【by Sampson Wong, June 2023】
Before covid-19 hits the city, Hong Kong was undergoing a transformative 6-month period in which each spatiotemporal-specific encounter with the urban landscape, architecture, streets designs brought about by the social movements altered the way people map the city. Hongkongers tread across urban spaces in their various forms, often ephemeral, as an indirect result of their involvements in the 2019 social movement. Setting foot in unfamiliar districts, derailing from quotidian routines refreshed their spatial sensuality in territories that were uncanny and felt foreign. Amidst the unprecedented social movement, spaces of the city were creatively used, or in Michel de Certeau’s sense, tactically used as opposed to their designated purposes that were dominant. Tactics and uncommon use of space inspired all to view a city from different perspectives. One perceives the architectures and topography of the city with affective responses. As the movement came to an end, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a politically hyperactive population had their feet suspended in the air. In addition to the interruptions and shifts to all aspects of everyday life, the yearning and blooming curiosity to explore urban surroundings were suppressed. Hongkongers’ mobility drastically shifted from “all around Hong Kong” to being confined at doorsteps. Let alone travel restrictions, the urge to explore every street corner of Hong Kong felt blocked by brick walls. The desire remained latent and unreceived.
The global pandemic sparked a cultural response in a number of cities. Artists, urbanists, critics encouraged people to walk across their own city with close observation of their own communities and surroundings, take a deep breath at newly-discovered public spaces and the potential of local tourism. Despite these campaigns being highlighted by different keywords, “walking” and “seeing the city in a new way” were coincidentally concepts that linked the world through their cultural interventions as a response to the pandemic. It morphed the spirits of our times with a collective consciousness to revisit our cities and produce discourses about urban spaces. Top-down urban design approaches emerged during the pandemic such as “15-minute city” concept. Yet the mass culture that put emphasis on “ways of seeing one’s city” is a bottom-up response. People seek comfort, consolation, joy in walking, and see hope.
In my observation, towards the end of 2020 until present, a similar wave of urban culture surfaced in Hong Kong, it could be loosely addressed as a wave of enthusiasm for walking, and furthermore, engagement to places.
By chance or driven by intuition, I became one of the core participants and creators who developed various projects related to this cultural wave. Hence, I write this essay to recount the past few years of personal experiences and evaluate the broader picture as an observer on the side. Despite the universality of walking as a cultural response under the pandemic, as a Hongkonger here and now, our wave of urban enthusiasm has its specificity. This particular enthusiasm for walking and borrowing from human geographer Tuan Yi-fu’s notion of “topophilia”, are highly relevant to the socio-political contexts mentioned at the beginning of this essay. They are namely, 1) Months-long political participation followed by an abrupt hiatus which cuts through the social fabric formed in close engagement with public spaces and the imagination, as well as constant explorations of their tactical use; 2) Overt discourses of “the love Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is beautiful” that are socially cohesive; 3) Political gloom, the fear of the “disappearance” of Hong Kong and an urge to grasp it; 4) Wave of migration, a large popular bid farewell to their hometown which formed an overseas diasporic community with collective homesickness.
The Hong Kong version of walking enthusiasm and the urge to rediscover the city differentiate themselves from other cities as the phenomenon interwoven with the socio-political contexts during 2020 and 2023. For the remainder of this essay, I wish to focus on personal experiences of my own and other creators which hopefully would be a starting point that sets the scene for further research.
I would mark 6th March, 2020 as a timestamp when I began to be part of the enthusiasm for walking in Hong Kong. Having the awareness of complete shutdown of international travel that would last for years, I published a short article on social media titled “A Lesson of City Walking in Hong Kong” which, to my surprise, received overwhelming responses. A short article that merely recounts a list of articles that I wrote during 2017 and 2019 on urban observations have been reinterpreted and perceived in the context of 2020 spring when the society is still undulated within a halted social movement, controversies over pandemic policies and fear.
A reflexive thought was, post-social-movement sentiments and the pandemic would reshape how people use and experience urban spaces. On the other hand, “walking” appeared to become a unique phrase. With its ambiguity to be conveniently adapted, it is compatible with affective needs and reaches the mass. In years preceding 2019, the civil society focused on pragmatic reforms and community building. Meanwhile with the political paradigm shifts and the pandemic, “les lieux” (places) gradually detached itself from community-centric discourses and grew into rhizomic actions merely involving individuals and their own curiosity, subjective experiences and walking. Unlike sponsored content or advertisements that were consumer oriented, mass media and self-media publications significantly switched to exploring Hong Kong from the perspectives of aesthetics, histories and personal stories.
As I continue to write and theorise the enthusiasm for walking and exploring Hong Kong, I take the liberty to read two widely-circulated slogans in parallel. “I really fucking love Hong Kong” implied a topophilia with this place and “Hong Kong is really beautiful” connotes an aesthetic appeal. Both slogans carry an ambivalence left by the social movement, with the former expressing a passion to make the city a better place and the commitment to social movements. The latter moves forward from Hong Kong’s stereotypical political indifference. I would like to extend the two interpretations and probe into 1) What we talk about when we talk about love to Hong Kong; 2) What qualifies the beauty of Hong Kong?
