environments.
Image at top of post: Shek Lei Playground, 1969. Photographer: Paul Selinger. Courtesy of Matthew Selinger
Fan Lok Yi is a curator and artist based in Hong Kong. She works to reveal the connections between urban space, history, and the environment through research and collaborative artistic processes. Currently the Curator of Make A Difference Institute, Fan’s curated projects include The University of Play (2018) and Kwai Tsing Daily@West Kowloon (2016 – 2017). She received her Master of Arts degree in Fine Art from University of the Arts London and Bachelor of Architectural Studies from the University of Hong Kong. In 2018, the team of Fan Lok Yi and Sampson Wong received the M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship, and they have been studying the international trends and local factors that shaped twentieth-century Hong Kong playscapes.