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Friday, November 14, 2014, 09:42

What lies beneath

By Chitralekha Basu
Warts and all

What lies beneath

What lies beneath the make-up is not always a pretty story. Shum’s images of renovated building blocks, painted in neon shades of lime green, aquamarine, with strawberry pink cement rings around the bases of newly-planted trees are, in fact, a commentary on how those in charge of gentrification of public housing might have scant regard for the people who reside there.

"Sure, getting from Plot 1 to Plot 3 has gotten easier, but the elevator towers in Cho Yiu Chuen look surreal. If you look closely the balcony around 15th floor in a building in Hing Wah Estate to facilitate access to other buildings is an add-on, obstructing the view from the window on the floor beneath. It’s like a tumor growing,” says Shum.

The riot of vivid colors on newly-refurbished buildings, he says, is indeed eye-catching, “but you don’t want to live there. It doesn’t give one a sense of home.”

What could have indeed fostered a sense of familiar comfort and neighborliness, says Shum, were the traditional-style tea houses in stand-alone structures, now sadly making way for multi-storey structures, for the sake of optimum use of space.

"A tea house that was 30 years in business in my housing estate was demolished a couple years ago, after the developers took over. Now it’s just another store in a shopping mall. Earlier, these tea houses would function as a social hub, especially for the elderly. One could buy dim sum with a glass of tea just for HK$15. These were places to hang around at, make friends and do social networking,” says Shum.

What lies beneath

Thirty years ago, when Shum was a small boy, he was brought to Shun On Estate in Kwun Tong. Although he hated it then, the emotional bond with On Yat House, in which he still lives, is a truth he cannot ignore. The seeds of what would later develop into an urge to document public facilities – parks, streets, residential spaces — were probably sewn in him at that moment, nurtured over the years to reach a state in which he is heavily invested in public housing and yet has perspective enough to take a dispassionate view.

"No one has been able to return an honest and poetic look on Hong Kong landscape like Dustin Shum,” says Steve Bisson, an Italian photographer who started the very-influential online photo journal, Urbanautica. “He is skilled at portraying the urban landscape of Hong Kong in a distinct way. In his photos I feel the desire to understand his city, while maintaining a certain distance and respect. He is certainly an intellectual open to the world, and ‘hungry’ for contents and discussion.”

Shum himself is probably more comfortable being relatively low-profile though. He gave up a secure well-paid job in the media to embrace the uncertainties of his “expensive hobby”. His ultimate pleasure is in scanning the negatives from his shoots. “That’s when I question my own intuitions, criticize myself. I’d develop a roll only after days, sometimes weeks, after shooting. I like to approach them as strangers.”

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