As my vocation is deeply engaged with urban studies, with the two prompts mentioned above, I began projects that are related to walking as an attempt to disseminate my own interpretations, appreciation and observations to the urban built environment in Hong Kong. I stumbled upon a question that fuelled to my continued journey, what if those who claimed they love Hong Kong can no longer sustain their love, and what they see as qualifying the beauty of Hong Kong has disappeared, is it possible that loving and appreciating the beauty of Hong Kong urban spaces may coexist with these conflicting sentiments? My personal view is, regardless of political development and the pandemic, the sentiments for urban spaces can possibly be a source of hope and inspirations. Hence I wonder whether hope in this sense bears any significance to others in a new norm. Through practice and repeated writing about love and beauty of city space, I wish to find out whether the hope that keeps my light on could respond to the gloom of others. The key phrase I adopted here is “walking” which realises the possibility of urban spaces and the hope they connote. Connecting the abstract ideas of love and beauty of a city with seeing and appreciating the urban built environment, walking becomes a practice about searching for hope in post-2019 Hong Kong.
The second idea comes to mind is to bridge walking with emotional wellbeing, and to examine more directly the possibility of narrating urban walks as a key way of healing in everyday life. The YouTube channel I co-created was named “When in doubt, take a walk”. Its Chinese title addresses “doubts in life” and tackles a general sense of hopelessness. Walking as an activity to relax has an unsaid linkage with well-being but I wish to explore the kind of walking that is specific to Hong Kong social contexts with the foregrounds of my projects.
Throughout mid-2020 to mid-2023, I developed projects related to walking and ways of seeing urban built environment in different media. The incorporation of the two concepts mentioned above set the course of my cultural intervention that mapped out how urban walking in Hong Kong conveys hope. Despite its nature as individual and private activities, walking popularises itself as a public culture and cultural phenomenon. Small group walking also facilitate interactions between communities of different social backgrounds. Cultural dialogues as such, I believe, will kindle more hope. This essay outlines an upcoming research agenda I intend to pursue on how individuals understand or interpret walking and its discourses in the past three years. It would also cultivate studies on how communities foster a dialogue with the collective through “urban walking enthusiasm” (散步熱) as a public culture.
Hong Kong indie band My Little Airport published a song titled “The Year of Walking” in August 2021. In hindsight, it was an epiphany as they left their footsteps amidst the urban walking culture in formation and the lyrics conjure up hope.
“Would it be possible that
We are treading
In the middle of history
With the farthest destination
Not visible to us
But we shall arrive there”
This verse follows the first half of the lyrics that described the alluring nature of walking and pleasure of urban discovery. The quoted lines expanded to a more abstract hope for the distant future. The present essay summarises some developments of an enthusiasm towards urban walking and rediscovering the urban built environment in Hong Kong and prescribes that under a specific social context, hope materialises itself through walking in urban spaces.
* Rachel Wong has substantially contributed to this essay, with inputs of ideas and supports on translation, I hope to acknowledge her tremendous help.
Sampson Wong, Lecturer of Urban Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong
 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Columbia University Press, 1988.
 Ana Kinsella, Look here: on the pleasures of observing the city. Daunt books, 2022 & Michael Kimmelman, The intimate city. Penguin Press, 2022.
 The phenomenon is particularly reflected in the vibrancy of Instagram accounts focusing on the topic. The Initium (端傳媒) has published two articles investigating the phenomenon as a form of emerging public culture in Hong Kong, with the titles of “Walking in Hong Kong: walk and walk, until you reach the city in your heart and memory” (在香港散步：走啊走，把自己的城市走到心裏，記憶裏) (published on 21/1/2023) and “Walking in Hong Kong: people, objects and landscapes, ‘I don’t mind their disappearance but their disappearance without a reason’ “ (在香港散步：人、物與風景，「我不介意它們消失，但介意它們白白消失」), published on 25/1/2023.
 Tuan, Yi Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. Columbia University Press, 1990.
 Sampson Wong. A Lesson of City Walking in Hong Kong. Facebook, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/sampson.wong/posts/pfbid023mbRNnb8dLRASAbyowH1gbcGWuPH5a8j8N2dixVu1qfLCjxvjUrA6CUKxwZjuPJnl
 The slogan “I really fucking love Hong Kong” (我真係好撚鍾意香港) first emerged in a banner being placed at a highly visible part of the city, the slogan has since been widely circulated.
 The slogan “Hong Hong is really beautiful” (香港真係好靚) was a slogan being used sporadically throughout 2019 – 2021.
 More about the youtube channel, please take a look at Christopher Dewolf, “Sampson Wong wants you to take a walk”, Zolima City Mag, published 19/5/2021. Also, a conference paper by Sony Devabhaktuni, “Sampson Wong’s ‘When in doubt, take a walk’ [in Hong Kong]: walking as an infrastructural practice, or a practice of infrastructure” (2022)
 Mainly through the publication of two books, Hong Kong Strollology (香港散步學) in 2022 and Urban Strollology (城市散步學) forthcoming in summer 2023, and running the youtube channel “When in doubt, take a walk”. And apart from releasing published and online contents, I also led more than 30 urban walks throughout the Covid years. More about the book and projects, please refer to an article on SCMP, “City walks around Hong Kong’s urban landscapes and historic landmarks may reveal sides of the metropolis you’ve never seen before”. (published 23/9/2023)
 Please also refer to an interview published on Obscura magazine, “Ways of seeing the city”, https://www.obscura-magazine.com/all/stories/misc-when-in-doubt-take-a-walk/
 The original Cantonese lyrics: