A playground with multiple sculptural climbing structures. Two of the structures consist of coloured concrete cylinders and half-cylinders stacked on top of each other in different combinations. The third consists of a large, flat, white piece of concrete with large holes cut in it, curved, angled, and shaped so that it curves over the ground, angles outwards, and then curves into itself from underneath. Numerous children sit or stand on top of these structures and mill about below them.

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.

Monochrome photograph of four men standing smiling and laughing around two young girls dressed in girl scout uniforms. One of the girls is sitting on a spring-mounted metal rocker shaped like a toucan, and the other stands by her side.

A playground opened in Lai King, featuring ‘Saddle Mates’, manufactured by Game Time Inc. Circa 1970s. Photo credit: HKSAR Government

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.

A playground structure consisting of a metal pole curved into a large wave shape with handles along it meant for climbing. A piece of metal shaped and painted like two large eyes and antennae sits on the front of the wave shape, and the three metal stands holding the structure up stick out like insect feet, making the structure look like a cartoon caterpillar.

‘Wondrous Worm’ in Wang Fuk Court, manufactured by Playground Corporation of America. Photo taken in 2018. Photo credit: Fan Lok Yi

Three children climb on an eagle’s perch style playground, consisting of a half-dome made out of metal bars connected to each other in a geodesic pattern. An adult holds a fourth small child near the bottom, placing the child’s feet on one of the bars. The photograph is taken from inside the dome, looking up at the climbing children.

An ‘Eagle’s Perch’ in Tsim Sha Tsui, manufactured by Playground Corporation of America. Circa 1980s. Photo credit: HKSAR Government

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.

A playground surrounded by multiple residential high rises. The playground has multiple climbing structures, including orange metal ladders curved into arches on the ground, and multiple small arch-shaped bridges clustered together. The photograph is taken from a perch on a metal blue climbing structure.

The play area of Shun Lee Estate. Photo taken in 1981. Photo credit: HKSAR Government

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.

A playground situated next to a hillside and near a road surrounded by buildings. Multiple sculptural climbing structures are visible. There are clusters of coloured concrete cylinders and half-cylinders stacked on top of each other in different combinations, a group of standing and lying red and yellow poles thick enough to climb, and large curved white sheets of concrete. A red, white, and yellow slide structure made out of curved, bulbous shapes sits in the middle of a large sandpit. Large red, green, and white abstract patterns are painted on the neighbouring hillside, running down it to join the playground.

Shek Lei Playground, 1969. Photo credit: HKSAR Government

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.

A playground in a concrete area surrounded by buildings. The playground consists of two concrete mounds connected by a raised concrete path in a semi-circle pattern. A narrow wooden bridge connects them and they are covered in numerous small stumps in bright colours. Two children play on top of the concrete mound on the right while an adult watches.

A play mound at Choi Po Court. Photo credit: Fan Lok Yi

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.

Numerous children play in a playground surrounded by a park. The area they are playing in consists of flooring with a pattern of a large flower in red and yellow spreading over a blue background. The flooring is covered in water, and more water is spurting from small holes in the ground. Large metal flowers with green stems can be seen sprouting from the flooring.

From open competition to consultation workshops, the planning of Tuen Mun Park inclusive playground involved contributions from multiple stakeholders, including the Government, NGOs, professional bodies, and children. Photographer: Fan Lok Yi

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.

You can see Fan Lok Yi and Sampson Wong, alongside fellow 2018 M+ / Design Trust Research Fellow Hugh Davies, present their research on Hong Kong playscapes this Saturday 2 March.


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.

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