A Rare Bird’s-eye View of Hong Kong’s Vanishing Rooftop Culture

The district of Kowloon, Hong Kong, is a crowded place—there are 124,000 people packed into each of its 18 square miles. Apartments can be amazingly small. The dearth of parks doesn’t help. So Kowloonians use whatever space they can find, often escaping to the tops of buildings to walk their dogs, hang laundry, or just take a catnap.

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze is one of them—only he takes to the roof with his camera, documenting unsuspecting strangers on shorter buildings below. The images appear in his stunning new book Concrete Stories. “It’s daily life stuff, but it’s surprising to see it on the roof,” he says.

Jacquet-Lagrèze grew up in the suburbs of Paris, where people have yards and cars, and can even see the stars. He sacrificed it all for love, moving into a 200-square-foot apartment in Kowloon eight years ago to be with his wife. Now they have just 400 square feet to call their own, but Jacquet-Lagrèze doesn’t mind. The city is inspiring, its density enabling him to create series like The Blue Moment, photographed from rooftops.

While shooting, Jacquet-Lagrèze often glimpsed others who were also out and about atop other buildings. As development began transforming the cityscape, he worried these communal rooftops could disappear. “This part of the city is now surrounded by modern buildings, and bit by bit these old buildings are being destroyed and replaced by really big, tall buildings with locked rooftops,” he says.

This—coupled with his sheer curiosity about the neighbors—inspired him to document rooftop culture while it’s still around. Twice a week over the last four years, he rode an elevator up a highrise with his Sony DSLR and a couple zoom and telephoto lenses. He hunkered down near a ledge, munching on a snack as he waited for people to appear. In the golden afternoon light, he photographed Kowloonians as they jumped rope, watered their plants, even burnt offerings to their ancestors.

If spying on such tender moments of solitude sounds creepy, Jacquet-Lagrèze says it’s par for the course on Kowloon’s rooftops. While shooting the series, he sometimes glimpsed people higher up watching him. “Whenever you are on the rooftop in the open air, you know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of windows potentially looking at you,” he says.

Kowloon is ridiculously crowded, even up in the air.

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