Sketchcrawl at Sham Sui Po (and Shek Kip Mei)

Gary delivers the morning brief

I am fascinated by the area in an around Sham Sui Po.

Apliu Steet for instance, has been an irresistible draw for me for years; a Gadget-Geekland that pops to mind whenever I need a tool or little doodad of any kind. It's a rather local spot, devoid of the usual crush of tourists, apart from a few who browse the stalls festooned with LED torches, cheap binoculars, phone or photographic accessories, and other gewgaws of all kinds.

By day, there are huge sections of the area dedicated to the garment trade, and you can find here every kind of fabric, bead and button for whatever you might be trying to make. Amidst the eateries and stores that sell daily necessities, there are also little metalsmiths, hammering and welding away beside dark garages that look like rows of mechanical dentists, filled with open-mouthed vehicles, bended torsos disappearing into their cavernous maws.

Except for the vehicles in the distance, this could be Hong Kong in the 60s

It wasn't surprising then, when a couple of weeks ago, my ears pricked up at word of the Urban Sketchers Hong Kong Sketchcrawl at Sham Sui Po. Some of the buildings in the area are a hundred years old; and that's old for Hong Kong. We were going to check out some vintage signage that almost spanned the entire street that Gui had photographed wonderfully previously. That particular stretch of Tai Nan St at 10:30am is absolutely quiet on a Sunday morning. I liked the scene, but prefer to draw ones with more people, so moved on quickly.

My morning really began with curious crowds milling around a few of us who were perched on stools at a busy intersection. The locals were very encouraging, praising talent and urging on those who made attempts to tame and capture the thousands of details that popped before us. A few of us focused on an older 3-storey building at a corner, and a particularly chirpy resident of these parts volunteered the entire history of the place and the family that still owns it; how many sons, who did what, who treated the father well, the family trade (Chinese medicine), and how it's fared all these years. I only understood one in maybe 40 words, thus capturing only the broadest gist of things. (I should really bone up on Cantonese so I can fully appreciate what the locals have to offer.)

To loosen up, I opted to work fast and really loose. This was done in about 40min

To loosen up, I opted to work fast and really loose. This was done in about 40min

At lunch, we looked to Chloe, who lived nearby, and she led us several blocks over, to a little Daipaidong (street food stall) on a quiet alley in neighboring Shek Kip Mei. This place was famous for its pork chop noodle, and was packed. It took a while to seat about 20 people, and we eventually split into smaller groups, huddled around folding tables. Naturally, most of us got the house special, a reasonable HKD38 set for a tall glass of iced milk tea, and a big bowl of noodles with tasty fried pork chops.

We dispersed after lunch, though I stayed on that street. It was unlike any I'd ever seen in Hong Kong. I felt like I had stepped 20-30years into the past, the illusion only shattering when one realizes that many little old ladies today have smartphones. After craning my neck and picking my scene, I stuffed myself into a little space between the main street and a barricade at a traffic crossing. The row of buildings before me were only 4 storeys high; a rarity in Hong Kong today, where 40 must be the average. Many of the homes here looked in various states of abandonment and disrepair, but they brimmed with wonderful character to me. I sat enthralled and did my first decent sketch of the day. 

I love these old curvy buildings! Wanting to make the most of time, I decided to skip coloring, or just save it for later.

A little over an hour later, our Whatsapp chat group alerted me to the fact that some of my Sketcher mates were on a rooftop around the corner. Their directions led me up several flights of dark, narrow stairs, reeking of decay. The lower floors were inhabited, but the upper levels were abandoned. It looked like the residents just chucked stuff they didn't want on the staircase, and I had to tread very carefully around battered furniture, broken toys and close to the top, a karaoke mic and maybe the player that once went with it.

This gives you an's more fascinating in reality, but I guess that also means I need to take better photos!

Emerging into the sunlight was something else. The rooftop spanned the entire block. Overgrown and strewn with discarded furniture, it felt otherworldly to be up there. Leftover sheds that once housed vegetable patches were now wild; equal parts spreading green and brown shriveled vines. And the flowers! There were copious amounts of a wonderfully spunky, showy red variety that looked like firecrackers ready to be set off. Huge bunches of red bristled everywhere. Look closer, and there were also smaller spangles of pink and yellow, a little shyer in the shade of the wall.

6 of my sketcher buddies were spread out, but many clustered around the parapet to the west. I wandered over to see what seemed to rivet them, and soon discovered why they were excited (in a way only urban sketchers can be).

Broad strokes of pastel and liberal splatter really help to bring out the deliciously grungy feel of the place

A narrow alley separated our rooftop from another block of rundown buildings. The rooftop there was even more overgrown. Several old ficus trees had taken root, spanning at least half the height of the 4-storey block. Green shot up from every crack, and there were many. Someone pointed out a group of lazy cats down below, sprawled and napping on the tin roof. To my surprise, there was food for them in copious amounts! At least 3 open newspaper pages held mounds of dried cat food. I wondered who fed these fat feral cats, but we never found out.

Thinking the entire building was abandoned, I suddenly realized that it was not when flapping laundry caught my eye. Two whole sagging rails of it! It was pretty grungy down below, and I first wondered if the clothing had also been abandoned, but slivers of bright whites and a fresh bit of orange winked from the murk. Right in the middle of the decaying structure, it seemed like people had made themselves at home in at least two flats on the upper floors of the block. The windows were either broken or off their hinges, and the balcony rail looked like it might give way at any point, but home it was to someone. I wondered if the toilet worked.

Whatever its condition as a home, it was an irresistible sight, and I, like the other sketchers busily painting it, set to capture it as best I could.

Every corner of that rooftop holds wonders to draw. We left that evening, vowing to return soon. 


Rob Sketcherman

iPad artist and urban sketcher, Rob travels the world to capture scenes on his iPad.