What if the Old General Post Office still stood in Hong Kong today?

When discussing Hong Kong’s architectural history, the name of one building pops up again and again; the General Post Office built in 1911 on the corner of Pedder Street and Des Voeux Road Central. When I first saw photos of those soaring porticos topped by proud jutting balconies, I was smitten, and fervently wished I could have seen this beauty before she met the business end of a wrecking ball in 1976. 

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the Hong Kong Economic Times, along with Gary Yeung, founder of Urban Sketchers Hong Kong. In the shadows of the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science, an Edwardian gem tucked on the slopes of Mid-Levels, Hong Kong island, we chatted about the passions of Urban Sketchers and the role the group plays in society. 

Declared a Monument in 1990, the Old Pathological Institute was revitalized and repurposed as The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science in 1996.

Among the questions asked of us was our opinion on the way Hong Kong has preserved old buildings. That really got me thinking. I had just returned from the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore, and must say that I was generally impressed by how the city state had managed to strike a balance between retaining some of their beautiful heritage buildings amidst the construction of shiny, futuristic towers of steel and glass. 

Ask citizens in any country, and I’m pretty sure some will vociferously declare that precious few old buildings have been saved, while an equally vocal lot will pronounce the opposite. I’m sure it’s impossible to please everyone, and that every country walks the tightrope between conservation and change in the name of progress. 

I’m not naive. Both are necessary, and every situation needs careful consideration. I just really wish that more of these truly wonderful, iconic buildings had been preserved here in Hong Kong.

I've always wondered what the Old General Post Office would look like if it still stood today.

Every time I pass the bustling street corner that once boasted the old GPO, I still wonder what it would be like if she was still around. I bet Hong Kong would be so proud of her, which inspired me to create this mashup of urban sketching and fantasy, based on the location today and historic photographs. Hopefully, any old beauties still remaining in the city will meet better fates.

Themed Life Drawing in Hong Kong

Whenever time allows, I like to get some life drawing in. Nothing like it to hone the study of fascinating human forms. 110 Studio in Sheung Wan Hong Kong is run by a good friend of mine, and this video is a compilation of a few sessions I did there recently.

I haven’t been attending life drawing sessions as much as I’d like of late, but do whenever time allows. In addition to attending 'regular’ life drawing sessions where the model is nude, I also occasionally have fun at themed figure drawing sessions, and a new favorite is at 110 Studio Sheung Wan, run by Pei Sea, a very good friend of mine. The video above are some of my favorite sketches from a few sessions at her place. 

Advantages of using an iPad for Life Drawing

Using an iPad for life drawing is perfect for me as I like to work fast. It's also a huge plus that I don't have to worry about paint drying and where to put yet another dripping sheet of watercolor/smeary charcoal etc. And of course, it’s quite fun to watch the video playback afterwards, thanks to Procreate! I'm a fan of quick poses, and not needing space for lots of different media or dealing with the threat of spilling liquids, allows me the flexibility to change positions rapidly if I feel like it.

In a future post, I'll go into detail about my digital process for life drawing.

Life Drawing in Hong Kong

The life drawing scene in Hong Kong is cosy (spaces are small) and lively (we have some truly amazing models) and there are 3 studios I’ve been to that I can highly recommend for those interested. I’ll add links at the end of this post. Right now, 110 Studio is the only one I know that focuses on a theme at every session.

Both themed and ‘regular’ life drawing present different challenges. I really love the human form sans attire so I can draw torsos in glorious twists, but also delight in studying light on fabric drawn tight or loosely draped. A theme also gives the model expressions to draw from, adding an additional layer of life to poses. And if the model is good, WOW!

If you’re a newbie, themed figure/life drawing is when the model takes inspiration from a very specific topic. He or she is usually clothed, at least to some degree, depending on the purpose of the session. I’ve attended some where the model is nude but holds poses so animators can study the human form, inspiring characters in film. Often, it’s just for practice, but every bit helps, and the hours put in can add up to make a huge difference in skill level.

Themed Life Drawing at the Drawing Club, LA

I can’t talk about themed life drawing without mentioning where I first got into it: Bob Kato’s Drawing Club (then in Glendale) which I loved attending when I was living in LA. The man took great pains to set the stage, arranging lighting, props and even a movie and accompanying musical soundtrack! Providing an immersive experience made it so much more inspiring, and looking around, I could see many industry pros who obviously felt the same, returning time and again to Bob's in order to hone their craft.

Peggy Moore channelling Norma Desmond at The Drawing Club, Los Angeles, July 2015 

Peggy Moore channelling Norma Desmond at The Drawing Club, Los Angeles, July 2015 

I had a chance to catch a session in July at the Drawing Club's new location, Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, where the theme was Sunset Boulevard. As always, the film inspiring the session was being projected onto a screen. Modeling for us that evening was Peggy Moore, who took great pains with her costume. As you can see from a selection of my sketches, she had Norma Desmond down to a 't', and I had a ball, especially with her expressions.

Here in HK, space is more of a challenge, so we make do and stretch our imaginations a little more. But hey, all you need is a great model embodying the feel of a character, a great playlist, and off you go.

Figure Drawing Sessions in Hong Kong

If you’re in Hong Kong and want to give themed life drawing a go, connect with Pei Sea here. If you’re in LA and haven’t yet been to The Drawing Club, you can find more info at http://www.thedrawingclub.com/

For those in HK, here’s a map so you can also find a life drawing spot close to you. (I’m only recommending places I’ve personally been to.)

110 Studio Shueng Wan (Themed Life Drawing)

You’ll need to hit the 5th floor button at the gate downstairs in order to buzzed in. Take the elevator to the 5th floor and the entrance is on your left.

Run by: Pei Sea. 


Cost: HK$200 per 2-hour session

When: Thursday 7:30-9:30pm (check the Facebook pages for latest details)

Where: 5th floor, 110 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan

Format: Short poses, starting with 30secs/slow motion, 1, 5,10,15 and 20 min poses.

Instruction: None, but friendly advice is always available after if you want it.

Equipment provided: Seating and plywood drawing boards. BYO sketching materials


Life Drawing in Hong Kong (nude)

Life Drawing Hong Kong

Philippe runs life drawing sessions in a few places in town. This is the main spot. (Email him to check)

Take the stairs up to the little elevator lobby and read the many notices as you head up the 8th floor. The studio is the door on your left.

Run by: Philippe Charmes. Hailing from France, Philippe is a great guy, an artist who also teaches, and is ever-ready with helpful advice.

Email:  lifedrawinghongkong@gmail.com

Cost: HK$150 per 2-hour session (single model. HK$200 if there are 2 models)

When: Tuesday 7:30-9:30pm (check the Facebook page for latest details)

Where: 8/F, Foo Tak Building, 367 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong

Format: Short poses, 2 - 20 min poses.

Instruction: None, but friendly advice is always available after if you want it.

Equipment provided: Seating and plywood drawing boards. BYO sketching materials


Spitting Gecko

Jockey Club Creative Art Centre, 601, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei, Hong Kong

Run by: John McArthur is another great guy. A teacher in a local school & dedicated artist, he also runs life drawing sessions from his studio in JCCAC.


Cost: HK$135-$200 (depends on session) BYO materials

When: Thursday 6-8pm, Saturday 2-5pm (check the Facebook pages for latest details)

Format: Short poses, starting with 30secs/slow motion, 1, 2,5,10,15 and 20 min poses.

Instruction: None, but friendly advice is always available after if you want it.

Equipment provided: Chairs, stools, desks, plywood drawing boards, 2-3 easels if you’re early. BYO sketching materials

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/John-McArthur-Spitting-Gecko-Studio/46462181010

Sketching Disappearing Hong Kong

My last piece of the day. Chinese signage and little bits of line work completed at home after I was chased off by stall owners cleaning up for the day. I've decided to leave this in black and white for now.

The last rooftop rendezvous at Shek Kip Mei from my previous post drew a lot interest among Urban Sketcher friends who missed out last time, so we agreed we’d go again. A date was picked, and on Saturday, 21 March, a whole bunch of them trudged up the dark, smelly staircase to sketch the view…only to find that half the rooftop was now gone!

I didn’t go that morning as I had a stack of work to catch up on, but was quite dismayed when I saw the photo the group shared, of the demolition crew crushing the building. That afternoon, we were due to meet at Graham Street, scene of yet another disappearing act of Hong Kong's oldest sectors.

I had just read about the URA's plans to 'renew' the area, but was really saddened to hear that this 170+ year old market, so unique, so Hong Kong, was slated for demolition by the end of the month! The Sketcher Kee group, also up in arms, had arranged to head down to Graham Street and sketch up a storm in order to preserve anything possible through their artwork. Many of us from Urban Sketchers HK also planned to go, and as soon as I was able, I headed down there as well.

There were many heads bowed before sketchbooks and drawing boards by the time I arrived. I walked up  from Wellington Street drinking in what I could. The narrow street was pedestrians only, and lined by stalls selling meat, vegetables, fruit and a variety of dry goods for completing a meal; noodles and rice, herbs and seaweed and spices. 

