Many of the childhood Christmas projects I remember most fondly required very little in the way of materials, and even fewer tools. When we wanted garlands for the tree, we’d string cranberries or popcorn with nothing more than a needle and some thread. Everyone likes a little sparkle, so we shaped aluminum foil around thimbles and tied up our “bells” with ribbon. Silver, crystal and gold swags were breathtaking but far too expensive for our parents’ budgets. Knowing this, we satisfied ourselves by finding our scissors, cutting slim strips of paper and then gluing them together into chains. Red and green construction paper was best, but even magazine or catalogue pages would do, and in only an afternoon we could drape mantels, doorways and trees with festivity.
This year I found a new project, one that requires even less in the way of material. All that’s needed is a measuring device and a little imagination. A good tape measure is best – the kind used by carpenters or contractors – metal, twelve feet long, able to be locked while someone calculates on a pad or 4×6. If you don’t have a metal tape, any sort will do. Perhaps you have a delicate, purse-sized cloth tape like those preferred by dressmakers and crafters, or a slim, three-foot pocket tape given out as an advertising promotion. If you don’t have any tape at all, a ruler is fine, or even a piece of 8-1/2″ x 11″ paper. Precision isn’t important here, only the ability to measure.
Once you have your tape or ruler, find a place in your home that seems about 10′ x 10′ square. If you aren’t certain what 10′ looks like, do some measuring. Reel out the tape across a living room or bedroom floor. Get a feel for the space, and then find a corner of your apartment or house where 10′ x 10′ can be easily visualized.
My own 10′ x 10′ space is my dining area. It’s exactly that size, if you don’t count the little built-out alcove I have china tucked into, and can imagine walls extending through the openings that lead to the kitchen and living rooms. Facing the east wall, I sit at a lovely teak computer desk with an open hutch, the printer and scanner tucked neatly beside it. To the north is my window, my ever-changing vision of water and sky. Behind me is the oak dining table that graced my parents’ first home, and two press-backed chairs caned by my mother. Small enough for two, it can be extended with leaves to comfortably seat as many as eight, or ten very good friends.
Behind me on the west wall are two shallow, glass-fronted china cabinets, mission-styled and made especially for a small room. To the south, against the half-wall that separates dining and kitchen areas, a small mahogany Chinese tea cabinet holds cameras, candles, a few skeins of yarn, and cloth napkins in its two drawers. I spend most of my at-home waking hours here, reading, writing and dreaming, surrounded by some of my favorite possessions: a print of cowgirl Helen Bonham, a collection of oil lamps, an abalone shell, the china wash basin the cat curls into for sleep when the weather warms.
It’s a lovely, comfortable room, but in the end it’s only a room – one of five in my apartment, 100 square feet out of 840. Granted, I’ve lived in spaces that more nearly resemble this room than my full apartment. The sailboat I lived aboard for a year might have had 100 square feet of living space, even though it could sleep four in a pinch. “The Place”, my beloved cabin out west, held everything needed for a comfortable stint in the country - woodstove, bed, chainsaws, table and chairs - in an expansive 196 square feet of space. But those were temporary living quarters, even when “temporary” was measured in months rather than weekends. For much of the world, 10′ x 10′ isn’t a getaway but a way of life, a routine, an inescapable reality.
In an extraordinary collection called 100 x 100, German photographer Michael Wolf recorded the lives of 100 residents in their 100 square foot flats in Shek Kip Mei, Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate.
Located in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s eighteen Administrative Districts, Shek Kip Mei was the first resettlement estate built after a tragic squatter fire on Christmas Eve, 1953 left approximately 50,000 people homeless. Refugees from Mainland China, they had been living on mixed agricultural and Crown land just north of the Walled City of Kowloon, itself the site of a squatter fire in 1950. While there is some disagreement about the nature of the government’s response to the tragedies, there’s no question the beginnings of Hong Kong’s current housing policy can be traced to the Shek Kip Mei fire.
Completed in two phases during the middle 1950s, Lower and Upper Shek Kip Mei Estates comprised 42 blocks of 6, 7 and 13 storey buildings. Redesigned, reconfigured and rennovated over the years, Shek Kip Mei became more livable, but remained what it was in its inception: minimal housing for the maximum number of people.
In April of 2007, shortly before residents were to begin moving out in advance of Shek Kip Mei’s demolition, photographer Michael Wolf and a social worker began knocking on doors. An accomplished urban photographer who worked extensively in Hong Kong, Wolf had focused exclusively on building exteriors. At the urging of friends he moved inside, and in the space of only four days compiled one of the most compelling portraits of urban life possible. In an interview with the New York Times’ Valerie Lipinski, Mr. Wolf said,
“I had the methodology worked out. You open the door, and you put the camera with one foot of the tripod inside. I used a small flash to bounce off the ceiling. I wanted to see into every corner. I took three or four photographs and moved on to the next one. If someone said no, I didn’t waste any time trying to convince them. In total, I photographed 118 rooms. When I had them all printed, it was almost a new looking at these interiors, because while I was photographing, I really didn’t have time to look really at what I was seeing.”
While the visual impact of the homes’ small size and clutter can be overwhelming, the words of the residents need to be heard as well. As he took his photographs, Mr. Wolf asked each resident a few questions: how old they were, how long they had lived there, what they did for a living and whether they liked living in Shek Kip Mei. While the ages and length of residency varied, over and over the same good qualities were mentioned: convenient transportation, friendly neighbors, low rent, dependable air conditioning. It all sounds so very, very familiar.
Today, Shek Kip Mei is gone, nearly all of its residents re-located into slightly larger living spaces within the same District. A single block (Block 41, Mei Ho House) has been left standing and will be transformed into a youth hostel, preserved for its historical value and as a reminder of the resourceful people who lived out their lives within its walls. Luckily, Michael Wolf arrived before Shek Kip Mei was gone.
Pondering Mr. Wolf’s photographs, I wonder: how did these people measure their lives? From my perspective, a world and years away, it’s difficult to know. But looking into their spaces, I’m reminded how the measure of things changes over our years. For now, I have space and light, the luxury of privacy and freedom of movement. But just across the road, in a local nursing home, residents are living out their lives in hundred square-foot rooms, limited by age and illness as surely as the residents of Shek Kip Mei were limited by poverty and displacement. Crowded into tiny trailers and rented rooms, survivors of Hurricane Ike continue to rebuild their lives, one square foot at a time. Squatting behind a concrete block wall, three homeless men huddle out of the wind, not daring to light the fire that might give away their location.
Suddenly, in my own hundred square feet of space, I feel the richness of life, just as I find the coming of Christmas as simple to conceive as a childhood craft. Lighting an oil lamp far older than my years, I move it to the middle of my parents’ table. Clearing a stack of papers from the ornate Chinese tea chest, I set out two bare-branched metal pines, their branches tipped in copper, and three green glass votives. My grandmother’s ceramic angels peer down at me from the hutch and as the cat sighs with pleasure, I put a new, warm sheepskin across her bowl.
Watching as a fine mist blows down the fairway and obscures the view, knowing that the evening darkness will come early and there are chores still to complete, I slide the tape measure into the drawer and smile. You can do a lot of living in a hundred square feet.