Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
Victoria Peak seen from Kellett Island
Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.
The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).
Thursday, November 28th, 2013
Clockenflap 2012. Photo by Chris Lusher
Construction has only just begun on Hong Kong’s multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District, but the 100-acre waterfront site has already become the city’s most coveted venue for outdoor events, with a string of festivals set to take place over the next three weeks.
Among them are Clockenflap, a three-day music-and-arts festival with a mix of international performers like Four Tet and Cantopop musicians like Ellen Loo; BloHK Party, a hip hop and electronic music festival featuring Pharrell Williams; and Freespace, an eclectic weekend event that will pair local music with dance performances, films and an informal market where visitors can buy artisanal crafts, clothes and food.
The three events will set the tone for the future cultural district, about a third of which will be set aside for a park, the first phase of which is slated to open in early 2015. “These festivals are totally related to the future of the park,” says Louis Yu, executive director of West Kowloon’s performing arts program. “We haven’t hired an architect yet, so when the architect arrives, we will be able to tell [him or her] very specifically what kind of space we need to do what we are already doing.”
For event promoters, the site’s allure is hard to resist. “People were blown away by the actual piece of land, this open space right in the middle of the city,” says Clockenflap festival director Mike Hill. “Standing in front of a stage and being able to see the water and the skyline, it’s gold,” adds music director Justin Sweeting. “It’s what makes us unique.”
When it first launched in 2008, Clockenflap took place at Cyberport, a high-end residential and office district on Hong Kong Island, where it suffered from constant noise complaints. “We were asked to turn it down, which didn’t really make sense. So it was literally Google Maps trying to find a suitable piece of land,” says Hill. They were drawn to West Kowloon’s open space and waterfront location, along with its proximity to the MTR, and moved the festival there in 2011.
Thursday, October 31st, 2013
The sun was burning through morning fog as I walked down Hoyt Street to the subway, the Williamsburg Savings Bank half-shrouded like in some imaginary Gotham. By the time I reached Beach 59th Street, the sky was a deep blue. It was late October, but it felt like summer. I took off my sweater and put it in my backpack.
It took more than an hour to get to the Rockaways. Train service over Jamaica Bay was suspended for track repairs, so anyone travelling past Rockaway Boulevard had to get off and transfer to a shuttle bus that rumbled at its own pace around the perimeter of JFK Airport. The detour seemed to put everyone off kilter. “No, I’m not on the subway, I’m on a bus,” said a woman on her cell phone, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.
Once the bus arrived at Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, we had to transfer again, this time to the orphaned stretch of A train that runs along the Rockaway Peninsula, a stubborn eleven-mile finger of land that juts into the Atlantic from the far reaches of Queens. I was there to meet my friend Rossana, who was studying a piece of vacant land along the Rockaway boardwalk for her master’s course in urban planning. She’d invited me to take part in a bike tour of the boardwalk that was being run by a few members of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a community group that is trying to reconnect Rockaway residents to their waterfront.
We met at a former fire hall the Waterfront Alliance calls home. There’s a small community garden next door, and a group of teenagers were busy putting up decorations for a Halloween party that would be held that evening. Our group assembled — me, Rossana, her classmate Jon, two local teenagers, a man who said he worked for the city water department, “bringing down water from the Catskills,” and our guide, Mark Hoffacker — and we got on our beach cruisers and rode down a potholed Beach 59th Street to the boardwalk. The wooden planks of the boardwalk drummed a steady beat as we rode past grassy sand dunes. Hoffacker pointed to a fenced-off portion of the dunes, a refuge for migrating birds, and said people often trespassed there, leaving behind garbage. For several blocks, there was nothing but scrubland marked by broken strips of asphalt, along which beach bungalows had once stood. Hoffacker told us the vacant land was now used for dumping cars and refrigerators, though the problem wasn’t as bad as it used to be. (A magazine article from 1992 describes a “Third World” scene of decaying houses, mosquito-infested sloughs and dozens of mafia-run dump trucks unloading toxic waste.) In the distance, the elevated subway tracks loomed incongruously over the bush, its concrete arches streaked with rust.
Photo by Jonathan Shaw
Silu Zhang is a master’s student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. She grew up 120 kilometres away in Zhuhai, a boomtown on the border with Macau. Zhuhai was one of the five special economic zones established by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Since then, its population has grown from around 100,000 to more than 1.5 million.
Zhuhai is a city next to Macau. Under the policy of “one country, two systems,” Macau is capitalist, Zhuhai is socialist. In my education, it was emphasized a lot how different these two societies are and how great this policy is, the policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping the “general designer of Chinese reform and opening up.” Zhuhai is a quiet place, with beach, breeze and blue sky — people call it the City of Romance — while Macau is a flourishing city, with casino, luxury hotels and a high population density; people call it “Little Las Vegas.” Once, I made fun of a friend from Macau by saying she was “someone from the decaying capitalism,” and she looked at me strangely. Later she told me they seldom talked about the difference between the two systems and she never learned about it in school.
