There is no elevator. We walk up the eight flights of stairs, hesitating on the last one, looking at each other, out of breath: we have no right to be here. The roof is a maze of corridors, narrow passageways between huts built of sheet metal, wood, brick and plastics. There are steps and ladders leading up to a second level of huts. We get lost. Our leaflets in hand, Rufina knocks on a door. There is an exchange in Cantonese. Stefan stands in the background, the foreigner, smiling, not understanding a word. They hear us out, smile back and invite us into their homes.
Later, we look down at the building from a higher one across the street. The roof is huge, like a village. There must be thirty or forty households on it. From the outside there is no way of knowing what is inside. Whether they have Internet or not. Whether they have a toilet. And there is no way of knowing their stories.
Who makes a picture of this? Who keeps a record? Sometimes a newspaper will print an article, or an NGO will launch a campaign. Various government departments keep files on so-called »unauthorized building works«, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. The files are not on public record, but residents may look at them to learn why their homes are to be demolished. Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.
We walk up the stairs again. We no longer get lost in the corridors. We learn how residents modify and maintain their homes. There are people who have been living on the roof for twenty or thirty years who have helped to build the city. The new immigrants from Mainland China, from Southeast Asia, from Pakistan, continue to do so. In the seventies, they built the underground, and now they are working on the new tower blocks. Hong Kong’s older districts are being redeveloped. Some buildings are crumbling because they were built with salt water concrete. Others have to make way for taller ones that yield higher profits. Few rooftop residents would mind living in the new towers, but they cannot afford it. All are afraid of being resettled to the remote satellite towns, where there may be few opportunities and limited social networks.
We walk up the stairs again. The rooftop settlements are an urban legacy, telling the story of Hong Kong, of political upheavals in Mainland China, of urban redevelopment, of people’s hopes and their needs in the city.
Rufina Wu / Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above, 2008

Wie die Silhouette eines Dorfes erheben sich die Wagen aus dem Feld. Anders als in der Stadt, wo sich Bauwagenplätze gerne an den Übergängen von Wohn- zu Industrie­gebieten verstecken, ist das Wagendorf Fango weithin sichtbar. Vor sechs Jahren stand ein Teil dieser mobilen Architekturen noch auf Grabeland, ein anderer auf einem Grundstück der Lüneburger Universität. In beiden Fällen mussten sie Neubauten weichen. Um einen weniger prekären Ort für ihre Wohnform zu finden, schlossen sich die Bauwagenbewohner zusammen und traten in Verhandlung mit dem Bürgermeister.
Das Unwahrscheinliche gelang: stadtauswärts, dort, wo der Masterplan eine Frischluftschneise vorsieht, in der keine mehrstöckigen Bauwerke errichtet werden dürfen, wurde Platz für ein Wagendorf gefunden. Und anstelle der kleinlichen Gängelung, mit der Verwaltungen üblicherweise Bauwagenplätzen begegnen, schrieb Lüneburg in der Präambel des unbefristeten Vertrags fest, dass auf dem »ca. 9.000 qm großen Stellplatz für Bauwagen und sonstige fliegende Bauten […] eine alternative Wohn- und Lebensform zulässig und möglich werden soll.«
So entstand ein Dorf mit einer in der Stadt kaum denkbaren Dynamik: im Eigenbau wird die spontane Architektur der Wagen den sich über die Zeit verändernden Bedürfnissen der Bewohner angepasst; die räumliche Anordnung der Wagen und Gemeinschaftsflächen ist grundsätzlich veränderbar. Recycling ist ein zentraler Aspekt des Selbstbaus: Nachbarn bringen brauchbare Materialien direkt zum Platz, Tischler sind froh, wenn sie Altbaufenster nicht kostenpflichtig entsorgen müssen, Öfen finden sich über Kleinanzeigen, Möbel aus Wohnungsauflösungen, Töpfe aus Edelstahl vom Schrotthändler zum Kilopreis.
Die Aufnahmen zeigen zum Teil Räume, die noch im entstehen sind, und verweisen so auf die grundsätzliche Möglichkeit der Veränderung.
Stefan Canham, Fango, 2017

