HK NOTES 2018-20

"The future LA looks like
Hong Kong on a bad day"

Attributed to Ridley Scott, Director of Blade Runner

I moved to Hong Kong from Los Angeles in August 2018. I have an interest in architecture and the forces that shape the urban environment: people, culture, economics, politics and law. I like to know what's going on and why.This site contains links to interesting books, articles and websites on Hong Kong and East Asia that I discovered in my two and half years living there.

- Tom Pushpathadam 2020


This built environment of this city is synonymous with extreme density: crowds, narrow streets, buildings hiding the sky — decay: humidity, condensation, dripping water, mold — visual overload, neon signs, hanging laundry, exposed plumbing and HVAC units poking out every window.That dystopian image is countered by several new shopping malls that are bright, spacious, nearly anti-septic in contrast to the existing urban fabric. It's shopping for the gods in Elysium.These books illuminate the thought behind the environment. As we're right next door to Shenzhen, I'm including several books about South China.

Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong GuidebookJonathan Solomon 2012
Mall City: Hong Kong S Dreamworlds of ConsumptionStefan Al2016
Villages in the City: A Guide to South China's Informal SettlementsStefan Al2014
Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated GuidebookStefan Al2012

Peter Cookson Smith's books go begin with the arrival of the Europeans in Asia. They describe the environment that developed in the treaty ports and concessions where Europeans and Asians first interacted freely.

The Urban Design of Intervention: Imposed and Adaptive Place in Asian CitiesPeter Cookson Smith2015
The Urban Design of Concession: Tradition in the Chinese Treaty PortsPeter Cookson Smith2011
The Urban Design of Impermanence: Streets, Places and Spaces in Hong KongPeter Cookson Smith2006

Jason Wordie is a local historian and newspaper columnist who gives great tours of different parts of Hong Kong. They aren't architectural per se but very in depth. Best for residents or people who have a good baseline knowledge of the Hong Kong.

Besides the tonglau type buildings in Hong Kong there are other typologies you'll see in other parts of China like lilongs in Shanghai:

There's also the Hong Kong that's served as the inspiration for 80's cyberpunk literature, anime and cinema

A large percentage of Hong Kongers live in public housing. You'll see several clusters of the latest 60 story ones along the route from the airport to the city. The buildings have really evolved from the first models in the late 50's.


Feels like every inch of Hong Kong has been photographed a few times over. It's that inspiring. Here's a few examples of great pre-Instagram work.


Your kids may learn Mandarin at school but you won't find much use for it in the Hong Kong areas frequented by Western expats. While a lot of people speak excellent English what you hear day in and out on the street is Cantonese.It sounds different than Mandarin. A lot of sentences end with "aaah" ( a in apple) while Mandarin with a Beijing accent has a lot of "errh" sounds (ur in purrs).Cantonese is written differently using Traditional Chinese script instead of Simplified Chinese. A beginner trying to understand basic signs might not see any difference but translation software will.Knowing some Cantonese will at minimum help you communicate with taxi drivers and storekeepers at local stores.Put some more effort, 加油 (Gaa1 Yau4) add oil! to peek into what makes people tick here.

Chinese Writing (Hanzi)

The books listed below are focused on the Chinese language in general and Chinese characters. The common characters allow different dialect speakers to communicate across dialects.Best analogy I can come up with are the symbols for male and female bathrooms. Most people understand them but use very different words to say them in their own languages both formally and informally.To non-speakers they are a fascinating puzzle to decode.

The Chinese Language: Its History and Current UsageDaniel Kane2018
Decoding Chinese CharactersBun-Ching Chow2016

Current Events & Context

Hong Kong and China are in the news. Here's an extremely eclectic list of books that I found of interest:

No City for Slow Men: Hong Kong's quirks and quandaries laid bareJason Ng2013
Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong's Occupy Movement UncoveredJason Ng2016
Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is WrongBen Chu2013
The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen RevisitedLouisa Lim2015
Boxers & SaintsGene Luen Yang2013
A Chinese LifeLi Kunwu2012
Sea of PoppiesAmitav Ghosh2009
River of SmokeAmitav Ghosh2011
Flood of FireAmitav Ghosh2015
Everything Under The HeavensHoward W French2018
China DreamMa Jian2019
AI SuperpowerKai-Fu Lee2018

What's happening in Hong Kong is tied to the bigger picture of China and South East Asia development. Below are some interesting resources. Beware a long trip down the rabbit hole: