Luwan in the former French Concession, Shanghai
Archive for March, 2008
Hong Kong is full of interesting doorways. They aren’t quaint or pretty, but they’re loaded with ephemera that reveal small bits of Hong Kong’s everyday life and culture. Take this one for example, which leads to the upper floors of a cheap hotel on a Mongkok sidestreet near Prince Edward Road. The metal door is typical, and so are the banners wishing good fortune upon the hotel and its occupants, but the stern notice taped to the door is not. “These premises are no longer used for the purposes of prostitution,” it reads, suggesting that a police raid and perhaps new ownership have transformed the place from one of Mongkok’s many hourly hotels into a somewhat more legitimate one.
Unlike people in most Canadian cities, Montrealers don’t take being able to cross the street for granted. For our own sake, we always assume that an oncoming car will not stop, so we calculate our trajectory accordingly when we attempt the seemingly simple task of getting from one side of the road to the other. This applies to jaywalking, of course, but also to crosswalks: the only cars that ever stop at zebra crossings have Ontario licence plates.
That gives us something in common with Bangkok, where pedestrians hold no illusions about being very high in the transportation pecking order. With roads clogged by a mind-boggling number of cars, trucks, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks and motorcycles (there are 50,000 death-defying motorcycle taxis alone), all of them moving very fast, pedestrians have a lot of adversaries to deal with when crossing the street.
Since there are so few breaks in traffic, the procedure is usually to step off the sidewalk as soon as the nearest lane is clear, then wait on the lane divider for the next lane to clear, and so on. Meanwhile, as you wait in the middle of the road, traffic will engulf you, so you’d better watch your step if you enjoy having intact bones in your feet. The scooters and motorcycles are what make this endeavour so complicated: they seem to come out of nowhere and always at top speed.
As long as you’re alert and you have good nerves, it’s easy to get used to it, and whenever you leave Bangkok you’ll be amazed at how calm the traffic is in other cities. But, as the opening scene in the great Thai thriller 13 Beloved so effectively indicates, when you cross the street in Bangkok, there’s very little standing between you and certain death…
New developments and recycling at Yonge and Eglinton
The central part of Bujumbura was laid out during colonial days, and features a classic City Beautiful rond-point, around which vehicle
traffic is channeled. The Chaussée Prince Louis Rwagazore and the Chausée Peuple Murundi come together here.
Bujumbura is the capital of Burundi, Rwanda’s non-identical twin in the Great Lake Region of Central Africa. Like Rwanda, Burundi’s population is divided between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, with Hutus forming the vast majority, about 80 percent. (Both countries also include a small proportion—less than three percent—of Twa, a people related to the pygmies.) Inter-ethnic violence has been endemic for more than 40 years, and although Burundi has not seen bloodshed on a scale of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, a civil war that began in 1993 has claimed thousands upon thousands of victims. Whereas in Rwanda, Tutsi were the target of Hutu violence, the situation is reversed in Burundi.
A long, slow process toward peace and reconciliation was just beginning when I visited Bujumbura to research a novel, The Violets of Usambara. That was in October 2001, a most interesting time to travel in Africa, I can assure you. Both the US and Canadian governments had travel warnings in effect, and before I left I was told not to venture outside the city alone. What I found in Bujumbura was a city which still showed its colonial roots in the design of the central section. Wide, City Beautiful-inspired boulevards took off from a rond-point or climbed toward the hills. Both the airport and the cathedral boasted classic modernist design from the 1950s and early 1960s. But the city was surrounded by acres of informally-built housing. These neighborhoods are said to have grown as people have come to take refuge in the city from violence in the hills.
Cattle are extremely important still to Tutsis who are the traditional herders in both Rwanda and Burundi. When I was there the peace process between the two ethnics groups was underway, but tensions were still acute. Several well-off herders had brought their cattle down from the hills for safe keeping in corrals in the city right at the edge of Lake Tanganyika.
Thanks to its large, multi-hued fleet of taxis and tuk-tuks, not to mention the Thai tradition of exuberantly decorating one’s vehicle, Bangkok must have the most colourful traffic in the world. That’s a good thing, too, because the traffic is jammed so often it would be awfully monotonous without such visual stimulus.
