Community & Education HKFP Voices

Hong Kong’s Virtual Districts: How online groups are helping build communities in the real world

By Chester Chan, Jessica Li and Julian Ng

Two young people carrying a camera stroll the streets of Tin Shui Wai looking for people to talk to and take pictures of. Here, in the ordinary surroundings of a new town built on reclaimed land, they hope to uncover extraordinary stories.

Dialogue in Tin Shui Wai is an online Facebook page founded in August last year and was inspired by the online blog Humans of New York, featuring street portraits and interviews collected in that city. Or Wing-man and Lo Yan-chi, the two 26-year-olds who founded the page, both grew up in Tin Shui Wai and say they want to do something for the district.

Many Hongkongers, including Or and Lo, hold on to memories of a past Hong Kong where people had close and friendly relations with their neighbours. “In the past, neighbour relations were so close that everyone just kept their doors open,” says Or. However, they both think relations are becoming more distant now.

A Light Rail station in Tin Shui Wai.

A Light Rail station in Tin Shui Wai. Photo: Facebook/Dialogues in Tin Shui Wai.

In the case of Tin Shui Wai, Lo thinks the Light Rail is to blame. “Many places are separated by the Light Rail… You have to make a 15-minute detour around the station, and this really affects the bonding of the community,” Lo says.

Dialogue in Tin Shui Wai is an attempt to rebuild community bonds.With its remote location, shortage of employment opportunities and a series of family tragedies highlighted in the media, Tin Shui Wai has been labelled as a “City of Misery”, notably by the then Director of Social Welfare Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Or and Lo want to change this perception of their town. They walk through the district and chat with residents randomly in order to discover interesting things happening locally. They choose to share their stories online because they believe they can reach a wider audience through the internet.

In recent years, a number of district-focused online communities have sprung up. There are now various Facebook pages and groups for all the 18 districts of Hong Kong. They have different characteristics, some focus on human stories such as Dialogue in Tin Shui Wai, others are more information-oriented and are mainly for residents to share information.

Before the boom in online pages and groups, district newspapers were the main channel for sharing district information, which is important in building up a community and bringing residents together.

The Tuenmunity district newspaper.

The Tuenmunity district newspaper. Photo: Facebook/Tuenmunity.

Over in Tuen Mun, several members of a local group called Tuenmunity distribute their district newspaper near the West Rail Station after work. It is a monthly paper that mainly records matters related to the area. There are stories on social issues and information on matters of local interest, such as local restaurants.

Tuenmunity published its first issue in February last year and since then has drawn people from different backgrounds, from school principals to office ladies, to join its editorial board. However, the original idea of Tuenmunity was hatched by a group of netizens from the popular online discussion forum Hong Kong Golden Forum, who wanted to raise issues Tuen Mun residents might be concerned about. Currently, most of the members of Tuenmunity are not from the online forum but they share a similar goal for the paper. “We want Tuen Mun residents to care about their own district,” says Nicole Lai, a member of Tuenmunity.

Lai explains that before she joined Tuenmunity, she believed the stereotype that Hong Kong people are indifferent. But her experience of distributing the paper with the many “aunties” who volunteer to help promote it on the streets has changed her view.

“I used to think people in the neighbourhood were very cold. But in fact, it’s not true. What I discovered was that previously I had not stepped out to make contact with the community,” says Lai.

The outdoor football screening in Tuen Mun.

The outdoor football screening in Tuen Mun. Photo: Facebook/Tuenmunity.

Apart from publishing the district post, the Tuenmunity team also organises activities for residents through its Facebook page. Last November, it gathered over 400 people to cheer for the Hong Kong football team at a screening of the FIFA World Cup qualifier against China held near the Tuen Mun West Rail station.

Lai says she was surprised by how many people turned up for the event. It showed her that relying on distributing the 2,000 copies of the printed paper alone is rather limiting and the online community is more effective at reaching out to the younger generation.

Although Lai believes in operating both the online page and newspaper in order to reach different age groups, the high printing costs are a challenge for many community groups. Some have been forced to cease their printed editions.

The Paper Shau Kei Facebook page.

The Paper Shau Kei Facebook page. Photo: HKFP.

Issac Wong King-yip founded Paper Shau Kei in 2012 with the aim of raising local residents’ awareness of the need to conserve the district’s culture and history. But publication of the freesheet was suspended in May 2014 because Wong could not support the HK$2,000 a month printing costs.

It is a move Wong undertook reluctantly and he still harbours hopes of resurrecting the paper. “It can take care of people who don’t go on the internet…and it shows residents you are serious,” Wong explains. “People will only regard printed things as media.”

After the suspension of the printed paper, Paper Shau Kei focuses on its Facebook page to retain its community influence. Wong acknowledges that the online platform is more effective when it comes to sharing information and gathering resources.

“When there are more than 10,000 likes [on a Facebook page], we can easily gather people for an event even without a paper version,” he concedes.

Compared with printed media, Wong says online pages help cultivate social cohesion because of their superior communication and interactive functions. “It’s too old-fashioned to ask people to send us letters giving us feedback…but you can now do everything on Facebook,” says Wong.

Wong knows that for people in a community to be truly connected, the jump needs to made from online connections to real-world ones.

Football fans gathered for a community screening in Kennedy Town.

Football fans gathered for a community screening in Kennedy Town. Photo: HKFP.

Sai Wan Metamorphosing is one of the few Facebook groups to successfully transform an online community into a physical one. Tai Ngai-lung, the group’s founder says it is a platform for Sai Wan, or Western district residents. It now has more than 18,000 members.

Last year, the group managed to gather more than 1,000 people to watch the Hong Kong vs China World Cup qualifier at a live screening in Sands Street, Kennedy Town.

When he first set up the group, Tai had been worried it would become a platform for socialising and chatting. However, after the success of a joint event organised by his group and other Sai Wan online communities last year, those fears have been dispelled.The Lantern Festival street fair held in Sai Ying Pun last year was the first event to be organised by the online community and for Tai, it was a landmark.

“The first event marks Sai Wan Metamorphosing changing from an online community to the physical community,” says Tai.

Tai says he originally set up the group to unite residents so they could have a bigger voice in the face of upheavals such as the redevelopment of Western district. He says that back in 2010, the controversy over the Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment policy and construction of the MTR West Island line had left him feeling powerless.

He still feels powerless because many of the problems surrounding redevelopment have not been resolved. But he takes heart from some achievements of the online community. “Some of the residents have come to know each other because of the group and that is quite inspiring,” says Tai.

Tai believes that social network media can definitely build relationships among people but what concerns him is what happens next. “I think all responsible organisers [online page owners] need to think about how they can take it one step further,” says Tai.

An event on streets of Sai Wan.

An event on streets of Sai Wan. Photo: Facebook/Sai Wan Record.

Another Sai Wan district page on Facebook, Sai Wan Record, was founded in January 2014 by two former Hong Kong University (HKU) students Samuel Wong Chun-long and Grace Cheng Hoi-man. They started the project when they were still students, using funds from the university’s General Education Department, to enhance HKU students’ sense of belonging to the district. “It is like the university is isolated in the community,” says Wong.

The project has become less active now due to a shortage of resources. Wong and Cheng say that community bonding cannot be achieved solely by using online platforms as it is difficult to sustain a long relationship online.

“You need to see the person face-to-face, in order to have a deeper impression of him or her,” says Wong.

However, even though they want to organise more events with other community groups, their main problem is their lack of money. “There are too many constraints for us, like no money, no people and no time,” says Cheng.

An event organised by Tin Library.

An event organised by Tin Library. Photo: Facebook/Tin Library

The lack of resources is a problem for many online pages, but another difficulty is a lack of experience in how to transform a virtual community into a physical community. It is a problem Lo Yan-chi and Or Wing-man, the two founders of Dialogue in Tin Shui Wai have also grappled with. “Things are useless if they only happen online,” says Lo. To tackle the problem, the pair collaborated with the “Tin Library” a Tin Shui Wai community development project of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

Chan King-cheung, the librarian of Tin Library explains that non-governmental organisations can play a role as coordinators between the online world and society. “They may not be very good at organising an event or bringing things back to the real world…we have staff and time to make the process smoother,” says Chan.

The Tin Library regularly gathers people to chat under a tree and share their own stories next to the Light Rail station. Chan stresses that although the online world is good for bringing people together, there must be activities held in the physical world for there to be real and lasting interactions.

Wong Hung, an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests there are three elements in bonding to create a community: being connected, belonging and solidarity. “The internet is doing the first step of connecting people,” Wong says. “But it is hard for that to lead to belonging.”

“Whether online communities can organise a large group of people to change a district, change a government policy, we have to wait and see,” says Wong.

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Hong Kong's Virtual Districts: How online groups are helping build communities in the real world