[Video Essay] Crisis City

Video link: https://youtu.be/z7j91E7NEdY

Description of the theme:

The maximum utilization of rooftops distinguishes Hong Kong from the other metropolises. The rooftop has been functioning as an alternative living place for the less-privileged working-class people since the post-war period.[1] The traditional residential feature is continuing and intensifying with the advance of modernization and urbanization, as the additional space provided by rooftops partly negotiates the tension between the scarcity of land resources and the consistent request for more space caused by the exceeding population and economic growth. In contemporary life, the rooftop is serving more functions in addition to a living place, including the air garden, outdoor dining room, laundry, sports centre and alike.

This video aims to explore multiple dimensions of crisis reflected in the rooftop space: it is firstly the witness of the tension and inequality of living situation in Hong Kong. For the capitalist spectacle, it suggests the vertical edge of urbanization and cityscape, a symbol of modernization and human development; while for the lower-middle-class residents, the rooftop of their residential buildings means their marginalized and alternative living space. I refer to the Hong Kong photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze’s Concrete Stories (2016) in my video, suggesting how ordinary citizens lead a dynamic and creative life within a limited space.[2]

Secondly, the space on the rooftop has an ambiguous line between public and private, which is also suggested in my work. Some rooftops are public platforms for residents’ activities while others are divided and fenced into sections for particular inhabitants’ personal use. Does the latter denote an interpersonal separation and alienation in the modern urban context? At least, it witnesses the residents’ declaration of their space ownership and implies the space as a commodity in the capitalist competition.

Apart from that, the current situation of rooftops represents the dual crisis caused by the changeable and relapsing Covid-19. On the one hand, the changeable pandemic breaks off the inter-family gathering and other social activities. On the other, under the long-term economic and mental depression, staying at home or in another enclosed space has replaced the dynamic outdoor interactions. The work documents the state of rooftops being forgotten that reveals the citizens’ mental transformation despite the seemingly controlled epidemic in Hong Kong.


Research method


Rooftop space not only embodies Hong Kong’s unequal living conditions, space scarcity and competition but also witnesses citizens’ mental transformation during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

Documentation and making of the video:

With “rooftop” as the investigated subject, the video combines the on-the-spot experience with literature research. After collecting and analyzing literary resources and video clips from several revisits to different rooftops in my neighbourhood (Kennedy Town), I want to explore the transformation of the rooftop’s function before and after the pandemic period, examining the multiple dimensions of “crisis” in different times. I set the film in the form of writing a letter, in which the protagonist narrates her “adventure” to the rooftops in her residential area during the severe period of the Covid-19 and discovers the potential disappearance and the space’s being forgotten. It divulges a crisis moment not only for the rooftops but also for the whole psychology of Hong Kong.

Most clips are handhold shots, indicating the first-person perspective that channels the viewers to trace the protagonist’s footsteps. Except for the beginning’s audio sources that are picked from the government’s official news website, most of the sound effects (thunder, rain and alike) are recorded by myself while I also choose a soft melody (with licensing) as the background music when some clips carry with overwhelming wind noises. The frequently used editing technique is the montage. In the beginning, the alternative presentation of the rooftops in the rain and the interior space where the girl is reading (or feels boring) forms an echo between the human internal psychology and the outdoor environment. The later montage sequences mostly display the different perspectives of the rooftops I visited.



In my literary research, the rooftop space usually connects to Abbas’s concepts of disappearance. Similar to the frequently crumbled buildings in the “convulsions of the commodity economy,” the rooftop is also a witness to the commercialization of space.[3] The problem of the marginalization of those living on the rooftops corresponds to the “reverse hallucination,” unable to see something “what is there.”[4] Although my personal experience with the rooftops in my neighbourhood does not include the low-class poor living, I can still feel the sense of space shortage and residents’ attempts to lead a decent and dynamic life.