The women from the villages don’t say we are going to Sapa, they say we are going to the market. In the market hall they kept offering us small rectangular patches of cloth embroidered in geometrical patterns. Most of these we bought from Ly Ta May, who explained them to us: the embroidery is very intricate—you embroider from the reverse, counting warp and weft. The pieces have become recycling products. They are originally made to be placed between the shoulders of ethnic Mien jackets, the pattern indicating, among other things, the village from which the wearer of the jacket comes. When the jacket becomes threadbare, the rectangular piece of embroidery is cut from the garment and sold. Most of the pieces are then used to decorate shoulder bags and mobile phone pouches. In the market hall the patches are not mere articles of merchandise but objects in transition …
Stefan Canham, Mien Patches, 2012–2020

Everywhere in Sapa new houses are going up. Tax used to be calculated according to the width of the façade, as in Amsterdam. Today, building land is still divided up on the same principle, and, as long as adjacent plots are unclaimed, long and curiously narrow houses stand free. I wonder how one chooses a façade and imagine sitting at the building contractor’s, leafing through a catalogue—as at the hairdresser’s. Individual elements are never alike, they seem to be produced by hand in endless variations. Many houses are reminiscent of the Chinese shophouse, where upper floors cantilever out, protecting the shop’s porch from sun and rain. In Sapa it is mostly balconies and bay windows which serve this function. Columns are hugely popular, their capitals often extending above the roof like ears, and so are gables to hide flat roofs. There are triangular gables, Greek pediments, decorative pediments with false windows, gables as projecting roofs, projecting roofs with no columns but with capitals as ears, awnings with ears over fake balconies. Façades seem to fall roughly into two categories: sternly modernist or a combination of colonial reminiscences and a postmodern international style. The sternly modernist façades have bay windows, balconies and columns but no gables or ears—unless they do actually have gables and ears. Every new building is a home and also a hotel, shop or restaurant.
Everything in Sapa is a dilemma. The women in the market sell us textiles to earn money, but by buying their textiles we might be causing a sell-out of their material culture. Tourists come to see the women from the villages in their traditional attire, but most of the money goes to the owners of the new houses with their hotels and restaurants …
Stefan Canham, The Town, 2015

My father died—quite unexpectedly.
He left me his diary. As an art student he had travelled to Athens in the very cold winter of 1962. On his way back he had to hold out for two days in a café in Thessaloniki’s train station, waiting for the line through Yugoslavia to be cleared of snow …
I photograph along the route of the number 27 bus from Egnatia Street up to the Costakis Collection at Moni Lazariston. I walk this stretch of the city every day, with numerous detours. By visiting the collection I see the city. No landmarks, no people—yet I keep seeing things. I have never photographed so freely. It turns out photography leaves little time for mourning.
Stefan Canham, The 27 Bus, 2020

Stefan Canham   I’d like to ask you a few questions about the pictures we’ve been taking. The altars … 
I noticed they are always opposite the door, in a corner opposite the door.
Ly Ta May   One house has three sides … this side is for the men can stay, and this side women can stay, but in the middle, it have to be in the middle, this is a special place for the family, and then they can enjoy the view by the door.
Stefan Canham   I don’t unterstand. Who enjoys the view by the door?
Ly Ta May   When the grandmother, grandfather, when they pass away, and then we always tell them to come stay in here, then they can enjoy. They know how to stay in the family. And then they will take care of this generation. They take care of the people.

Stefan Canham   Most are of this type, they have three shelves.

Ly Ta May   The bigger one is just like a house, because inside we make like a pagoda. They always close it, but they will put it inside, and every Chinese New Year, then every man will come to pray, to dance … it’s not everyone, just some people they can come to dance, not everyone in the village.
Stefan Canham   And the shaman will come to decorate the altar with paper, and place these objects there?

Ly Ta May   Every one times a year the shaman will come to put the paper in here.
Stefan Canham   And these objects? They look like tools.

