In Hong Kong, where some 17,000 people are packed into every square mile, space is too valuable to go unused. That includes the hundreds of narrow back alleys separating shophouses and high-rises from one another. To the city government, they’ve become a trashed-filled, rat-infested eyesore in an otherwise picturesque metropolis.
But the German photographer Michael Wolf sees them differently. He’s lived in Hong Kong for the past 22 years and has been photographing back alleys throughout the city since 2002. “They remind me of the Surrealist art movement,” he said.
In one alley, pink rubber gloves clipped to colorful wire hangers dangle against a concrete wall. In another, white lawn chairs and salted fish hung up on rusting pipes appear to be floating in mid-air. Yet neither are the works of artists.
Instead, they’re examples of how locals get clever with maximizing the use of space in a fast-growing city, documented in Wolf’s newest book, Informal Solutions: Observations in Hong Kong Back Alleys. The average person in Hong Kong currently occupies just 160 square feet, compared to 832 in the U.S., Smithsonian reports. “The problem is that there is very little private space, so people tend to use public spaces on their own,” Wolf said. “It’s harder to get away with streets and open space, and back alleys are sort of unregulated areas, no man’s land.”