Pandemic is an overwhelming crisis from all perspectives, and this work mainly investigates how rooftop as an alternative space to witness the disappearance of enthusiasm for daily life. At the end of the project, I am wondering whether the pandemic mental crisis has a connection with the previously existing space crisis. This epidemic is more like an exaggerated externalization of the hidden capitalist crisis that triggers citizens’ exhaustion from living. In this sense, the rooftop is probably a “place of tactic” in de Certeau’s proposition where people will gain a temporal and fragmented sense of victory and ownership.[5] When can we see the scenes of citizens escaping from the limited, depressed and cramped urban space? After the pandemic, or it is an everlasting problem rooted in the structure of Capitalism?



[1] Rufina Wu et al., Portraits from above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities (Hong Kong: MCCM Creations, 2009), 27.

[2] Jill Blackmore Evans, “The Hidden World of Hong Kong’s Rooftops,” Create your own professional photography website (Format, April 19, 2018), https://www.format.com/magazine/features/photography/romain-jacquet-lagreze-hong-kong-photography.

[3] M. A. Abbas, “Building on Disappearance: Hong Kong Architecture and Colonial Space,” in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 64.

[4] M. A. Abbas, “Introduction: Culture in a Space of Disappearance,” in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 6.

[5] Michel de Certeau, “General Introduction,” in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (University of California Press, 1984), xvi.

— Wei Yihan Vana, 3035637539




Abbas, M. A. “Building on Disappearance: Hong Kong Architecture and Colonial Space.” Essay. In Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, 63–90. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

Abbas, M. A. “Introduction: Culture in a Space of Disappearance.” Essay. In Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, 1–15. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Randall. Berkeley, US: University of California Press, 1984.

Chow, Yiu Fai, and Jeroen De Kloet. “Flânerie and Acrophilia in the Postmetropolis: Rooftops in Hong Kong Cinema.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 7, no. 2 (2013): 139–55. https://doi.org/10.1386/jcc.7.2.139_1.

Cuthbert, Alexander R, and Keith G McKinnell. “Ambiguous Space, Ambiguous Rights — Corporate Power and Social Control in Hong Kong.” Cities 14, no. 5 (1997): 295–311. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0264-2751(97)00020-6.

Evans, Jill Blackmore. “The Hidden World of Hong Kong’s Rooftops.” Create your own professional photography website. Format, April 19, 2018. https://www.format.com/magazine/features/photography/romain-jacquet-lagreze-hong-kong-photography.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Essay. In The Blackwell City Reader, edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, 11–19. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2013.

Tian, Fei. “Hong Kong’s High-Density Housing & Cramped Living Conditions.” chinaSMACK, May 23, 2012. https://www.chinasmack.com/hong-kong-high-density-housing-cramped-living-conditions.

Wu, Rufina, Stefan Canham, Ernest Chui, and Wong Eric Kun Chun. Portraits from above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations, 2009.

“視乎疫情 社交措施4月下旬放寬.” Hong Kong’s Information Services Department, March 21, 2022. https://www.news.gov.hk/chi/2022/03/20220321/20220321_124329_218.html.

香港政府新聞網 – 社區與健康, May 31, 2021. https://www.news.gov.hk/chi/categories/health/index.html.

Used photos:
Jacquet-Lagrèze, Romain. “Concrete Stories.” Romain Jacquet Lagreze’s Portfolio, 2016. https://www.romainjl.com/concrete-stories#1.
Soundtrack music (licensed):

Michael FK. “Lighthouse.” Artlist. Accessed May 15, 2022. https://artlist.io/song/7230/lighthouse?search=lighthouse.

1 thought on “[Video Essay] Crisis City

  1. Sammie says:

    You made some interesting observations about the differences between public and private rooftops and the kind of activities one observes being carried out at the rooftop. I also appreciate the effort to bring in scholarly references. Overall, there are various ideas being investigated (access, public space, psychology, the pandemic) and the connection between them can be made stronger.


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