Playground in Colonial Kowloon

It was the year Neil Armstrong debuted the original moonwalk. Get Back and Honky Tonk Woman were number one on the UK charts for six and five weeks respectively. Halfway around the world, the tail end of the sixties saw Hong Kong emerging from protests against British colonial rule.

Circa 1969, the first ever adventure playground in Hong Kong opened in Kowloon.

Source: The National Archives (United Kingdom).

It looks like it was a funky place to play.

Source: The National Archives (United Kingdom).

I’d love to hear from anyone who spent time in this playground growing up. I’m also looking for help to track down some more photos. If you have information or stories on this Kowloon adventure playground, please drop a line at playgroundology@gmail.com

My brother goofing at Victoria Park, Hong Kong.

In present day Hong Kong, the government has developed a handy online playground directory but none of them hold a candle to Kowloon 1969. It was a good year, looks like they broke the mold.

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15 responses to “Playground in Colonial Kowloon

  1. Hello! I live in Kwai Chung, Hong Kong as it happens that I came across several photos of this playground in the government photo library while doing research today. This park was not in Kowloon. It was in Kwai Chung (the Shek Lei area in Kwai Chung, to be more specific), which is part of the New Territories. Let me copy the description I found in the 1969 Hong Kong Yearbook:

    “This exciting playground, filled with brightly-coloured abstract sculptures, is providing a huge success with children in Hong Kong’s Shek Lei resettlement estate. The playground, believed to be the first of its kind in South-East Asia, was created by American artist, Paul Selinger and was made possible by a donation of $150,000 from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. The intriguing shapes of the sculptures present a challenge to the imagination of the children. As these pictures show, they have not been slow to take it up. The park includes such structures as ‘the labyrinth’ and the ‘batwing slide’, plus a sort of giant watch band the children can climb over. Mr Selinger says he wanted to provide something people could look at and also use for recreation. He hopes this unusual playground will be the first of many.”

    Sadly, this wonderful doesn’t exist anymore. Either it was demolished in mid- to late 70s to make way for residential development, or replaced by new playing facilities that were up to modern safety standards.

    I haven’t been able to find out its exact location yet, but it was likely to be located opposite to Wah Tat Industrial Estate. The site is currently an adventure playground.

    I found a letter written by Paul Selinger, the park designer, to a magazine / journal: https://books.google.com.hk/books?id=rDUEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA8&lpg=PA8&dq=paul+selinger+shek+lei&source=bl&ots=Z98K6meT4b&sig=oNcC65PcfjPjZRbO7gJcblQzpms&hl=zh-TW&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjG9t6ylvjQAhUIGJQKHQOdAYsQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=paul%20selinger%20shek%20lei&f=false

    • Hello Lok Yi Fan, thank you so much for your notes about this playground. I am happy that you are able to set the record straight and correct my error here at PlayGroundology. Have you come across any more photos? If you have, I could do another post, include some commentary from yourself and excerpts from the letter. Let me know if this interests you. What is your focus in playground research? Wonderful to hear from you. Cheers from Nova Scotia, Alex. P.S. I will be including one of the photos from the media story on plyaground on PlayGroundology Facebook today.

      • Hi Alex, great to see your reply! I am not researching on playgrounds in particular. My organization is working with the Kwai Tsing District Council (“Kwai Tsing” = Kwai Chung + Tsing Yi) on an arts project about the district, so I have been trying to find old photos of the area. I am an architecture enthusiast so these pictures from the year book really caught my eye. What’s more wonderful is that these pics are indeed related to the district and so I can feature them in my event. The photos also showed part of Wader Film Studio, one of the major film studios in Hong Kong at the time.

        There are about 5-6 photos of the playground in the book and it takes a couple of days for them to dig out the image files. Due to copyright issues, I am not sure if they can be published online like that, but I’ll be happy to email them to you. You are most welcome to share or quote my comments, though!

  2. I lived near this park. I was born in 1969, the same year as this park opened. These sculptures accompanyed me since I was born, until I was 16. They were then too old and replaced by new playground facilities.

    The most fascinating thing about this playground is that it was composed of 4 different sand pools. Kids built sand castles there everyday. Besides, those sculptures possessed secret holes and spaces where kids could play hide and seek. A kid could hide himself inside a sculpture so secretly that no one could discover him within 10 minutes. Amazed?

    Every night, lovers would hide themselves inside those “holes”, kissing each other and ………..

    These park brought me a marvelous childhood, wonderful memory!!!!!!

    • Great to hear from you Damon and many thanks for the comment. I republished the article that appeared online earlier today in Hong Kong. I’m always interested in playgrounds that differ from the ordinary. If you’r aware of others in your area, please send photos and background information. Cheers from Canada, Alex

  3. I would later translate the chinese article to you so that you will know what it is about.

  4. Lokbi,
    I already sent you an email with picture descriptions in Chinese. An interview is ok. I am DSE teacher, anytime after February is available.

  5. Author: Wong Yu Hin, founder of the Urban Creation Laboratory
    Last Sunday, the visitors of the West Kowloon Cultural District would see dozens of photographs and their detailed explanations along the railings of the waterfront. It was a part of the community art program “Kwai Chung Festival”. Organization (MaD), together with the neighbours of Kwai Tsing, showcased the community cultures of Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi in the West Kowloon in various creative ways. The setup consisted of Kwai Tsing historical photos was designed and developed by the art planner Fan Lokbi and her colleagues. During the exhibition everyone was amazed on four photos as she expected. They showed that Kwai Chung had a very avant-garde playground 50 years ago and everything started with the discovery of these few photos.

