June 30th, 2007
According to many, especially disgruntled Hong Kong shopkeepers, Shenzhen’s Luohu (Lo Wu) district functions as a giant discount mall, just over the border. There’s even a book (widely available in Hong Kong) titled ‘Shop in Shenzhen’ with advice on where to get the best knockoff purses, and where the best foot massages are to be found. Here’s what it looks like, if you’re able to make it out of Luohu’s Commercial City mall, where central Luohu actually has some quite lively pedestrian streets, just one metro stop north of the border with Hong Kong.
Further west, Hua Qiang Bei road is pulling young crowds increasingly interested in clothes, rather than wholesale electronics.
June 29th, 2007
I’ve always had a thing for Vancouver’s street signs. They seem somehow deviant and subtly stylish. The stark black background is unusual enough, but I especially love the white border, which angles in at the sign’s edges; it’s reminiscent of the mid-century modern verve that lurks behind the wholesome attitude that present-day Vancouver has tried so hard to affect.
There are some interesting variations on this black sign. In Chinatown, it takes on a bulkier appearance, a fat rectangle whose corners have been chomped off. Elegantly-scripted Chinese transliterations of street names are inscribed above the official English name. (Keefer Street becomes Kay fah gai, Pender Street East Peen dah dong gai.) In the Punjabi Market, an Indian neighbourhood in South Vancouver, Punjabi transliterations are squeezed onto the narrow standard signs; a bilingual yellow-and-blue disc bearing the neighbourhood’s name is affixed.
Beyond these black signs, Vancouver has one very interesting, but increasingly rare, variation: cylindrical street signs that are illuminated from within. I’ve only seen these on downtown streets such as Granville or Robson and, if the fate of Toronto’s similar late-sixties street signs is any indication, they will eventually disappear. That would be a terrible shame.
June 29th, 2007
Cherry blossom tree on Prince Arthur Street in May
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June 28th, 2007
The rapid urbanization of Shenzhen since 1980 has generated a contemporary landscape dotted with a series of urban villages, enclaves of buzzing urbanity and street life situated on land owned by Shenzhen’s original rural residents. These areas house much of Shenzhen’s floating population of workers from across China.
The local farmers or fishers who are now the village landlords have usually completely re-arranged their village space, which is increasingly hemmed in by commercial or residential high-rise projects. Shenzhen’s urban villages are typically a fabric of tightly packed ten to fifteen storey walk-up apartment buildings, with ground floor commercial, arranged around a very permeable street grid, punctuated with the odd public space or market. There are usually some fairly spacious main streets, but most of the buildings are accessed through a warren of alleys and pathways, most less than two metres wide, that wind their way between the buildings. Amazingly, there’s still some commercial activity within the maze—such as informal bicycle repair shops or very small canteens.
While they have struggled with a poor reputation in Shenzhen, and in other Chinese cities in which the phenomenon occurs, urban villages are starting to be perceived as islands of vitality, street life, and holdouts of traditional culture in the sea of modernity that is Shenzhen. One village in Shenzhen’s Futian district, Shuiwei, is even being targeted for tourism, while many others are falling under the scope of the somewhat ominous-sounding Urban Village Renovation Project.
June 27th, 2007
One of the big joys of travelling in Italy—besides the food, the ice cream and the coffee—is the beautiful signs you see everywhere. Italians know the fine art of signage, and they know the art of preserving old but highly functional signs.
June 27th, 2007
Sijia Yi knows about bad landlords. She had to deal with two of them when she lived in a Verdun triplex just over a year ago.
The first neglected his duties.
“Every time I wanted something fixed, his excuse was that his wife was pregnant and in labour,” Yi said. “She was in labour for eight months.”
The next one, who bought the building several months after she moved in, passed by the apartment one afternoon and offered Yi free rent in exchange for what some might call “companionship.”
Luckily for Yi, her lease was up and she was already planning to move across town. Many other Montreal renters aren’t nearly so lucky. They are stuck with landlords who do not perform vital repairs, refuse to deal with pest infestations and charge illegal fees.
Last March, four undergraduate McGill University students launched a website that they hope will change the way Montrealers search for apartments: Munzer.ca. Think of it as RateMyProfessors.com—but for landlords.
