Daap Din Tai: Riding the Electric Ladder

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In the pantheon of public transit, Central-Mid-Levels Escalator is unique. Known in Cantonese as din tai, “or electric ladder, ” it was built in the early 1990s to facilitate travel between Hong Kong’s business district and the fashionable Mid-Levels residential area located above it. The esclator (which is actually a series of several different escalators, connected by various platforms and overpasses) works its way up, for nearly a kilometre, through a procession of steep, narrow streets.

Along the way, it passes through a half-abandoned market, past laneways and courtyards, a mosque shrouded in greenery, and a trendy restaurant and bar district now known as Soho, named because it is located south of Hollywood Road but no doubt meant to steal some glamour from better-known quarters in London and New York.

The best thing about the escalator is that it combines the freedom of the pedestrian experience with the fluid movement of motorized transport. There’s a certain kind of voyeurism that comes with riding the escalator, which puts you eye-level with balconies and apartments as you travel up the hill. “The Mid-Levels Escalator is the one place in town where it’s cool to be batgwa, unabashedly nosy,” wrote Daisann McLane (also responsible for the excellent Learning Cantonese blog) in the New York Times, ten years after the escalator opened.

“Riding the escalator every day, I feel as if I have a personal relationship with the occupants of several apartments along the route, the ones whose second- or third-story windows are so close to the escalator you can practically reach out and touch their flowerpots. As the stairs glide me up the hill, I stare into interiors lighted by the glow of red ancestral altars. On my morning commute, I mull over why the people on Shelley Street have hung fish in their windows to dry and lament the unfortunate sofa cushion pattern chosen by the occupants of the corner apartment by Caine Road.”

(I wonder if the opposite is true: among the many memorable things about Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express are the constant glimpses of the escalator from the apartment inhabited by Cop 633, the melancholy policeman played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai.)

As it climbs the hill, the escalator passes over thirteen different streets, sometimes with overpasses, sometimes at ground level. Each one tempts you with the pleasure of a detour, so much so that it can sometimes seem like the escalator’s real purpose is not to transport work-weary commuters but to encourage aimless wandering through the streets, lanes and courtyards it passes.

Perhaps that’s why the escalator’s most immediate effect, when it opened in 1994, was the gentrification of the area around Staunton and Elgin Sts., as cafés, bars and art galleries clustered around the escalator’s path. More than that, though, I like to think that, by taking people right into the heart of one of its oldest and most quintessential neighourhoods, it gave people the chance to develop a new appreciation for the fine-grained urbanity that is so often sacrificed for shopping malls and giant housing estates.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday January 20 2008at 05:01 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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