Photographer Derek Man lived in Hong Kong for 17 years before moving to the United Kingdom over a decade ago. Now living in London, he goes back every two to three years to visit family and friends in a city that is rapidly growing. “Every time I go back, the cityscape has changed drastically,” he says. He’ll arrange to meet up with friends at a mall or city landmark and they’ll tell him it’s gone—new buildings, residential and commercial, will have popped up in its place.
So when the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool asked Man to create a body of work about his native city, he immediately thought to focus on the housing market. The result is Close to Home, a series that interweaves photos of Hong Kong’s cramped affordable housing units and the lives lived therein, alongside photos of the enormous developments and luxury housing complexes going up throughout the city.
Man’s series shows both sides of Hong Kong’s housing market, which has some of the highest housing prices in the world. In many cases, the men living in the city’s infamous “coffin homes” or the families of four crammed into one-room apartments exist just down the street from brand-new multimillion-dollar apartments.
“Hong Kong has a shortage of public housing,” says Man. “It’s a small island so it’s difficult—land prices are high. A lot of the residents have been waiting up to five, six, seven years to be placed in affordable housing.”
This public housing situation falls far short of the government’s target goal of getting anyone who needs affordable housing into an apartment the day they apply. Before Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the city was a model for the speed and efficiency of its city planning, and its sufficient supply of public housing. Since then, however, an influx of people from the mainland, the economic boom of the early aughts, and the city’s lack of developable land has made Hong Kong one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.
When Man went back to Hong Kong this year, he worked with the Society for Community Organization, a local social advocacy nonprofit that helps place residents in affordable housing, to get permission to photograph people’s homes. Many of the apartments he visited were single rooms, with storage piled to the ceiling, and bunk beds right beside refrigerators. Others were rooms with four or five beds stacked like cubbies, with sliding doors for privacy. Halfway through shooting the series, Man decided to expand beyond public housing to include photos of new skyscrapers and luxury apartment buildings being built everywhere in the city. “[In Hong Kong] there’s this tension between affordable housing and the need for profit,” he says. “I felt it was important to include that contrast between the two extremes.”
In one photo, the view from the window of an extravagant-looking apartment—complete with gilded wallpaper and ornate curtains—shows two recently built skyscrapers obstructing the view of the coast. Even for people who can afford expensive apartments with a coveted ocean view are being affected by the city’s explosive housing growth, with new development taking up every square inch of the city.
When Man goes back home, he experiences something similar from the view of his childhood bedroom. “Now when I look out of my bedroom window, I see hundreds of other bedroom windows,” he says. “Knowing what things used to look like 10, 12 years ago, and returning to experience the change gradually—it’s shocking.”