“It was a pretty natural progression for us, starting the website,” said Alex Fraenkel, a third-year economics student and one of Munzer’s founders. “My landlord after first year never fixed anything and at points was very unprofessional. She had a rent dispute with a roommate of mine and kept saying he owed more than he really did.”
Fraenkel’s friend, Sam Knight, was having problems communicating with his own landlord, who spoke mostly Chinese.
“I felt like a lot of things are rated,” like movies, books or even professors, he said. “Why not landlords?”
June 26th, 2007
Platform at Montmorency station
The strongest impression left by the new Metro stations in Laval is the determined attempt to get things right. There are elevators and they’re industrially solid ones. Walkways to the far platform are glassed in with thick panes so that nothing (and nobody) can be thrown over onto the tracks. The lighting is full-spectrum and there’s a generosity to the layouts and a solidity to the finish that surpasses most of the later metro stations: think of some of the Blue Line stations where the attempt to make a virtue of skimpy layouts and the bare brutality of concrete resulted in a kind of Soviet grimness.
Efforts have been made to make the finish of these new stations both aesthetically pleasing and virtually indestructible, a tricky brief at any time. There’s a signature mood of thick glass and brushed steel inside and solid stone paving outside that carries through all three stations. And the landscaping of two of the three is more than just an afterthought. Using these stations is a pleasure. Time alone can fully test the success of a project like this – full accessibility for the handicapped was simply not on the cultural radar in the 1960s, for example – but these stations are clearly built to last.
Platform at de la Concorde station
The metro system’s universal use of Univers 57 in white on black bands along the platform has been maintained, an excellent initial choice which I’m glad has never been changed to anything more obviously trendy.
All three stations are intermodal, Montmorency and Cartier being bus termini for Laval bus routes and de la Concorde doubling as an AMT train station on the Blainville line.
This extension to the Orange Line was first opened to the public on April 28.
June 25th, 2007
It was a bright Sunday afternoon at the Chinese Family Service building in Montreal’s Chinatown. An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary featuring Al Gore, was set to screen, with Chinese subtitles, in less than five minutes. A few people trickled in and sat down. Sandra Lee looked around at the half-empty roof. Turning around, she picked up a pile of leaflets from a nearby table and thrust them into the hands of idling volunteers. “Quick! Go give these to people and get them to come,” she said.
Winging it is part of the routine for upstart environmental group Green Life, founded earlier this year by Lee, a McGill graduate. Her mission is to raise environmental awareness in the local Chinese community, not just by translating green into Chinese, but by drawing from the unique experiences, cultural values and global connections of Montreal’s immigrants.
Lee is not your typical environmentalist. Born in Hong Kong, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was ten years old, eventually making her way to Montreal where she studied marketing and anthropology. Although her environmental awakening came early—she was shocked as a child to learn that Hong Kong’s landfills would “be there forever”—it wasn’t until university that she decided to act. “I took a course called Ecological Anthropology [about the relationship between people and the environment.] I realized I needed to take action. It’s not just abstract. It affects the whole entire culture.”
Lee’s first encounter with environmental groups, however, left her unsatisfied. “I felt I didn’t fit into the whole green movement. I looked around and I was the only minority. I didn’t relate to the outdoorsy culture, the whole camping and North Face thing. That’s when I decided to go back into my own community.”
June 24th, 2007
Sarcee Trail and 17th Avenue SW. Suburban arterials in Calgary
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June 24th, 2007
Paris’s 15th probably carries the distinction of being the city’s least loved arrondissement. Though there isn’t much to distinguish it from, say, the 14th arrondissement just to the west, or the 12th crosstown, the 15th languishes in oubli. Tourists eschew it, locals kick it around in jokes, and the most famous attraction anywhere nearby, the Eiffel Tower, is actually about three blocks outside. I once had a tour book that advised its readers to avoid the area altogether.
It’s clear when you enter this arrondissement that you’re still inside Paris; but still, you can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’ve been dropped somewhere else. The famous blue and green street signs are still there, but often the Metro is far away; gone are the hordes of tourists, gone is the whole notion of monumentality, gone are Haussmann’s huge boulevards. Instead, the 15th arrondissement has subtler points of interest: its tucked away little residential streets, its out-of-the-norm commercial throughfares, the contrasts of late 1800s-vintage structures against modernist apartment buildings. Every question Paris has faced in the last 150 years as a city, whether implicitly or explicitly, is there to be seen: functionalism or mixité? Cars or pedestrians? Bulldoze or leave be?
I hadn’t even thought to bring a map with me before setting off for this pocket of town. Generally there’s no use: in Paris, it usually takes no more than five minutes to arrive at a large boulevard, from where it’s usually easy to find either a metro station or a map on the backside of an advertisement. But no less than 15 minutes after stepping off the new Tramway that stretches out along the Boulevards des Maréchaux near the city’s southern border, I found myself entirely lost. Soon after, my state worsened: it began to rain. Then pour. I was saved by the garage entry of a 1960s-vintage compound that faced out toward the entrance to a villa from at least fifty years before, an intimate, tree-lined dead end. It was only too appropriate.
June 23rd, 2007
After Hong Kong, mainland China came as a major shock. Hong Kong is user-friendly with a Westernized veneer whereas Guangzhou (also known as Canton) was the real China: a difficult crowded place with no English signs and clouds of brown smog.
Ninety-nine percent of the storefronts in Hong Kong are spotless and air-conditioned, most of the filth relegated to back rooms. In Guangzhou, things come raw, in-your-face, and it’s all quite strange: sun-dried snakes; stretched-out sea horses; sliced up deer antlers; giant plastic bowls full of live scorpions; cat, dog, and owl butchers; barrels of chicken feet; steaming turtle shells. Somehow the Cantonese manage to find a culinary use for all this. Semiconductor shops sit next to dried seafood stalls. Two-storey ten-lane highways zoom next to quiet flagstone alleyways shaded by clotheslines where old people play mahjong. Life happens on the street, things flow organically, and interiors are indistinguishable from exteriors.
As I made my way out of the crowded alleyways of Qingping market, I came across a group of cops kicking a handcuffed old man in rags, scowls of anger on their faces as the victim yelled out obscenities in Cantonese. A circle of bystanders stood by, watching. The man was writhing in pain, yet the cops kept kicking him in the crotch. It was barbaric and unprofessional. I was horrified. God knows what he had done. He probably hadn’t paid his weekly bribe to stand on the corner selling pickled eel heads.
June 22nd, 2007
I tracked down five types of street signs within the traditional limits of Quebec City. The oldest signs are these attractive blue and white ones. The highest concentration of such signs are in Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
This type of sign with a curious mix of embossed lower case and capital letters is the next in our chronological progression. Saint-Sauveur is where most of these are located.
June 21st, 2007
Does anyone read Yiddish?
June 21st, 2007
Dupont Street, photo by Jack Lo P
Blessed Toronto is probably one of the best cities in the world for city running–the streets follow a flat and mostly predictable grid, and there are just enough people on the street to maintain a sembalance of visual interest and security. I’ve tried to run in places like Shanghai (way too many people) and London (frustrating street pattern). Sudbury, with its non-sensical streets and ghost-town desolation, should only be attempted by those with a taste in macabre.
What these cities also don’t have are Dupont and Harbord , two westside streets that run parallel to Toronto’s main east-west thoroughfare, Bloor St. Lovingly referred to as expressways by those in the know, these two streets share the unfortunate characteristic of being bypasses for busy Bloor Street. Here, cars seem to drive faster and the pedestrians look more hurried.
What best desribes these two streets is “smalltown main drag”, with all its connotation of earthiness and hominess–but with a smattering of hints here and there that you are in fact in the middle of a big city. To be fair, Dupont and Harbord had vastly different beginnings. Dupont, north of Bloor and running parallel to the CPR tracks, cuts through a curious mix of late 19th century Toronto Bay ‘n Gable and industrial buildings; on the other hand, literary Harbord lies in the heart of south Annex and contains a wealth of bookstores and bookstore patrons. But both streets look and feel as if they were an afterthought: brick row houses with paint chipping off, blank walls facing the street, and a liberal number of 50s gas stations whose ugliness no adjectives like “charming” or “quaint” can help to conceal.