Exploring Methodologies in Design History by Vivien Chan
Based on a research trip to Hong Kong for her dissertation ‘Assembling the Dai Pai Dong: Living and Occupying the Streets in Hong Kong, 1973-1997’.
In October 2016, I flew to Hong Kong the morning after I had originally planned; Typhoon Haima had just swept the city, a premonition of the trip to come. Far from ominous, it started off my journey as it meant to go on, a whirlwind, an exploration, an adventure that tested how adaptable I could be.
My methodology was an assortment of approaches, reflecting my own research interests, but in the back of my mind, it was a sequence of back-up plans in case one or two approaches were to stumble. The primary method was ethnographic, spending my days touring Hong Kong streets looking for dai pai dong, a type of street food stall that has somehow dodged government plans for its widespread closure, a glitch in the image of the modern Asian city. I planned to film and take photographs, and I meant to talk to stall holders and customers in interview, asking them about their experience of working and consuming in these spaces. My other methods were archival, sifting through the collections and archives of museums and collectives, but I was anxious about what I could find, and in hindsight, couldn’t figure out what I should be looking for in those collections.
I relied heavily on the help of personal connections. Correspondence with my father’s school friend, an ex-civil servant, began in the summer via email. In Hong Kong, we met on a Sunday afternoon outside a shopping mall in the Central and Western district, with her husband and my aunt. She used to work for the Hong Kong Urban Council and its successor the Food and Environmental Department, and was fascinated by the perspective I was trying to uncover. After a lunch engrossed in discussion, we began our first tour of many together, crossing De Voeux Road and continuing up the hill to the side-streets where a cluster of dai pai dong, closed for the day, sat shut-up and cold. She proceeded to interpret the bodies of stainless steel, fabric, plastic and synthetic wood, dismantling the assemblages with her explanation; with the stalls unmanned, they were free for us to have a 360-degree view of its components. We walked for six hours, an exhausting but invigorating experience, turning the research trip upside-down, and my plans, however tenuous, were taking a different, uncharted path of discovery.
As I started going to archives, the plans again morphed. As I repeatedly left these collections disappointed, with the communication with the librarians and curators, or the handling of the material, more and more I needed to rely on these tours. As we conducted more tours of dai pai dong in the coming weeks, I was able to see more of their characters, how they differed in various locations, who visited them, why and how. Dai pai dong are not one homogenous form. ‘Interviews’ quickly went out of the window; the anxiety they caused me far outweighed the information it would give me, and the distinct cultural difference between me and who I was asking already stunted the potential for a working relationship in such a short time. Instead, I focused on being an observer, a position I was familiar with and could draw out the best of the research trip. This has lead instead to a series of photo essays, that I hope to use within the dissertation.
I realised that there were few ways I could really ‘plan’ how the trip was going to work out for me before leaving London. While I had lined up all the archives I could find that might have had something relevant, the most valuable experiences were the most subjective ones, time spent talking to my family and friends about food, dai pai dong, and their histories within the city, time exploring by myself, speaking the language, visiting museums, talking to people I’d never met before, and bringing it home to share with my friends and colleagues. Ironically, I had forgotten this most important point of the dissertation and within design history as a discipline, which is, the significance of the everyday. Undoubtedly, this comes in the lived experience of the research process as well.