I watched the patrons too, and they came from all walks of life. Maids lugged bags of groceries for the evening meal. Tai-tais picked expertly through piles of dried mushrooms for the best morsels. Expat couples living in the area browsed, their shopping bags piled with produce from the various stalls. Locals bought their fruit, regulars traded news with stall owners, and tourists swiveled their heads constantly, eyes glued to viewfinders, or smartphones constantly raised. Click-click for posterity. Good thing too. I was updated by Gui and Alvin after bumping into them later. Apparently, scaffolding would be erected the very next day so demolition works could begin. 

To the right, a wall had been erected, blocking off the construction site that marked a block already torn down earlier. The tattoo of jackhammers filled the air. I guess that's part of the rhythm of Hong kong, like it or not. I couldn't help but feel a welling sadness at the loss of this place though. By 2017, Graham Street would be just another typical commercial-hotel spot.

My view for Sketch No.1 (below)

To the right, a wall had been erected, concealing the construction site that marked a block already torn down earlier. The tattoo of jackhammers filled the air. I guess that's part of the rhythm of Hong kong, like it or not. I couldn't help but feel a welling sadness at the loss of this place though.

I'm going to miss this place

Ben's familiar face was up ahead where the pathway opened up because some stalls had long packed up and closed, knowing their days were numbered. Looking up, I fell in love with the higgledy-piggledy facades of the block in front of me. I've been fascinated by the Kowloon Walled City since hearing about it, and looking, up, imagined that it might have looked a little like this. Balconies jutted at different angles, as did the facades. Different widths, different styles, different metalwork, yet all part of the character of the area; an unmistakeable identity that many of you reading this now, will never see in real life if you haven't already. 

My Walkstool is better than my Helinox One chair in spots like this. Easy to set up and able to squeeze into tight spaces, I set up in a snap, soaked the view in and put stylus to screen. All the line work for this piece was done on location, and color added later at home.

Wanting to make the most of my time, I packed up as soon as I was done, and headed uphill to where Graham Street intersected with Gage Street, taking several reference shots along the way. Up ahead, more sketchers could be seen at various nooks and corners, heads bowing and raising in that particular bird-like way. I had about an hour of daylight left, and eventually decided to spend what remained of that on the edge of Gage Street, in front of a closed up stall. Taxis sometimes whizzed past, honking and missing my knees by inches.

The market on Gage Street closes at 7pm, and it wasn't long before the stalls around me began to pack up for the day. I was ultimately forced to leave when a hoarse voice behind me declared that I'd be soaked if I didn't move. The fishmonger was in the process of hosing down the sidewalk at closing time. Ah well...by then, I'd gotten most of my line work done anyway.

Just before heading off, I took a final look down Graham St. There are upper sections that are also slated for demolition, but maybe not just yet. I know where I'll be sketching whenever I have some time off in the next few months.

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 idea...it'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. 


The Kam Fung Cafe

Tucked in a corner of Spring Garden Lane in Wanchai, sits a little old-style Hong Kong cafe called Kam Fung. It's well-known among the locals, and tourists throng it too, guidebooks in hand.

The house specialities!

The house specialities!

The place is famous for its milk tea, chicken pies and pineapple buns (which ironically, contain no pineapple at all). Other pastries tease passers-by through the glass shelves behind the owner manning the cash register, but the pies are the main draw, and it isn't unusual to see two queues in front of the cafe; one for seating and another for takeaway.

My better half and I often cannot resist popping in for a snack when we're in the area. She loves the butter-crusted pies. They're savory and sweet all at once, crumbling and melting in the mouth. Paired with the house specialty, cold milk tea, it's a little piece of heaven! 

Milk tea is a Hong Kong cafe must-have, and this place serves arguably the best. The quality is highly consistent and that very dependability brings regulars back again and again. The tea is made, then chilled for hours so that when you order it cold, the waiter takes a little tank of it out of the fridge by the door, and pours it for you without having to dilute the flavor with ice. (If you want it hot, it's whipped up fresh in the kitchen.) On a hot summer's day, it's amazing!

Seating is limited; a mix of 2 and 4-person booths and little round tables. Turnover is usually quick as people often wolf down their orders and head out the door. When it's peak time, sharing tables is a norm, tight though that can be. People are used to it however, and amiably wiggle a few millimeters left or right to make room for a newcomer to the table.

We usually make it a point to bring visiting friends here so they get a taste of old Hong Kong, and many fall for those famous pies too. I did this sketch after meeting a friend who had become a recent pie-convert.

There's more to show and more to sketch though, so I'll visit again another time and maybe fuel my sketches with another pie.

28Feb14-RRT-Kam Fung.jpg