I grew up in the 1990s and witnessed Zhuhai changing. It is hard to say how it changed — I think I am so familiar with this place that I get lost. But here are some memories. The beach I used to play on is now being developed into some luxurious apartments; the area of my preschool has been reduced to make way for a wider road. More and more migrants are coming from all over the country and Mandarin is taking the place of Cantonese. The silent street where my father and I used to walk after dinner is now noisy, with loud broadcasts, open bars and shopping malls. Sometimes my father will still say, “When you were a kid, you walked in front of me and I just followed you. There were few people in the street, the light was dim, but I felt safe. I wouldn’t do that now.”
Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
Treasure Hill. Photo by Wunkai
It’s a scorchingly hot afternoon in Taipei and cicadas are buzzing loudly outside the Treasure Hill Temple. A man in cycling gear stops to take a swig of water before turning towards the temple’s statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. He clasps his hands and bows three times, paying his respects.
A few metres away, Travis Hung stands watching. “This temple was built a few hundred years ago in the Qing Dynasty,” he tells me. “It used to be one of the most important temples around Taipei.” When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, they deemed the hilly area around the temple to have exceptionally good water and banned development. For years, only six families lived nearby. Then came the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists who placed Taiwan under martial law after fleeing from mainland China in 1949. More than 200 ex-soldiers and their families flocked to Treasure Hill, where they built houses and small farms, creating a unique rural community just a stone’s throw away from central Taipei.
Today, Treasure Hill is an altogether different kind of settlement, home to 14 artist studios, exhibition and performance spaces, a café and a youth hostel, along with a handful of longtime residents who maintain the same tile-roofed houses and small patches of farmland they built after 1949. “This is a special place,” says Hung, who works for the non-profit foundation that manages the village.
Treasure Hill is just one part of a cultural renaissance that has swept through Taipei, turning neglected urban spaces into design studios, music halls, craft workshops and independent shops. The Songshan Creative and Cultural Park brings art and design into a former tobacco factory; Huashan Creative Park is former distillery that is now a popular destination for music fans and arts and craft lovers; the Taipei Cinema Park screens films outdoors.
“We are facing competition from China, globalization, climate change, a low birth rate,” says Lin Yu-hsiu, a section chief at the Urban Regeneration Office, which transforms vacant buildings into creative spaces. “We have to think about how to move forward, but in a wiser way than before. We want a better life.”
Sunday, October 6th, 2013
The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.
Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.
So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.
Monday, September 30th, 2013
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
In an unassuming shed next to an elevated highway, Hong Kong’s wood-framed trams are being rebuilt one by one. “They’re icons of the city,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the man overseeing the renewal. Four years ago, Vivant was part of the team that acquired Hong Kong Tramways for Veolia Transport, a French conglomerate that runs dozens of railways, tram systems and bus lines around the world. “What we saw was a lot of room for improvement,” he says.
Hong Kong’s tram network dates back to 1903, when tracks were laid from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. Less than a decade later, passenger demand was so strong, double-decker trams were introduced. Though Hong Kong has changed beyond measure in the past hundred years, the trams have remained a constant; there is no better way to see the city than from the front seat on the top deck, windows open to the clamoring streets below.
The tram remains popular, with 230,000 riders every day and an affectionate Cantonese nickname: ding ding. But its acquisition in 1974 by local conglomerate Wharf Holdings led to a long decline. Dedicated tram lanes were given over to cars. Tracks were poorly maintained, lengthening travel times so much that taking a tram across Hong Kong Island is often slower than riding a bicycle. The Millenium Tram, launched in 2000 in an effort to renew the rolling stock, was a widely-scorned flop.
“For us, the Millenium Tram was a warning sign that we had to be very careful in handling the icon,” says Vivant. “They looked too modern, too new, too much like a bus. People in Hong Kong really like their trams, so we decided we had to keep their heritage.”
After buying the tramway, Veolia launched a consultation exercise to find out what passengers wanted from their trams. The first discovery was that most passengers thought the windows should stay open; one of the biggest complaints about the Millenium trams was that the front windows were sealed shut. Passengers also had a soft spot for the trams’ wood frames, which the Millenium trams had discarded with little sense of nostalgia.
Sunday, September 29th, 2013
My girlfriend sometimes says she could never live in a city without hills. I can see what she means. A city with varied topography is never quite the same from one day to the next; hills open up views that change with the passing light and weather. Not to mention their effect on a city’s built form, creating wrinkles that can never be smoothed out, undoing even the best-laid plans. Some of the most interesting parts of Hong Kong are also its hilliest; the streets uphill from Central and Sheung Wan are a haphazard assembly of mismatched buildings, century-old retaining walls and unexpected constructions that try their best to make do in less than ideal conditions.
Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
As a corollary to last week’s post about street food in Canada, I thought I’d look at how it’s done in Bangkok, where food vendors can be found on every street at just about every hour of the day. Though it suffers from capital city syndrome, which means the food isn’t quite as good as you’d find in more provincial cities like Chiang Mai — “What’s served on the city’s streets does not generally dazzle, and you really have to pick and choose carefully,” writes Robyn Eckhart on Eating Asia — it’s an impressive spread if you consider numbers alone. There must be tens of thousands of food hawkers in Bangkok, which puts the 27 recently licenced by Montreal into perspective.
Like many small entrepreneurs in Bangkok, street food vendors occupy a grey zone between formal and informal, legal and illegal. Unlike in Chinese cities, where street vending is entirely illegal and hawkers risk being fined (or worse) by the notorious chengguan, Bangkok makes allowances for vendors by setting aside certain areas for hawking at certain times of day. It’s a humane approach that has allowed a diverse range of vendors to flourish, most of them focusing on just one or two specialties — satay, beef noodles, roast meats, durian, fruit juices.
So far, there’s nobody shunting them into food courts, like in Hong Kong or Singapore, and there’s no committee of culinary experts who vet every menu for healthiness or cultural value, like in Canada. As Eckhart writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Street food is diffuse and hyper-local by its very nature. So there can be no one-size-fits-all formula for the growth and change of its cultures.” And Bangkok, with its countless varieties of street stalls — from quasi-permanent stalls to itinerant pushcarts — embodies that principle very nicely.
Wednesday, September 18th, 2013
It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.
It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.
I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.
Friday, August 30th, 2013
Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”
Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.
“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.
Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”
Thursday, August 29th, 2013
Like a fever dream or a David Lynch film, Wun Dun begins with a journey into the unknown. Push through an unmarked door into what appears to be a bathroom, where an elderly attendant spritzes you with cologne. Squeeze past him, stumble down a flight of stairs and emerge into an uncanny, neon-lit bar that dwells in the subconscious of Hong Kong’s identity.
Open for a week last May during the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Wun Dun was the brainchild of Adrian Wong, the fourth artist selected by the Absolut Art Bureau to create an ephemeral art bar. Like most of Wong’s work, Wun Dun was a carefully choreographed performance that marries the mundane with the surreal: in this case, the visual language of everyday Hong Kong spaces mashed up into something at once recognizable and alien. “The interior unites so many disparate threads of Hong Kong design culture,” writes art critic Robin Peckham, “the feeling is akin to taking high tea in a grimy dive bar, or pounding shots at a truckstop breakfast counter.”
It started, in a sense, with nothing. “Wun Dun is the Taoist concept of the formless state of the universe before things came into existence,” says Wong. Confucianism took the concept even further by imagining that chaos as a “singing, dancing, orifice-less sac” who was struck by lightning, transforming it into the world as it exists today. “It reminded me of this sort of formless state of Hong Kong,” said Wong. “Its long colonial history sets up a situation where the real history of objects, forms, styles, tastes and cuisines are so mixed up and misdirected, they lose their point of reference. I wanted to create a primordial Hong Kong.”
Friday, July 26th, 2013
The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix
The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.
Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.
Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.
Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
There was a time when Hong Kong was full of strange and wonderful private gardens. There was a Spanish-style garden built by a Catholic missionary on Seymour Road. In Tai Hang, the seven-storey pagoda of Tiger Balm Garden could be seen for miles around. When Sir Robert Hotung built a second house on the Peak, he surrounded it with a 116,000-square-foot garden built in a Chinese Renaissance style, complete with pagoda and colourful tilework.
Many of the world’s great parks began their lives as private gardens — the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid — but few of Hong Kong’s private gardens have survived, let alone been given over to the public. Civic mindedness is not a common trait among the scions of Hong Kong’s landed class; many treat their family’s property as oversized ATMs. Tiger Balm Garden had in fact been open to the public for decades when Tiger Balm heir Sally Aw Sian sold it to Cheung Kong Development in 1998. It was demolished in 2004 and replaced by a wall of apartment blocks festooned with blinking LEDs. Hotung Gardens has always been private, though Hong Kong’s government made an effort to declare it a monument when its owner declared her ambition to demolish the estate; the preservation drive was deterred when she demanded no less than $7 billion in compensation.
Still, one of Hong Kong’s great private gardens has managed to survive. Dragon Garden was built as a weekend retreat by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung, and while it was nearly bulldozed for a tawdry high-end housing estate, it was saved from demolition when Lee’s son Shiu bought out the property from his siblings. Since then, granddaughter Cynthia has agitated for government support to restore the gardens, which I wrote about three years ago. As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed — money is still tight, Cynthia is lobbying to reform Hong Kong’s heritage policy and the public can only visit the garden on special occasions.