Ly Ta May   OK, let me tell you. That one is a knife to cutting the paper. And this is, you know, like the stamp, you can see the paper have the stamp. And then this is the just we make the noise. And this is like the bamboo, and when they go to pray, before they pray, and then they have to make one like this (claps her hands).
Stefan Canham   On this one, there are also many things lying here, looks like exercise books, maybe something from school.
Ly Ta May   No, no, not the exercise books. They write something important for the ancestor and then they have to keep that. They have to write down everything exactly, remember the one who pass away, write down exactly this person, and then the day, the time they pass away. And everything important they write in there and leave it there. Always stay here.

Stefan Canham   I see quite often with the altars, there are broken cups.
Ly Ta May   Cause we use broken cups, like this always be kitchen for you, kitchen for ancestors …
Stefan Canham   And this stool, this little chair?

Ly Ta May   That is old chair. When the boy they be eighteen years or whatevever, they getting married, and then they can … they become the man. Grownup already.
Stefan Canham   At the ceremony, the boy who becomes grown-up has to wear women’s clothes?
Ly Ta May   Yes. And then always this is the chair for them to sitting.
Stefan Canham   And what are these strips of paper?

Ly Ta May   They just put that New Year. This is the New Year, and then we give you some paper, and stuck in here.
Stefan Canham   And does the Shaman make these?
Ly Ta May   No, that is the family. The men, like my husband can do it.
Stefan Canham   These things are also made by the family? With the stamp? Would this be the stamp that’s on the altar?
Ly Ta May   Yes. We start with the doors, and this be New Year, and we put the door, and protect the family … get good luck.

Stefan Canham   So you decorate the altar, and you decorate doors … why doors?

Ly Ta May   We start with the doors, and this be New Year, and we put the door, and protect the family … get good luck.
Stefan Canham   And you just leave the papers there?
Ly Ta May   Yes, leave the paper there. Nobody will break them.
Stefan Canham Sometimes they just fall off …
Ly Ta May   Yes, just fall off …
Conversation with Ly Ta May about Altars, Doors and Lucky Paper, 2015

On Sunday Mornings, mid-1980s
We cut diagonally across the play field where we learned how to ride a bicycle to the dimsum restaurant next to the Kwai Fong MTR station.
Tea at dimsum was not served in large communal teapots. Instead it was served in individual Chinese tea cups: emperor yellow porcelain cups adorned with dragons, phoenixes, and words of blessings. We were free to choose the kind of tea leaves we wanted. My father always ordered Pu Er tea with chrysanthemum flowers. It felt very grown-up to be allowed to have my very own cup of tea.
The highlight was the ritual stopover at one of the newspaper stands flanking the restaurant entrance. My father would pick up his newspaper, while my brother and I each got to choose a comic book. Selection wavered between Old Master Q, Ngau-chai, and Doraemon the robot cat. The wide array of print materials ensured there was something for everyone.
Confucius says: When eating, one did not converse. When in bed, one did not speak. There was hardly any talking at our table. It was difficult to catch a glimpse of my father’s face hidden behind the newspaper. Nonetheless the four of us bonded: nibbling on shrimp dumplings, sipping tea, and catching up on the latest current events, fictional and real.
Hong Kong Newsstands documents the humble, dynamic street-side sculptures with the use of architectural drawings and photography.
Rufina Wu, Hong Kong Newsstands, 2013

