Imagining a post-capitalist city with Michael Leung

Kai Fong Pai Dong. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud.
A creative resistance against developer hegemony.

Michael Leung is a designer, urban farmer, and a visiting lecturer in design and socially engaged art. He’s also embarrassed by the fact his laundry is still hanging from the ceiling of his apartment.

“I meant to put that away before you got here,” he grins sheepishly. And yet, his rack of drying clothes only adds to the vibrant clutter of his home studio. We’re seated in a long room where every possible surface is covered in something.

Behind his head, several canvas-colored furoshiki cloths are emblazoned with a call to protect Wang Chau villagers from eviction. Michael is part of a concern group that opposes the government’s Wang Chau development plans, and the night before, two villagers and two concern group members gathered at his flat to screen-print banners as part of a crowdfunding campaign. The banners declare in Chinese, “this is an ongoing struggle.”

“We were screen-printing here until 10pm,” Michael says with a smile. There’s still green ink on his fingers, which I notice as he hands me a glass of warm tea.

Michael Leung. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud.

I am taken by how serene Michael is, given his many commitments. A few weeks ago, he was in Mumbai, India, working with other artists on a large watercolour map of Aarey Forest, the city’s largest green space facing deforestation. He then made his way to Osaka, where he collaborated with graphic designers ITWST on a poster highlighting the work of ZAD, a French anti-capitalist community occupying ancient farmland to protest the proposed construction of an airport.

His recent trips notwithstanding, Michael is based in Hong Kong, where he lectures part-time at Baptist University and collaborates with various concern groups and art institutions. From working on a Farmers’ Almanac with Spring Workshop as part of HK FARM, as well as speaking about farming and independent publishing at Para Site, his work explores how art and design can aide social movements and environmental sustainability.

Before arriving in the city nine years ago, Michael designed mobile phones and other devices for Motorola in London, where he was born. While the job helped with his student loan, he couldn’t quite see himself discussing “whether the corner radius of the phone should be 1 or 1.5mm” for the rest of his working life. After being accepted into a master’s programme, he finally took the plunge and made his way to Hong Kong.

Nowadays, his work is focused on fair, sustainable land use that prioritises people over capital. As a designer, he wants to create work that can “serve the movement” and not just his own portfolio. Michael is less preoccupied with authorship, and more excited about how “sharing research, sharing spaces, and sharing knowledge” can foster supportive communities.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the market stall Kai Fong Pai Dong 街坊排檔, which Michael speaks about with an infectious enthusiasm. Nestled near the intersection of Hamilton Street and Canton Road, KFPD is a shape-shifting market stall where almost anything can happen: free haircuts, English lessons, a mini-garden and film screenings are just some of their recent endeavours.

[The market stall] embodies real, pre-figurative, everyday politics, with a wide demographic of people who hold different political views.

Michael and ten friends opened KFPD in late 2015, after being inspired by the strength and resourcefulness of hawker and market vendor communities like the Pang Jai Fabric Market in Sham Shui Po. By hosting various community-oriented initiatives, the stall “embodies real, pre-figurative, everyday politics, with a wide demographic of people who hold different political views.”

Prefigurative politics, a term coined by Carl Boggs, refers to the ways in which a society organizes itself and forms relationships that are reflective of their desired future society. In the case of KFPD, this refers to the horizontal, non-hierarchical structure of the stall’s volunteers, as well as the ‘open forum’ method of programming, which takes into consideration suggestions and input from anyone on the street.

Within my twenty minutes of being at KFPD, I meet three regular visitors, as well as two children from the neighbourhood who take turns on the elliptical machine sitting next to the stall.

“Someone gave that to us,” Michael laughs. The stall frequently receives donations of secondhand items, which cover its surfaces like mechanical outgrowths. A computer speaker, a silver pot and a teal plastic thermos form a surprising trio on the bright yellow shelf positioned next to the stall. Aluminum cans that have been cut into lanterns dangle from the roof. Items are sold with pay-as-you-wish prices or given away, with a system that Michael refers to as “mutual aid and mutual empowerment.”

Lok Tin Dry-Clean Laundry Services. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud

KFPD has formed close relationships with many of its neighbours, including a laundry that has recently been forced to close due to rising rents. The laundry used to keep the keys for KFPD, and the two spaces would often share food and resources. The farewell dinner for the laundry’s owners turned into quite the occasion: customers of the laundry, KFPD members, and the family of the laundry owners all ate together and reminisced on the years they shared.

It was a testament to the power of enduring relationships, where micro-communities look out for each other amidst the struggles of living and working in a high-pressure city.

And these communities have welcomed Michael as one of their own: while continuing to fight for land justice abroad, he has no plans to leave the city where he spent many of his childhood summers. 

“I just can’t imagine leaving a current movement that has been built up since day one, leaving it unresolved,” he says. “I feel committed, and we’re friends now”—referring to the villagers, fabric sellers, farmers and other people he has worked alongside through the years.

“[You reach] that level of trust where you know that it’s more than a project. It’s life.”

Michael Leung’s work can be viewed on his site. The Wang Chau Village second annual Jackfruit Festival will be held on August 18. Editing by Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan.