A Stranger in One’s Own Home

Derek Man returns to his native Hong Kong to capture the social housing tension, exploring the extreme ends of each spectrum as well as what lies between.

© Derek Man, from the series, Close to Home

Close to Home looks at the housing market in Hong Kong, exploring the lives of those caught in the struggle between the human need for shelter and the commercial need for growth - a situation that resonates worldwide. The artist himself, having lived overseas for over ten years in the United Kingdom, comes back with an expatriate eye in order to document his homeland.

You have spent your life between two different countries, yet your work revolves around the concept of cultural identity and the meaning of home. Can you talk about how you define and document these concepts in your work?

Having spent the formative years of my life away from where I grew up, the question of cultural identity and the sense of home are something I resonate with naturally. My interest in these topics was fuelled even more by my acquiring of British citizenship.

Previously, I have visited these themes in my project The Isle of Wight Analogy. Shot on the eve of my naturalisation, it could be seen as a way of exploring my new home, and what it means to be British - the idea of home from an abstract point of view. Close to Home on the other hand looks at it in a more literal sense: people’s habitats, and where I lived for 17 years.

© Derek Man, from the series, Close to Home

Close To Home is a project commissioned by Look 17/ Liverpool International Photography Festival - how did you get this commission?

Open Eye Gallery contacted me last summer to see if I’d be interested in being involved in the Cultural Shifts: Global exhibition, which formed part of LOOK/17. They were looking for a UK artist to go out to Hong Kong. After seeing some of my previous work that was shot there, which was essentially centred around the notion of returning home, they approached me for the commission.

The title can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Firstly, the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, which nods at the weight of the issue being explored. Secondly, it could read as a description of the substandard living environments featured, and how people make the most out of dwellings that perhaps wouldn’t normally be thought of as ‘homes’.

Hong Kong is a city known as a financial hub, especially in Asia, often associated to wealth, so in a way your project denies a different expectation about the city. Were those your intentions?

While it’s true that Hong Kong is still seen as one of the international financial hubs, this is only one side of the story. As a small island city with one of the highest housing prices in the world, it also has a shortage of affordable housing. The result is that these small, sub-divided flats often co-exist with multimillion-dollar apartments in close proximity. Most of the scenes I photographed were in central Kowloon, a couple of streets down from brand new shopping malls and luxury developments.

This disparity is not unknown locally. However, most people I’ve spoken to - as well as myself - were not quite sure the exact extent of the problem. It remains an abstract concept. There isn’t a great understanding of the situation locally, let alone internationally. I decided to place the situation back into the context of this world of brand new shopping malls and multi-million pound flats and showrooms, to reflect how it all happens under the same roof.

© Derek Man, from the series, Close to Home

When I look at your series, I find myself looking for a horizon line, especially when I know Hong Kong is an island. However, it seems difficult to find the sea. Was this something conscious in your thinking in order to show its density? Were you aware of this as you were working on the project?

It was not a conscious decision, but something that came about organically. In a small island city like Hong Kong, the ‘panoramic sea view’ is very sought after, and, therefore high prices. However, even if you could afford one of those, it does not guarantee you will have the view forever.

One of the images in the series shows an extravagant-looking bedroom, in an apartment which was for sale for around 10 million Hong Kong Dollars (approximately £1million). Whoever bought it had the promise of the coveted sea view, which is now obscured by two new buildings that have recently sprouted up outside. In the centre of the picture, in the distance, a construction site is present. In a few years’ time another block of flats will go up, blocking the view of the ocean completely.

This is something I have experienced first-hand. We moved into our flat in the New Territories around 25 years ago. It was a new build right by the sea. When I look out of my childhood bedroom window now I am confronted by the view of hundreds of other people’s windows.

You photographed real estate agents as well as tenants in their brand new and old apartments. How much did the reality differ between the promised sales standards and the real life of tenants?

The estate agents are not selling the substandard housing that are shown in the series. Rather, they are selling the extravagant new builds that are popping up across the city. I decided to include them in order to portray the two ends of the spectrum, which is at the crux of the problem - the tension between the basic human need for affordable shelter and the commercial need for profit.

In terms of promise versus reality, the Hong Kong government has greatly fallen short of their target goal of getting anyone who needs affordable housing into an apartment within 3 years from the day of application. Many of the residents I met have been waiting for 5, 6, even 7 years. Many are stuck in this limbo as a result.

© Derek Man, from the series, Close to Home

The rapid growth of global cities and accommodation crisis across Asia is a raising topic, yet, not much is discussed around this issue. How has the project been received by the Hong Kong community?

This body of work has yet to be shown in Hong Kong, but I am planning to make it happen. While shooting, I worked closely with the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), a non-profit social advocacy group that help people who live in substandard housing. It would be great to shine a light on the work they do.

Although the project focuses on Hong Kong, the housing issue is one that affects cities the world over. I hope the work will be seen by locals as well as others, and encourage discourse on this global situation.

As you worked on this project, would you say you found a different home to the one you belonged? How was this intrinsic search with an expatriate view?

Because of its rapid growth, the cityscape changes drastically every time I go home. There have been times where I tried to arrange to meet up with friends at a certain landmark or shopping mall, only to be told that the place had long gone.

However, working on this project led me to discover my native city even more - places that I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. Returning as an expatriate also helps in the sense that it allows me to view the place from a slight distant position, like being a stranger in one’s own home. Knowing how places used to be, and seeing these big changes once every 2-3 years leaves a much more powerful impression than perhaps a gradual experience of change would have. 

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Derek Man is a photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. He has lived in the United Kingdom since 2005 and became a naturalised citizen in 2016. His work explores cultural identity and what we call home. 

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers.

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