Storytelling by sketching: from food to political protest in Hong Kong

by Ben Luk

I am an urban sketcher based in Hong Kong. I am a structural engineer by profession, specialising in building conservation and revitalisation. I lived and worked in London for more than 10 years, eventually moving back to my home town in 2012. I found myself having to “relearn” about city life in Hong Kong, build new networks and form new hobbies. Urban sketching allowed me to rediscover my passion for drawing and learn about places and events in Hong Kong that I never knew existed. A year later I co-founded Urban Sketchers Hong Kong, now one of the largest sketching groups in Asia.

Food Sketches by Ben Luk in Amsterdam

My sketchbook follows me wherever I go

Urban sketching offers amazing insight into how a city works. It requires me to slow down, take my eyes off my mobile devices, simply look and feel what is happening around me and record it in my sketchbook. This is not so different to working on the revitalisation of historic buildings where the first step is to understand how the building was put together and its relationship to its surroundings.

Urban sketching is quite addictive. My sketchbook follows me wherever I go. In the hot summer months in Hong Kong, I often retreat to air-conditioned cafes and sketch food and people. Café sketching often draw out interesting dialogues between the owner and the customers. It is this storytelling aspect of on-location drawing that I find most rewarding.

Houseboat in Amsterdam

The urban scenes of Amsterdam are very different to those in Hong Kong. With an eclectic mix of glass-fronted skyscrapers, colonial architecture, temples, markets and fishing boats, urban scenes in Hong Kong are often full of drama and energy. Amsterdam is more humanistic in scale and more relaxed. Hong Kong is famous for its densely packed skyline between a mountainous backdrop and a harbour. Amsterdam is flat, navigated by a network of canals and bascule bridges.

Hong Kong protests 

Protests in Hong Kong


The people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets protesting for over two months now, initially about a controversial bill that allows fugitives to be extradited to China for trial. Excessive use of tear gas and bean bag bullets for dispersing protesters has fueled the anger and aggravation of the general public and locked us in a vicious cycle of distrust and violent clashes.

I have participated in some of these protests and sketched a few. Protest groups come from all sectors of society from lawyers, teachers, mothers who are worried about their children, the elderly, and civil servants. My feeling is that Hong Kong people have become more united than ever.

Protests in Hong Kong

Sketching from footbridges, I saw how young protesters worked like a well-oiled machine, by forming a human chain to transfer medical supplies to the frontline. In Cantonese, we have a saying “add oil” which literally translates to adding fuel to the tank. It is a term used to express encouragement and support. If you see a visitor from Hong Kong, I hope you will express your support by saying “add oil”!

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This is the third of three blogs for this webmagazine of Stadsleven by urban sketchers ( from the annual symposium, held this year in Amsterdam. The first was Karen Jones from Manchester, the second Christiaan Afman from Groningen.