    How the unknown avant-garde playground was discovered?
    “Kwai Chung Festival” was a program organized by District Councils and MaD jointly. Fan Lokbi remembered that during a meeting with district counselors, she was informed that there had been a Wah Tak Studio in Kwai Chung before. So when she was looking for historical pictures of Kwai Tsing District, she would pay special attention to whether there was any trace of Wah Tak Studio and later she got an unexpected reward.

    She went to the Image Library of the Information Office to check the color photos in the annual reports. “I had turned over each year until I turned to 1969, I saw six exotic playground photos. They were so colorful. I was shocked by one of the playground photo. The Wah Tak Studio, I have long been looking for, was shown at the lower right corner of that photo. That meaned the colorful playground was located in Kwai Chung.

    Fan Lokbi, who was engaged in the art, met this unfamous playground along the path of Kwai Tsing to Wah Tak Studio, and to the Hong Kong annual report. Familiar with Kwai Chung geography and architectures, she found no information about the playground on the Internet after a little search. She knew that this might be a big discovery.

    Facilities can not be classified as slides or swings but more like sculptures.
    A few photos brought a clue about an importnt page in the art histories of Hong Kong and its amusement area. Everyone is complaining about the playground facilities getting backwards today. However, in addition to the old styles of playgrounds shown in the nostalgic discussion groups, Hong Kong amusement area in fact have had a very different page before. Photos showed the playground, of which the four large-scale recreational facilities were difficult to classify as slide or swing. They were more like large modern sculptures, abstract, simple, just like surrealist works. Some were even like postmodern designs. In addition to the rare sculpture design, the hillside behind the playground also was treated as a canvas and painted with simple abstract drawings. The layout of this “sculpture playground” was clearly full of artistic ideas.

    Its designer, who was enthusiastic about art education and had worked in Hong Kong, was an American artist. Fan Lokbi pointed out, “The only text explanation of the photo mentioned that it is located in the Shek Lei resettlement estate. Built in 1969, this type of playground was the only one in Asia made by American artist Paul Selinger. At that time the Royal HK Jockey Club donated HK$150,000 to build it. Online information about the playground is probably the same as these.” The information on the annual report also showed that Paul Selinger regarded Hong Kong as the first stop and hoped that this unprecedented playground would keep appearing in other places. He also hoped that the construction could be viewed as sculpture works and also be a new type of facilities to let people amaze.

    Designed by American Artist, “Artistic Freedom” was given by Hong Kong to realize his ideas.
    “In the online and community history, almost no information about it. In fact Hong Kong had such an avant-garde playground, which synchronized the trend of Europe and the United States at that moment.” Fan Lokbi found that the world’s famous blog Playgroundology, which studied the playground design as a new social science, had talked about this park on its website. Playgroundology encountered related information in the United Kingdom national archives. From the information its location was known as “colonial Kowloon”. Playgroundology received even less information than Fan Lokbi, so no study followed of course. Knowing Playgroundology asked for more relevant information, she shared the information found accidentally with their experts.

    “There is not much further information available. After the artist (Paul Selinger) returned to the United States, he had written a letter to a magazine called Rotarian. He was proud of the playground in Hong Kong and criticized the United States for being less open to Hong Kong.” In the letter entitled “American Playground: A Limited Vision” Selinger wrote, “As an American who lived and worked in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to realize my design ideas in Shek Lei. I doubted if this could be achieved in the United States. I talked with the landscaped architects at the top American architecture after I came back, the case was even more so. They complained that they should continue to pour out the meeless design to meet those municipal officials who lacked vision. My ideas proved successful in Hong Kong because I was given the freedom of art to realize them. After I came back (San Francisco Bay Area), I found the officials associated with the park and civil service, as well as architects, would only choose some different colors but the same facilities on the playground from the ready-made catalog. To convince policymakers during the design of a playground, imagination was important in order to make the situation change.”

    Hong Kong playground as a new page of the global post-war building trend.
    In order to let more people understand this imagination which Hong Kong to be proud of, Fan Lokbi began a small research program, an official study of this almost incredible playground in Hong Kong, “Because the initial information was too little, I would like to visit the neighborhoods of Shek Lei, the HD, District Council members, Paul Selinger’s co-workers in Hong Kong and even his family.”

    The only information showed that Paul Selinger, who died at the end of 2015, taught art at the University of Hong Kong since 1961. Soon after the concept of the avant-garde playground was implemented, he returned to the United States in 1969. Searching for the playground information today, in addition to the pursuit of such a “miracle” Hong Kong had before, the city was lamented for the avant-garde space nearly 50 years ago which was no longer there today. Not only as initiatives to build more creative public playgrounds, but also to reproduce a small piece of puzzle in the history of the world’s modern playgrounds.

    After the Second World War, innovative young students and artists in Europe and the United States were actively engaged in public utilities for the people and contributed to a large number of avant-garde and whimsical designs. These designs were implemented in public buildings, especially in the design of public housing, public spaces and public facilities. The playground was a particularly experimental page. Many “rugged” pioneer playgrounds came into being, so far were still fascinating the world. But it was unexpected that a Hong Kong’s resettlement estate would use abstract sculptures as the theme and had connected to the history of avant-garde playground since 1969.

  6. Above is the translation of the chinese article.

    • Thanks so much Damon. I updated the ‘From Hong Kong with Love’ post by adding the translation to the end. Please keep in touch whenever you have exciting playground news. Cheers, Alex

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