How to Grow Sweet Potatoes and Mangoes in an Urban Jungle

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
March 7 2014 12:20 PM

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

Hong Kongers are finding inventive ways to grow sweet potatoes, mangoes, and other edible goodies in an urban jungle.

Urban farms are sprouting from the rooftops of Hong Kong's high-rises in an attempt to bridge the gap between city and nature.
Urban farms are sprouting from the rooftops of Hong Kong's high-rises in an attempt to bridge the gap between city and nature.

Courtesy of Christopher DeWolf

Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

HONG KONG—It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no man’s land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover patch of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

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“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. The Mango King is one of a growing number of urban farmers in Hong Kong, maximizing the city’s tight spaces to produce his own food. He currently grows sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, and two lychee trees on 700 square feet of land.

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometer territory is actually undeveloped—country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, despite being surrounded by a spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from the mainland and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and ’90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace isn’t easy.

That’s where Leung comes in. Born in London to Hong Konger parents, he moved to the city in 2009, when he was 26 years old, and has since embarked on a series of projects that combine art, design, community work, and urban agriculture. One of his most popular initiatives, HK Honey, connects local beekeepers with apartment dwellers who are eager to install beehives on their rooftops and balconies as an eco-friendly gesture (and to reap the benefits of delicious honey, no doubt). He’s currently focused on HK Farm, a network of rooftop gardens around Yau Ma Tei, one of Hong Kong’s oldest neighborhoods and one that hasn’t seen much agricultural activity for the better part of a century.

British-born designer Michael Leung has tapped into a growing community of urban farmers in Yau Ma Tei with his HK Farm project.
British-born designer Michael Leung has tapped into a growing community of urban farmers in Yau Ma Tei with his HK Farm project.

Courtesy of Christopher DeWolf

“Growing food shouldn’t be exclusive to the New Territories—it should happen in the urban area as well,” Leung says. “It encourages people to think about food origin, the use of public space, their neighborhood—there are many areas in Hong Kong that have no neighborhood spirit.”

In Yau Ma Tei, Leung has tapped into a small but passionate community of artists, activists, and longtime residents who are nurturing life from between the cracks of the concrete jungle.

The Mango King is a compact, middle-age man with graying hair, a weathered face, and well-worn jeans smeared with dirt. He lives in a lean-to under the shade of wispy horsetail trees, surrounded on all sides by speeding traffic. After ducking through a hole in a chain-link fence, we present him with a bag of ripe mangoes and he enthusiastically shows us around his farm.

“Ten years—that’s the fastest a mango tree will grow from seed, if you want mangoes,” he says, showing us some tiny seedlings. “But if you use cuttings, it’s two years.” (Cuttings are cut portions of a plant that can be transplanted into soil.) Nearby, a few pineapple heads stick out of the ground, next to a large spread of sweet potato plants. “I’ve only been doing this for a year here, but there’s construction nearby and some surveyors told me they might kick me off this land,” he says. “But that wouldn’t be for at least half a year, and by then I’ll be harvesting.”

Cultivating food in the middle of a spaghetti junction is not an easy endeavor. There’s no running water, so the Mango King walks to a nearby shopping mall to fill up plastic jugs. And when he cooks, passing drivers are often alarmed by the smoke and call the fire department. For the most part, though, the authorities leave him alone.

I ask the Mango King why he started growing food—and why here of all places. He evades the question and instead talks about a memory from his youth. “Back in my village in China, I dabbled in farming with my friends—actually, it was more like I watched them grow things,” he says. “Growing things, it’s all about experience and how passionate you are. If you’re not into it, nothing will grow.” (Later, Leung tells me that the Mango King doesn’t like talking about his past or how he ended up on the street. “I think he’s had a rough life,” he says.)

Wild plants growing through concrete in Yau Ma Tei. Nature doesn't need much encouragement in Hong Kong's warm, humid climate.
Wild plants growing through concrete in Yau Ma Tei. Nature doesn't need much encouragement in Hong Kong's warm, humid climate.

Courtesy of Christopher DeWolf

Twenty minutes later, we arrive at So Boring, an informal pay-what-you-can coffee shop with folding tables set up on the sidewalk of Ferry Street. All the food here is locally grown and organic, and the café donates some of its waste—like pineapple heads—to the Mango King. We join a half-dozen staff and regulars sitting outside. Leung introduces me to Fredma, a 72-year-old woman with a commanding in presence. After I decline a dish of locally grown pumpkin curry—I’ve already eaten, I tell her—she insists. “Ho mei,” she says. “It’s delicious.” I relent, and she is right—sweet, earthy, and a bit spicy.

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