Mit komplett leeren Händen bin wieder zurückgekommen. Im Grunde konnte ich nur die Sorgfältigkeit und das Verantwortungsbewusstsein der Deutschen mitnehmen. Egal was man tut, alles muss dabei seine Ordnung haben, korrekt und wirtschaftlich sein. Den Wasserverbrauch, den Stromverbrauch, die Ausgaben dafür zu senken, solche Dinge habe ich in Deutschland gelernt. Und die Arbeitsweise, die genaue Arbeitsweise der Deutschen. Wenn gearbeitet wird, wird gearbeitet, wenn gegessen wird, wird gegessen, fünfzehn Minuten Frühstück, eine halbe Stunde Mittagessen. Direkt danach wird weiter gearbeitet. Man musste zehn Minuten vor Arbeitsbeginn da sein, um sich umzuziehen. Arbeitsbeginn war, wenn man an der Maschine stand.
Deutschland ist wunderbar, sogar im Vergleich zu anderen Ländern in Europa. Ich habe für eine Zeit in der ehemaligen Tschechoslowakei gelebt, ich war in Holland, in Luxemburg war ich auch, aber die Deutschen führen ein besonders geordnetes Leben.
Wenn ich Geld hätte, würde ich mit dem türkischen Großhandel in Dessau Kontakt aufnehmen, einen türkischen Spezialisten hierher einladen, um gemeinsam mit ihm eine Fabrik zur Herstellung von Dönerspießen aufzubauen. Es muss aber schon ein richtiges Restaurant sein, so ein Döner-Wagen an der Straße kommt nicht in Frage. Erstens gibt es davon mittlerweile viele, zweitens ist das nicht ordentlich und hygienisch. Wenn, dann sollte man eine gekühlte Vitrine haben, um den Salat, das Gemüse und die Saucen sauber zu lagern. Und das Fleisch, es muss ein richtiger Dönerspieß wie drüben sein. Hier ist es oft Schweinefleisch, das einfach aufgespießt und gegrillt wird. Das hat nichts mit einem richtigen Döner zu tun, völlig falsch! Jetzt muss ich nur noch den Willen haben in die Idee auch wirklich Geld zu investieren, mich mit einem Türken zusammen tun, er würde sein technisches Wissen mitbringen und die Hälfte der Mittel. Ich würde die andere Hälfte einbringen und mich um die Organisation vor Ort kümmern.
Gespräch mit Long in: Die Deutschen Vietnamesen, von Nguyen Phuong-Dan und Stefan Canham, 2011

Im Herbst 2002 wurde der Hamburger Bauwagenplatz »Bambule«, der seit 1994 auf einem Grundstück der Stadt geduldet worden war, durch die Polizei geräumt. In den darauffolgenden Monaten organisierten Bewohner und Unterstützer dieses anarchischen, kostengünstigen und ebenso kommunalen wie egoistischen Wohnprojekts wöchentliche Protestzüge durch die Hamburger Innenstadt. Die Medien berichteten, und zum Ende des Jahres war Bambule jedem ein Begriff – aber während die Zeitungen sich mit Polizisten und Demonstranten füllten wurde mir bewußt, daß es von den Bauwagen selber keine Bilder gab.
Bambule ist Teil eines nationalen Phänomens: in den achtziger Jahren begannen Leute mit Bauwagen, Zirkuswagen, LKWs und Bussen brachliegende, aber häufig sehr zentrale und potentiell wertvolle städtische Flächen zu besetzen. Heute gibt es von Flensburg bis runter nach Tübingen und München an die einhundert Wagenburgen. Wahrscheinlich leben in Deutschland rund zehntausend Menschen im Wagen.
Diese improvisierten aber dauerhaften Wohnsitze versuche ich in meinen Bildern als urbanes architektonisches Phänomen zu begreifen. Die Innenansichten sind streng zentralperspektivisch aufgenommen, um die Variationen innerhalb eines immer gleichen, sehr begrenzten Rahmens herauszuarbeiten (ein Bauwagen ist ein länglicher, ungefähr zwei Meter breiter und drei bis zehn Meter langer Kasten mit einem gewölbten Dach). Die Bewohner, ebenso viele Frauen wie Männer, sind Auszubildende, Schüler, Musiker, Schauspieler, Tai Chi Lehrer, Gärtner, Akademiker, Punks, Hippies etc, eine überaus heterogene Gruppe, die sich über ihre Wohnform doch immer wieder als Gemeinschaft definiert; entsprechend groß ist die Bandbreite der Inneneinrichtungen.
Im Gegensatz zum geschlossenen, privaten Universum des Innenraums ist das Bild von außen harsch: Bauwagen sind in das Gefüge der Stadt getriebene Fremdkörper, ausrangierte Anhänger, mit Brettern, Wellblech, Styropor und Teerpappe zusammengezimmert, häufig um ein zweites Stockwerk erhöht und durch prächtige Altbaufenster beleuchtet. Da es keinen Dachboden oder Keller gibt, wird das umliegende Brachland zum Lagerraum. Bauwagen sind eine Architektur ohne Architekten, spontan von Innen nach Außen wachsend, entsprechend der Bedürfnisse ihrer Bewohner.
Stefan Canham, Bauwagen, 2006