100 x 100

I sometimes do what people call “spring cleaning” at the end of a year, when I get a hankering to straighten up the place — to get rid of some of the clutter that inevitably creeps into our house over the months, clean, and make room for a fresh, clean new year and its possibilities.

It was in the middle of my current purging of no-longer-needed papers from file cabinets and taking no-longer-worn clothes to Goodwill that I stumbled across a project by the photographer Michael Wolf.

Wolf is a German photographer who lives in China, and in 2006 he took photos of 100 residents in their flats. These are tiny flats in Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate that each measure only 100 square feet. He calls the photo collection 100 x 100.


I found the photos fascinating. I looked through all 100, and then I looked at them again.

People made such different use of the tiny, windowless and identical living spaces, but I notice almost all have a refrigerator, a t.v., a clock and a calendar. Most have a bunk bed, part of which they used for storage. In some, there is evidence of what the person does for a living — a sewing machine and material for some working as a tailor, for instance. I did not see any computers, but I did notice a couple land-line phones. Perhaps some of these people carry cell phones, which are everywhere in Hong Kong.

A few have rather amazingly comfortable, well-thought-out spaces, and a few look like they are living in scary, over-filled storage units, and there is everything in between.

But what struck me most is that the photos do not suggest “bleak.” They are glimpses of lives, and people, that for the most part look comfortable and whose expressions generally look upbeat. People’s walls display pictures of grandchildren, and kids wear school uniforms and smile, and the photos show people who seemed, at least in these shots, rather relaxed and content. After all, it’s only a living space. It’s not a whole  life.

That housing project was built quickly in the 1950s to house thousands who lost their homes in a huge fire. It was scheduled for demolition a month after Wolf’s photos were taken — and I wonder where these people went. Where, and how, are they living now? I’d love to know some of their stories.

In the meantime, I am strikingly reminded yet again that we don’t need as much stuff as most of us in the U.S. have. Lighter is so much freer and better. I’m lightening up.