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Online district groups step into real world to build community

by Chester Chan & Jessica Li

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.

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.

Over in Tuen Mun, several TMPAPER01members of a local group called Tuenmunity distribute their distict 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 Feburary 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.