In Hong Kong, where a single square foot of real estate can cost $1,300, residents cram into the tiniest of apartments. But only so many sardines can fit in a can, so people’s personal belongings spill into Hong Kong’s alleys–not to be collected as trash, but to be stored.
It’s a topic that has fascinated photographer Michael Wolf for a decade–leading to five published books, with five more planned–under the project name Back Door. “The premise for the project is that Hong Kong’s back alleys are of cultural importance, that they reveal something about the character of the Hong Kong people,” Wolf writes in an email. “Everything has meaning–a bunch of gloves hung to dry on some coat hangers is more than just a bunch of gloves hung out to dry. They are part of the narrative of the city and its people.”
They are also masterpieces of improvisation. In Wolf’s photos, an old electrical box becomes a place to store fresh oranges. An open umbrella provides a makeshift roof for various dry goods. And rubber gloves poke and hang from any available pipe or line.
My favorite images depict makeshift solutions to limited recreational space. In one photo, a pair of dirty plastic chairs provide perfectly even seating on a steep staircase. How is this possible? Shouldn’t they tip and roll down? Looking closer, you see that two legs on each have been lopped off, allowing it to sit on these particular steps evenly. In any other context, the uneven chairs would be useless. Here, they allow two people to sit and chat in an otherwise impossible spot.
“After seeing this work, most people see Hong Kong in a very different way,” Wolf writers. “They see that culture is not only confined to museums, one can see it on the street as well, in this case, in the back alleys.”