In the 19th century, Montreal boomed as an industrial railway hub while Quebec City fell into obscurity. Quebec remained poorly connected by rail to the rest of the continent until the 20th century. A grand chateau-style railway station, called Gare du Palais, was built in 1915 to inaugurate the new railway line crossing the recently-completed Quebec Bridge. A small park with a brutalist fountain by Charles Daudelin was added to the front in 1999, and for some strange reason the contrast works. There’s something grand to this area, leaving you with the misleading impression that Quebec is an important railway hub. But the cavernous emptiness of the halls reveal the truth – only four trains come into the station per day.
The driver of the S62 bus let me on even though there was no value left on my borrowed Metrocard.
“Just don’t let it happen again,” he said, waving me back.
Twenty minutes later, after a bumpy ride down Victory Boulevard, a narrow commercial street that winds its way across the northern half of Staten Island, New York’s fifth and forgotten borough, we arrive at the best way to get to Manhattan: the Staten Island Ferry. I say it’s the best because, unlike the US$5 express bus, which takes you across the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge and up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Staten Island Ferry is free and it runs around the clock. It’s also relaxing and picturesque: you can stand on the outside deck, leaning against the railing as the bells on the harbour’s buoys clang and the Statue of Liberty passes by in the distance.
The City of New York eliminated the ferry’s 50-cent fare in 1997. More recently, it has invested millions of dollars in building two pleasant, airy new terminals. These improvements have attracted new riders and made the ferry one of the most democratic forms of transportation in New York: few other kinds of transport—perhaps not even the subway—bring together so many different people into a single space.
After a few days of going to and from Manhattan by ferry, I left New York for Hong Kong, where I re-encountered my favourite ferry service in the world: the Star Ferry, whose weatherworn green boats have crossed Victoria Harbour for more than a century. It’s not a stretch to say that the ferry’s ten-minute journey across the harbour is one of the more awe-inspiring experiences in the world, especially at night, when the choppy water seems to glow in the ambient light of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Corner of Grand and Allen, New York
Corner of Grand and Allen, New York
La Gauchetière near St. Urbain, Montreal
La Gauchetière near St. Urbain, Montreal
Zoroastrian carving, Bombay. Thanks to Toreajade.
Bombay’s Zoroastrian community emigrated from Iran about 1,000 years ago and brought their religion along with them–the oldest living monotheistic faith. They are also known as Parsis, because of their Persian origin. Since they cannot marry outside the community, they have retained a distinct identity and appearance. They worship in Bombay’s towers of silence. where sky burials are also performed–a practice that has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the declining vulture population.
Though Zoroastrians represent a mere 0.005% of India’s population, they have had a considerable impact on the country. In the West, the best known Parsi is probably Queen singer Freddy Mercury, who grew up in Bombay. Indians are more familiar with the Tata family, who seem to own everything–you start your day with a cup of TataTea, pay your TataPower bills, drive to work in your TataCar, and make calls on the TataSky network. In recent years, the Tatas have moved outside of India, acquiring Tetley tea, Ritz Carlton Hotels, and Jaguar.
While the Fa Yuen Street market in the north end of Mongkok is more of a destination for cheap clothes, shoes and accessories than it is for food, it still has a good number of stalls selling fruits and vegetables. (It’s also a good place to buy a sweet young coconut to drink.) By ten in the evening, most of the market hawkers have left, and the last shops are beginning to close, but the fruit and vegetable vendors press on, trying to get rid of the last of their produce.
A crowd gathers to watch the first sunrise of 2008 at the Yokohama Ferry Terminal.
Whether it’s Sham Shui Po, Jordan, Sai Ying Pun or Kowloon City, most of Hong Kong’s older neighbourhoods have a similar aesthetic, with the same stained concrete buildings, steel doors, sidewalk altars and worn awnings. It gives the city a remarkably cohesive character despite having such a large population and such varied geography.
The same is true for Hong Kong’s many markets: whether in the street or in a market hall, fish, meat and produce is almost invariably sold under the glow of distinctive red lamps. Like a visual catchphrase, they are an instant and unconscious sign to passersby that fresh food is available.
I’ve seen these red lamps in Macau, too, and as far as I can tell they’re also used in Guangzhou and other Cantonese cities. But I’ll bet that only in Hong Kong have they been used ironically: in the past few days, walking through the trendy streets of Central, I’ve noticed the lamps in a café, an art gallery and in the window display of a high-end shoe store on Wellington Street.